Home' Technology Review : March April 2009 Contents FROM THE EDITOR 5
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FROM THE EDITOR
In "A Zero-Emissions City in the Desert" (p. 56), Kevin Bullis,
Technology Review's energy editor, writes of a nearly empty,
dusty building site in the Persian Gulf: "[It] is the start of a vast
experiment, an attempt to create the world's first car-free, zero-
carbon-dioxide-emissions, zero-waste city. Due to be completed
in 2016, the city is the centerpiece of the Masdar Initiative, a $15
billion investment by the government of Abu Dhabi ... . The new
development, being built on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi city, will
run almost entirely on energy from the sun and will use just 20
percent as much power as a conventional city of similar size."
Nothing like Masdar City has ever been attempted. Although
zero-emissions residences and commercial buildings already
exist, larger clean buildings have never worked very well.
Oberlin College's Lewis Center already has some of the features
that Masdar City's designers wish to deploy on a grander scale;
but the center consumed far more energy than its architects had
anticipated, and only the addition of a solar array in a nearby
parking lot allowed the college to claim, dubiously, that the
building itself produced as much power as it used. Certainly, no
one has ever raised a small city to these standards.
Insofar as many environmental engineers doubt that some-
thing as complex as a city could ever be entirely green, Masdar
City is a triumph of optimism. But if the optimists are right, such
a massive demonstration may be necessary. As the chief execu-
tive of a sustainable-design company puts it, "People say, 'Gee,
that would be great ... but obviously it's not possible.' Once you
can point at something, it takes away a lot of those arguments."
Elsewhere in this issue of Technology Review, we unveil the
10 emerging technologies that we think have greatest poten-
tial to change our world. Among them is a nanofluidic chip
that could lower the cost of sequencing DNA so that the entire
human genome could be read in eight hours for less than $100.
Lauren Gravitz explains, "Despite many experts' doubt that
whole-genome sequencing could be done for $1,000, let alone
a 10th that much, BioNanomatrix [the startup that invented the
chip] believes it can reach the $100 target in five years" (see "$100
Genome," p. 41). That would be a tremendous thing. A cheap,
rapid sequencing tool could make personalized medicine a
practical reality: a doctor could biopsy a malignant tumor in a
patient's lung, sequence its DNA, and then use the genetic infor-
mation to design the treatment best suited for that particular
variant of the cancer---"all for less than the cost of a chest x-ray."
In another story ("But Who's Counting?" p. 64), I describe how
the absence of common tools for measuring the size of online
audiences is threatening the future health of media, as print and
broadcast television and radio shrink in importance: "No one
really knows how many people visit websites. No established
third-party supplier of audience measurement data is trusted.
Internal Web logs exaggerate audiences." This matters. Because
the content on most websites is free, the only thing that will
pay for anything like good journalism is the "display" or banner
ads that publishers sell; but the inability to agree on audience
numbers is stunting the growth of display advertising. As Roger
McNamee, an investor in Forbes, puts it: "Getting this right is
absolutely necessary for publishers to be able to continue to do
interesting things." No less an expert than McNamee himself
confesses that "the remedy is not yet obvious." Yet the story pro-
vides a reason for cautious optimism: an innovative San Fran-
cisco startup named Quantcast is working on new ways to more
accurately measure online audiences.
All three stories point to a similar moral. Faced with large,
pressing, global problems---how does one build a green city?
Can medicine really be personalized? How can one save
publishing?---conservative worthies fret that there may be no
immediate solution. But the most innovative technologists are
blithely optimistic about their inventions. They are sure that
some application of existing or emerging technologies will
force a breakthrough on big problems. They are not wholly
irrational; they are not like those magical thinkers who proclaim
that nothing is impossible if one only wants it su ciently.
But technologists do think they understand the di culties
that interest them, and they are happily confident that their
particular combinations of technologies will be equal to the
Of course, their confidence may be misplaced. The great
anxiety of editing Technology Review---and also its great fun---is
that while we also understand the day's big problems, we are
never entirely certain at the time of publication, even with the
best analysis and all our sources, that we have in fact chosen the
solutions that will later make the conservative fretters sit up, eye-
brows flying, and say, "Well, I'll be damned." But we're optimistic
that the technologies in this issue will be the ones that matter.
Write to me and tell me what you think at jason.pontin@
technologyreview.com. ---Jason Pontin
Technology and Optimism
WHY TECHNOLOGISTS ARE SO CONFIDENT.
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