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IEEE Spectrum Publishes List

June 30, 2004

A powerful ship motor with superconducting wires from American Superconductor, ultrasophisticated software from IBM that can make sense of the crazy jumble of the World Wide Web, and a DaimlerChrysler hybrid-electric truck that can become a pure-electric vehicle at the flip of a dashboard switch—these are just three of the six projects identified by the editors of IEEE Spectrum as “winners” in a new special issue highlighting the best and worst of global technology.

For the report, the magazine’s editors considered six mainstay categories in technology: communications, electric power, semiconductors, transportation, and biotechnology. For each of these categories, they picked a winner, a loser, and a Holy Grail—a grand technological goal that has been sought for years, that would fundamentally alter a key industry, and that has so far eluded the best efforts of engineers and scientists.

“With the signs of life becoming stronger every day in the technology sector, it’s time to take stock of some key initiatives that have the potential to transform major industries—or that are likely to squander huge amounts of money, time, and resources,” said Glenn Zorpette, executive editor, IEEE Spectrum.

“For this issue, IEEE Spectrum editors considered well over a hundred technology projects, representing work on every continent. We picked six outstanding ones, along with six that seemed destined for obscurity. The editors also turned up significant, surprising advances toward goals that technologists have been chasing for decades.”

To come up with their final lists of winners, losers, and Holy Grails, the staff relied heavily on the global resources of the IEEE. The professional organization has nearly 400,000 engineers, computer experts, and technologists as members. In evaluating the world’s major technology endeavors, Spectrum’s editors elicited opinions from among the many of the IEEE’s most distinguished members, those whose accomplishments have earned them the rank of Fellow.

The results were surprising. Among the companies backing projects identified as losers in the report are such giants as Microsoft, General Motors, Nikon—confirming that size hardly guarantees strategic technical acumen.

Meanwhile, the winning project in the communications category was a revolutionary data and voice network which spans the entirety of the remote and sparsely populated Canadian province of Alberta. The network’s operator, tiny and obscure Axia NetMedia, is relatively unknown, even among communications experts.

Other winners identified in the report are the Allen Brain Atlas—a project funded by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen to map the human brain, showing each gene, what it does and where it does it—and Sumitomo Electric Industries’ work on gallium nitride wafers, which will be the foundation for new electronic devices that will power the next generation of DVD recorders as well as other consumer and industrial products.

The losers, besides the projects at Microsoft, GM, and Nikon, were ENSCO Inc.’s Global Environment MEMS Sensors—a plan to deploy nine billion minute airborne probes to monitor weather, and two initiatives associated with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). One is the DOE’s plan to develop and deploy a new fleet of advanced breeder power reactors by 2030; the other is a carbon sequestration program designed to genetically engineer carbon-eating microbes to rid the Earth’s atmosphere of excess carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas.

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