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APRIL 1, 2003


Five People Pushing Tech's Boundaries
These folks can't wait for an economic rebound to build a new tomorrow. From low-power lighting to artificial muscles, they're working hard now

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The economic malaise that has gripped America's technology industries for nearly three years shows little sign of dissipating -- and now the war in Iraq will have to end before the clouds lift on when tech demand will bounce back. Yet as idea factories, U.S. tech companies continue to be in fine shape, pushing beyond the walls of convention in search of new ways to make life better and easier -- and to help humans make more efficient use of scarce resources.

In this special report, we look at the work of five innovators whose discoveries are affecting the lives of millions of people -- or soon might.

It has taken Kodak's Ching Tang nearly three decades to bring to life organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs). But now, his invention is showing up in cell phones, competing with traditional computer display technologies, and offering the potential to change the way TVs are made.

PREVENTING WI-FI BABEL.  The field of low-power lighting, of which Tang's OLEDs are a key component, is also finding expression in the work of Harvard University design and architecture professor Sheila Kennedy, whose projects include lighting New York City's East River using "green power" technologies. Next on Kennedy's to-do list: Eventually replacing lighting systems in buildings with technologies that convert 100% of electrical energy into light, vs. the current ratio of 10% light and 90% heat.

Innovation continues apace on the Internet as well. Wi-Fi -- wireless access to the Web -- is growing at a torrid pace, thanks in part to the work of Vic Hayes, a Dutch engineer who has come up with the technical protocols necessary to integrate different equipment from many manufacturers into the wireless local-area networks (WLANs) upon which Wi-Fi is built.

Such networks may also be a key enabler of the phone network of the future, which almost certainly will send large amounts of voice traffic over the Web. That initiative owes its existence in part to the vision -- and promotion -- provided by Jeff Pulver, an early thinker and avid proponent of using the Net to provide low-cost phone service to consumers everywhere.

GEARLESS POWER.  Humankind cannot live by light and the Net alone, of course. Which helps explain why Israeli-born NASA researcher Yoseph Bar-Cohen is coming up with "artifical muscles" that mimick the way human sinew works -- and that could lead to a new generation of ultra-efficient actuators that would replace everything from conventional windshield-wiper motors to robots' locomotion systems. Bar-Cohen's muscles could also become the arm-wrestling equivalent of a mechanical bull.

Doing more with less. It's a common theme shared by these five innovators -- and no doubt one that will infuse scientific work for much of the 21st century.

By Alex Salkever, Technology editor for BusinessWeek Online

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