Anniversary Event Showcases Seven World-Changing Technologies

A showcase of cutting-edge research projects IEEE believes could change the world

6 May 2009

Imagine a world where electric power is transmitted to devices wirelessly, doctors diagnose cancer before it forms, and computers help paralyzed people walk. Well, soon you can stop imagining, for that world is coming into view, pushed along by seven IEEE members.

The seven discussed their work at a conference in March on embracing human-technology interactions. Organized by IEEE in honor of its 125th anniversary, the event showcased cutting-edge research projects IEEE believes could change the world. The conference was held at the New Yorker Hotel in New York City and moderated by Susan Hassler, IEEE Spectrum editor, and Steve Lohr, New York Times senior editor and technology reporter.

“Engineering the future is not just our anniversary theme; it is what our members do every day,” 2008 IEEE President Lewis Terman said in his opening remarks. “The application of technology to enable the progress of society has been a driving force behind IEEE that began with our organization’s founding fathers.”

IEEE Senior Member Katie Hall, chief technology officer of WiTricity, in Watertown, Mass., talked about a world where cellphones, laptops, and even electric vehicles could be recharged without ever being plugged into an electric socket. Her company is the exclusive licensee of MIT technology based on resonant magnetic coupling, which can couple power over distances and over a range of power levels. A typical product could consist of a compact power source that wirelessly transmits power to a device, which stores it in a rechargeable battery. The transmitter would be plugged into an AC outlet, a USB port, or a car’s power outlet.

WiTricity hopes to bring the technology to a broad range of applications, including consumer electronics, medical devices, electric vehicles, and industrial machinery. It does away with the need to manually recharge or change batteries and eliminates unsightly and costly power cords, the company says.

Addressing health concerns, Hall said the products will not pose a threat. “The magnetic fields are very weak and safe for biological organisms,” she said, noting that that the devices can be built into houses, behind walls, and under floors.

One day a doctor will be able to check a patient’s blood to tell whether the person is in the transition stage to developing cancer, and begin preventative treatment. That’s the vision of IEEE Fellow K.J. Ray Liu and his team at the University of Maryland, in College Park. They have developed a simple dependence equation to explain the development and progress of cells from a normal to cancerous state.

“We are trying to use very simple equations in very simple models to explain the very complex phenomena of cancer development,” said Liu, a professor of electrical and computer engineering. “We are seeing the dawn of a digital revolution in cancer diagnosis at the gene and protein level. In the next five to 10 years, we hope this testing can be used as a supplemental technology.”

Restoring the ability of a paralyzed patient to walk again is the goal of IEEE Member Miguel Nicolelis, codirector of the Center for Neuroengineering at Duke University Medical Center, in Durham, N.C. Nicolelis and his team have launched the Walk Again Project, a nonprofit research initiative aimed at building a neuroprosthetic device able to restore mobility in paralyzed patients.

Neuroscientists at Duke have developed a microchip that allows two-way communication between the human brain and robots and enables the robots to return messages back to the brain without the use of sight or touch.

Nicolelis says he believes his work will someday allow communication from human brain to human brain. “This neuroprosthetic device may restore motor functions initially, but in the future it will be used to restore other functions,” he says.

IEEE Fellow Rangachar Kasturi , a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of South Florida, in Tampa, has built a biometric framework so that computers can apply algorithms that will detect and track text, faces, and vehicles in images and video from great distances under hard-to-see conditions. For example, the computer can be used to detect unattended baggage and find underground power lines.

Senior Member Dharmendra Modha is working on computers that simulate the brain’s abilities to sense, perceive, reason, and act. With a $4.9 million grant from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Modha’s SyNAPSE project could greatly improve the functionality and response rate of computers. A manager of cognitive computing at the IBM Almaden Research Center, in San Jose, Calif., Modha’s goal is faster, more accurate detection of situations that could pose environmental, health, or security concerns.

Bringing educational materials to students in impoverished and remote areas is the goal of IEEE Fellow Krishna Palem. The professor of computing at the George R. Brown School of Engineering at Rice University, in Houston, and his team have created an LED tablet PC to replace the blackboard still used in much of the world. The solar-powered I-slate uses probabilistic computer chips, which make tradeoffs in performance to reap significant energy savings. Students will be able to download coursework wirelessly to the classroom aid, Palem says. He predicts the potentially low-cost chips will find their way into other power-hungry devices such as cellphones, which could then be recharged every few weeks instead of every few days.

IEEE Fellow Roy Want, a senior engineer at Intel Corp. in Santa Clara, Calif., described research on dynamic composable computing, which he says will vastly improve the performance of mobile devices by providing them with the capability of wirelessly sharing multiple resources such as other computers, monitors, networks, and servers.

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