10 Emerging Technologies 2010

Each year, Technology Review selects what it believes are the 10 most important emerging technologies. The winners are chosen based on the editors’ coverage of key fields. The question that they ask is simple: is the technology likely to change the world?

Some of these changes are on the largest scale possible: better biofuels, more efficient solar cells, and green concrete all aim at tackling global warming in the years ahead. Other changes will be more local and involve how we use technology: for example, 3-D screens on mobile devices, new applications for cloud computing, and social television. And new ways to implant medical electronics and develop drugs for diseases will affect us on the most intimate level of all, with the promise of making our lives healthier.

10 Emerging Technologies 2010

The uneven contest between Kindles and iPads

I’ve been able  to make a comparison between Apple’s device and Amazon’s Kindle. The brief answer is: for periodicals such as digital papers and magazines, the iPod is better; for books, the Kindle still wins.

I’ve written before about the experience of reading papers such as the FT and the Wall Street Journal on a Kindle and have come across devoted readers – mainly senior executives in global companies – who are attached to reading the FT on their Kindles.

The advantages are that the daily edition gets delivered to your device, rather than to your doorstep, which is easier for road warriors, and you can read all of the print content conveniently.

However, for the periodicals I’ve so far read on an iPad (the FT’s iPad app is due to be launched at the end of this month to coincide with the iPad going on sale outside the US) there is no contest. The iPad experience outperforms the Kindle.

One reason for this is the iPad’s colour screen, which allows photos and graphs to be displayed much more attractively. The Kindle’s E-Ink screen, with its many shades of gray, looks dull by comparison.

Second, it is easier to navigate on an iPad because of its touch screen. It is much simpler and faster to flick among articles using the on-screen navigation than to click the physical buttons on the Kindle and wait for the screen to refresh.

This makes the iPad the first true substitute for print editions, even if the current media apps lacks some of the advantages of online editions, such as the ability to comment on stories.

Finally, the iPad editions update regularly throughout the day, unlike most Kindle versions, which tend to be drawn from syndicated version of the print edition. The stripped down “editor’s choice” version of the New York Times, for example, gives a selection of intra-day stories.

For books, however, the iPad still lags. The biggest problem is one that it can do nothing about – its backlit LCD screen, which puts more strain on the eyes and makes it harder to lose oneself in a book that is filled with text.

Graphic novels and comics look good on the iPad, and it’s no coincidence that the book given away free on the device is Winnie-the-Pooh, with its lovely “decorations” by Ernest Shepard.

But trying to read a standard book on an iPad is a different matter. I read a few pages of The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold on my iPad the other night (using the Kindle App that I’d downloaded to it). After 15 minutes or so, I gave up and reverted to the Kindle.

The Kindle app, which is superior to Apple’s own iBooks app for reading text, attempts to mimic the E-Ink technology by allowing the text to be displayed on a sepia background. But even this does not make the experience as immersive as the Kindle itself.

So, as things stand, I would have to carry around not only a Nexus One phone but an iPad and a Kindle if I wanted to satisfy every mobile need. Roll on the media singularity.

By John Gapper

Bill Gates’ nuclear energy baby

Is a Bill Gates-backed nuclear start-up going to tackle two of nuclear’s biggest challenges: sourcing and disposing of uranium? “Talks” between TerraPower and Toshiba, one of the world’s three big nuclear energy industry leaders, are lending some hope to the idea.

TerraPower is a spin-off of Intellectual Ventures, a start-up founded by a former Microsoft CTO, backed by Gates, and has only a handful of staff. Its reactor designs could represent huge advantages over existing systems, but, the FT reports, it’s early days:

No such reactor has ever been built, however, and Toshiba is focusing on its 4S “nuclear battery”, which is much closer to realisation. 4S stands for “super-safe, small and simple”.

Intellectual Ventures’ TerraPower guide says its travelling wave reactors (TWRs) could “theoretically run forever without needing any additional enriched uranium after its startup period” if it has sufficient uranium supplied. The other advantage is that it can use depleted uranium that is treated as waste in the traditional nuclear power generation process, addressing the difficult problem of disposing of nuclear waste.

However:

A conceptual design effort is currently underway for a small modular unit that generates a few hundred megawatts of electricity which could fit the needs of emerging markets. The conceptual design for a gigawatt-scale reactor, which is big enough to power a city, has already been completed.

In otherwords, this is very early days. And as with any new energy technology, expectations that energy supplies will be transformed in the near future should be take a rest.

Nuclear power has other problems than sourcing and disposing of uranium. Costs, and the time required for planning, regulation and testing represent significant hurdles. And of course there is public opinion, which can be very averse to the idea of nuclear accidents.

But on that last point, changes might be already taking place, at least in the US where energy secretary Steven Chu declared his support for nuclear innovation in a WSJ oped on Tuesday, and the idea of nuclear energy is becoming more popular in the US, according to a new Gallup poll. As Nicole Allan at The Atlantic points out, nuclear loan guarantees are thought to be one element of the climate bill that Senators John Kerry, Lindsay Graham and Joe Leiberman are revising.

From FT.com