Looking Back at the Future:

Ten Years of Discover Awards

By Mark Wheeler|Thursday, July 01, 1999
Remember what the world was like ten years ago? You had to crank the car to get it started, buy ice to keep your food cool, and resign yourself to inky hands when you changed the ribbon in that manual typewriter. All right, that may be a bit exaggerated, but the number of technological innovations over the past decade has been amazing—from portable cell phones to the World Wide Web. Even commonplace video games are now loaded with complex software. The detailed combat scenes that run effortlessly on today’s desktop PCs would have required the most powerful computer on Earth ten years ago.

The Discover Awards for Technological Innovation, now in their tenth year, celebrate the oft-unsung geniuses behind this sort of wizardry—bleary-eyed inventors in underfunded labs who work a mysterious alchemy that transforms napkin sketches into tomorrow’s indispensable tools. Looking through the past ten years of Discover shows that both our process of picking finalists and the technologies we’ve lauded have been perceptive, unpredictable, imaginative, and at times a bit quirky.

Many of the most interesting discoveries take a long while to break out of labs and find practical applications. Three years ago, the magazine added a new category called emerging technologies to highlight ideas that are still out there on the fringe. The first winner looked a lot like Jell-O except it could swell or shrink a thousandfold in response to subtle changes in temperature or light. These smart hydrogels were developed by Toyoichi Tanaka, a physics professor at MIT. They still look a lot like balls of goo, but someday they might be used to create an artificial pancreas or a supple mattress that prevents bedsores.

We’ve also learned that not every promising finalist will ultimately reap success. Discover’s editors consult with a panel of experts in nine areas of technology to make sure we single out the most significant applications, but even the experts don’t own crystal balls. For example, a flying car was a finalist in the aviation and aerospace category in 1994. Sounds great, but it turned out to be too costly and risky to roar off into successful manufacture. Likewise, the 33M-VS Wind Turbine, our 1993 winner in the environment category, seemed promising, but it couldn’t compete with dirt-cheap fossil fuels. And rest in peace, 3DO Interactive Game System, a 1993 finalist in computer hardware and electronics with a video display 50 times faster than the competition. It lost out to the cheaper Sega and Nintendo systems. You can probably find one in your garage, next to the Betamax VCR.

Nonetheless, we didn’t go much astray in the field of computers and electronics. Once upon a time, you may recall, most PCs used Microsoft’s cumbersome disk operating system, or MS-DOS. In the early 1980s, Apple Computer introduced computing hieroglyphics—cute icons like trash cans, file cabinets, and magnifying glasses. Microsoft liked the idea so much that it created its own graphical system called Windows. Windows 3.0 won a Discover award in 1991 and took off. Now 90 percent of the world’s PCs run on a Microsoft operating system, and the company’s hold on the software market has prompted an antitrust suit by the federal government.

And that age-old dream of talking to our computers instead of punching a keyboard? It’s here. We saw that one coming in 1994 and awarded IBM’s Personal Dictation System, an early voice-recognition program, the top Discover award for software. In 1997 a voice system that could recognize Chinese was a finalist.

Some look forward to, and others dread, the prospect of a computer powerful enough to engage in intelligent thought. Nestor Corporation and Intel made a small step in that direction with the Ni1000 computer chip, a 1994 Discover award winner. The chip holds 1,024 interconnecting cells that crudely mimic the wiring of the brain’s neurons. Such parallel processing allows for simultaneous calculations, which makes this chip roughly 1,000 times faster than a standard computer chip. Although the Ni1000 hasn’t yet found its way into desktop systems, it’s being used commercially to monitor patterns such as automobile traffic flow and stock market trends.

One computer has already outmaneuvered the human mind: Deep Blue, a 1998 Discover finalist. Developed by an IBM team led by C. J. Tan, Deep Blue incorporated 32 processing engines that could contemplate 200 million chess moves each second. World chess champion Garry Kasparov lost to Deep Blue by two games to one.

Meanwhile, the Internet is giving form to a more collective intelligence. With the rise of the Net has come the World Wide Web, which formally debuted in 1991. Java, a computer language developed by James Gosling and released by Sun Microsystems in 1995, helped make the Internet useful by providing an easy and flexible way to run software across a network. As one small example of Java’s power, many Web sites use it to transmit programs that play video animations on your computer. It sure isn’t TV, but it is awfully interactive. In 1996, Discover—which by now had a Web site of its own—deemed Java a winner.

This year, the winner in our new interaction category is Jini, which builds on Java’s success. Jini programming can be built into everyday machines—a car, a coffeemaker, a VCR—then controlled via a wireless network. Jini-enabled devices contain snippets of software code that tell other Jini machines where they are and what they are supposed to do, creating the prospect that your appliances may soon be smarter than you are. A Jini-powered home would show up in your Web browser or on a PC desktop and display its capabilities, such as the ability to turn on the lights, see if there’s enough milk in the refrigerator, and check phone messages.

People still need to talk to one another, though, and cell phones make it possible just about anywhere. In 1990, Motorola’s MicroTAC cellular phone grabbed top ranking in Discover’s first year of awards. Engineer Robert Weisshappel directed a team that shrank the innards of the phone, eliminating the bulky handset and separate component box. The result was the first cell phone small enough to fit into pocket or purse.

Technology has also come to the aid of those whose disabilities make even simple, everyday communication difficult. Some of the most remarkable advances reach deep into the nervous system, or into the brain itself, to help link the internal and external realms.

In 1991, for example, Robert Shannon of the House Ear Institute in California received a Discover award for his invention of an auditory brain stem implant. His efforts were aimed at people afflicted with a rare form of neural tumor that required surgeons to cut the nerves that normally carry sound information. Shannon’s device uses a tiny microphone, a sound processor, and a transmitter—all located outside the ear—and an electrode attached to the auditory brain stem. The components convert sounds into electric signals that are transmitted directly to the brain. In a 1991 trial, 11 of 13 people regained some level of hearing; one person was able to understand human speech. Clinical trials continue today.

This year, Philip Kennedy of Neural Signals has taken that idea even further. He led the development of a different kind of brain implant that allows "lock-ins"—completely paralyzed patients whose minds remain clear—to command a computer solely by the power of thought. The implant, a tiny glass cone, detects electrical activity in certain parts of the brain’s motor cortex. That pattern is then interpreted to control the movements of a computer cursor, which is placed on icons that activate the computer to speak commonly used phrases and type names.

Some of the most intriguing technologies Discover has come across started with government or military funding. In 1991, for instance, Ralph Eschenbach and Trimble Navigation received a Discover award for finding consumer uses for the global positioning system. The Pentagon developed GPS in the 1970s so military personnel would know their exact position (and time!) anywhere on the planet. Today it seems amusing that someone had to think of a consumer use for GPS. Now it’s everywhere, from hikers’ backpacks to navigation systems in trains, planes, and ferryboats—not to mention the family car, which has also received a lot of attention from Discover judges.

Over the years, we have recognized what are now successful products, such as sturdier tires, side air bags, and better catalytic converters, as well as alternative-energy vehicles that have not done well in the marketplace. That’s not for lack of promising designs, such as cars powered by flywheels (Chrysler-SatCon’s Hybrid vehicle, a 1995 winner), natural gas (Honda, a winner in 1997), or multifuel-processing fuel cells (a winner in 1998). But with gas at record-low prices, not many people are clamoring for an alternative. Toyota, a finalist this year, is hedging its bets with the half-electric, half-gasoline Prius.

The transportation winner this year is the microplasmatron fuel converter, a clever attempt to make the ordinary gasoline engine a lot cleaner.

A microplasmatron fuel converter in every garage? That sounds about as likely as, oh, an ion-propulsion engine to replace rockets. Wait a minute, that actually happened last year. NASA launched Deep Space 1, which is heading off to visit an asteroid and two comets; the probe is indeed driven by a stream of ions.

That ion engine conforms to NASA boss Dan Goldin’s mantra: "Better, faster, cheaper." This reminds us of Clementine, a budget-minded Discover winner in 1995 that was built in 22 months and cost a mere $55 million—chump change for a space project. It was intended to map the moon, which it did, and to visit an asteroid as a dry run for intercepting a nuclear warhead, which it didn’t—a software glitch intervened.

The point was made, though, and the philosophy behind Clementine led to the Mars Pathfinder and its robotic soul mate, Sojourner. A 1998 Discover winner, the pair had a budget of $200 million, about the same as the movie Waterworld. Unlike the flick, though, Pathfinder garnered rave reviews from an adoring public.

While Discover’s aviation and aerospace category encompasses big things, there’s been a lot of action at the other end of the size scale too. Some of the more interesting candidates for our emerging technologies award have come from the field of nanotechnology—making things very, very small.

Last year, Discover award finalist Nanogen Corporation developed DNA Optical Storage Media. If it works, it will make it possible to cram a thousand times more information on a CD-ROM. On a CD, each digital bit is represented as a dot etched on the disk. But the dot can be no smaller than the laser beam used to read it, about four hundred-thousandths of an inch. To get around this limit, Nanogen’s Michael Heller built synthetic DNA containing chromophores, molecules that glow when a laser shines on them. The presence or absence of the glow would represent a 1 or a 0 of binary data. Chromophores respond to specific frequencies of lasers, so many different dots could be packed into a single spot and be read individually by separate laser flashes.

From outer to inner space, the sheer array of the Discover awards over the last ten years is remarkable. You might just want to shake your heads and marvel at how far we’ve come. But this is the perfect time to prepare for the future instead. Tear yourself away from the video games and throw out that old Betamax. Then clean off a dime-size spot on your desk. That should be just enough room for the molecular computer headed your way.
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