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Walls to fall: 6 ideas at the intellectual frontier, from business models based on selflessness to glasses-free 3-D TV

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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3-D glassesBERLIN—November 9 marked the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, and to mark the occasion, the Einstein Foundation pulled together a host of leading researchers and thinkers to explore the intellectual and cultural walls that have fallen and those that remain to come down. One major theme highlighted how science helped to bring the Berlin wall down.

Several scientists recounted the progress in their studies. Here are six of the exciting ideas presented at the Falling Walls conference. If they come to fruition, the ideas could dramatically transform many aspects of research and everyday life worldwide.

 1. Beating Poverty. Muhammad Yunus talked about the “falling walls of poverty.” As one of the leading advocates of microcredit, he talked about how his Grameen Bank (which he described in the November 1999 Scientific American) lends $100,000 million a month worldwide with a 98 percent repayment rate. Grameen Telephone is the largest company in Bangladesh and the largest company in India.

Yunus’s latest idea: creating businesses with a cause and that are not concerned with profit. He acknowledges that people are extremely selfish, and the business world is set up to bring this out in people. But why not create a different business model that brings out selflessness in people, he asks?

So he has teamed up with several firms to do just that. For example, he asked the CEO of the food company Groupe Danone (Dannon in the U.S.) to produce a yogurt that contains all the micronutrients missing in Bangladeshi children’s diets, yet make it cheap and affordable. The company would invest some money, but it wouldn’t measure success by profit, but rather by how many children grow up to be healthy. Apparently just eating two cups of yogurt per week is enough to supply all the micronutrients a child needs. There’s also a deal with a big European water company to sell purified water cheaply. And next up is a deal with Adidas to provide shoes that cost less than 1 euro that the company plans to launch next year.

2. Spinal Repair. Martin Schwab at University of Zurich mentioned that he and his colleagues are testing an antibody directed at the growth factor inhibitor called Nogo-A in people with recent spinal cord injury (see, for example, the Scientific American Mind article "Mending the Spinal Cord"]. So far 60 people have been treated, it’s safe, and so far he said results look promising.

3. Decarbonated Concrete. Franz Josef Ulm of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has developed concrete that is stronger than traditional concrete. Consequently you need much less of it to build structures, and it reduces the carbon footprint by half, he said, noting that concrete is a major emitter of CO2. He put up a slide with comparison figures that showed that concrete was way off the map compared with other materials. He also said that he was hired by the U.S. to build a bridge with this material in Tennessee, which is now complete, and there are over 100 bridges across the nation in need of replacement.

4. Restoring Motor Control. Miguel Nicolelis of Duke University said that during the course of study with paraplegics, his team discovered that interfering with electrical signaling in the brain in a mouse model of Parkinson’s disease helped the mouse walk better. He said this was a side-finding but with important implications, because there is way to interrupt this signaling noninvasively with some sort of device applied to the base of the brain where it meets the spinal cord. Nicolelis has written articles for Scientific American describing the mental control of robotic limbs and the efforts to crack the neural code, the language of brain cells.

5. Synthetic Vaccines. Peter Seeberger of the Free University Berlin and the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces in Potsdam talked about synthetic vaccines. The foundation of such drugs would be the carbohydrate part of the pathogen that the immune system recognizes as foreign instead of live killed organism or a derivation of the organism. The breakthrough came in 2001 with automated carbohydrate synthesizers—what used to take 12 to 18 months can now be done in 19 hours. His team is testing a malaria vaccine in Africa right now and are working on several other types of vaccines against other types of organisms.

6. 3-D TV. Thomas Wiegand of the Munich-based Fraunhofer Institute talked about developing three-dimensional TV sets that do not require the user to wear any special glasses. The electronics industry has already been trying to popularize 3-D TV with accompanying eyewear, with a new push expected at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show in January. Three-dimensional programming is expected to remain minimal, but the industry is targeting the video gamer rather than the couch potato catching up on The Office. Advocates of the technology undoubtedly hope to ride any waves generated by James Cameron’s Avatar, a film due out in December and chock full of 3-D effects. But considering the expense, Weigand remarked that a glasses-free 3D experience in the average living room might have to wait another 20 years for costs to drop to affordable levels.

Image: So last century—new 3-D screens would not need viewers to wear special glasses. © iStock/Grandriver


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  1. 1. MCMalkemus 10:31 am 11/26/2009

    "The future is here. It just hasn’t been widely distributed yet."

    —author unknown.

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  2. 2. brsecu 2:30 pm 11/27/2009

    "Yunus’s latest idea: creating businesses with a cause and that are not concerned with profit. "

    Thats not a new idea. Its called communism and last i checked it didn’t work, and left even more in poverty.

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  3. 3. ormondotvos 5:35 pm 11/27/2009

    Excellent selection! I especially like the idea of eliciting the cooperation response INSTEAD of the competitive response. If that’s communism, the Christ was a communist!

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  4. 4. maheshc 8:21 am 11/28/2009

    "Grameen Telephone is the largest company in Bangladesh and the largest company in India.". No, it isn’t the largest company in India.

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  5. 5. hotblack 3:06 am 12/1/2009

    Cooperation was what enabled societies to form, and individuals to specialize. When specialists had other specialists to compete against, they continued to do more good work. But they still require cooperation to be specialists. Unless everyone would like to go back to being individuals largely concerned with their own individual needs of food shelter & clothing. Then we’ll see which civilization out-competes the other.

    Dogma and myopic politics always falls short in explanation.

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