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25 People Shaping the Future in Tech, Science, Medicine, Activism and More

The inventors, entrepreneurs and disrupters who are changing (and maybe saving) the world one brilliant idea at a time

25 People Shaping the Future

Fifty years after Rolling Stone published its first issue in November 1967 – and one year after the cataclysmic election of Donald Trump – we’re still looking ahead with determined optimism at the next half-century. Anchored by a cover story on Elon Musk, the 2017 edition of our Future Issue puts the spotlight on 25 visionaries, revolutionaries, entrepreneurs and disrupters who are already changing (and maybe saving) the world in politics, economics, tech, science, agriculture, medicine and more – from an “all-natural architect” to the frontwoman for tomorrow’s Democratic Party to the startup king looking to eliminate healthcare bureaucracy. Wonder what the future looks like? This list gives us a good glimpse.

the future issue helion energy

Courtesy of Helion Energy

David Kirtley: The Alternative Energy Solution

For years, fusion energy – which is generated by forcing two atoms together until their cores merge, releasing a shattering amount of energy – has held the promise of a world where electricity could be cheaply produced without the radioactive waste, carbon pollution or geopolitical entanglements of oil and nuclear-fission reactors. Fusion reactions power the sun; it is stored solar energy in compressed organic matter – the ancient remains of photosynthesis – that we burn in fossil fuels. But even among top physicists, re-creating a fusion reaction on Earth – a “star in a bottle” – was dismissed as “the fuel of the future – and always will be.”

Helion Founder and CEO David Kirtley is part of a team that developed the “Fusion Engine,” a power plant the size of a mobile home that, they hope, will soon be able to power a small town for 10 years using a minuscule amount of raw materials – about a pickup truck’s load of isotopes. It’s a downscale of power generation roughly analogous to how the tech industry took centralized supercomputers the size of houses and put them in our pockets.

Recent attempts to capture the power of fusion – like the massive International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, a 35-nation effort in the South of France – have sought to maintain a steady reaction in a vast central power plant, where fusion heat is used to boil water to turn turbines to create electricity. This indirect process never sat right with Kirtley: “I thought, ‘You’re catching a star and you’re using it to boil water?’ ”

Here’s Kirtley’s major insight: A fusion reaction that
repeatedly explodes in the center of a magnetic field wouldn’t require boiling
water at all. “We don’t want a campfire,” he says, “we want a
diesel engine.” His team is inching closer to a machine that generates
more energy than it consumes, which they expect to hit in a decade. And if they
don’t, he says, one of a half-dozen other teams working on fusion will. “In
the next 10 years, we’re generating electricity from fusion,” he says. “I’m
just excited as a human being by the plethora of fusion approaches that are
happening.” SE

the future issue

Amy Barkow/Barkow Photo

David Benjamin: Architecture with Organic Materials

When architect David Benjamin decided to call his firm the Living, he intended for the name to refer to his notion of bringing buildings “to life” via digital sensors, moving walls and other forms of computer-aided interactivity. Only later, Benjamin says, did it strike him that the name was literal – that he could bring architecture to life “through actual living things.”

Benjamin – who spent a couple of years touring with his indie-rock band the Push Kings before graduating from Columbia’s school of architecture – operates like a socially conscious mad scientist. At his Lower Manhattan office, the 42-year-old shows off samples of his work. He used agricultural waste – corn stalks and cobs – to grow organic bricks from mushrooms and to build a 40-foot tower in the courtyard of contemporary-art museum MoMA PS1. When the museum installation was dismantled, Benjamin says, the bricks were broken up, combined with food scraps, and “in 60 days, it [had returned] to the soil.”

When Airbus contracted with Benjamin to build lighter airplane parts (thus reducing its fleets’ fuel consumption), he turned to the natural world – specifically, to the lowly slime mold, which spreads adaptively as it searches for food. He created a computer algorithm based on the mold growth, which is supremely evolutionarily efficient. The patterns that emerged from this allowed him to design irregularly shaped plane parts with maximal strength and minimal weight. For another commission, he plans to attach sensors to mussels in New York’s East River; the sensors will change the colors of a series of lights to alert passersby of the water’s cleanliness.

Benjamin points out that buildings account for one-third of the world’s energy consumption, and that construction waste makes up 30 percent of American landfills. “People ask me, ‘Is this material going to last long enough?’ ” he says. “I like to ask, ‘Is this material going to last too long?’ Why shouldn’t architects design the after as well as the before?” MB

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Flore freezing bee larvae with liquid nitrogen.

Brian Finke

Josh Evans, Roberto Flore, Michael Bom Frøst: Farm-To-Table Revolutionaries

Reducing humans’ carbon footprint means reimagining our meat proteins – in other words, bugs. For three years, Josh Evans, Roberto Flore and Michael Bom Frøst traveled the world, cataloging the properties of more than 150 edible species for the Nordic Food Lab, a culinary think tank founded by renowned chefs René Redzepi and Claus Meyer. When they started the project, in 2013, interest in edible insects was exploding. News stories declared them “the next food craze” and the “food of the future,” trumpeting the fact that crickets and mealworms use significantly less land and water than other farmed proteins and produce far fewer greenhouse gases. When the United Nations released a report on edible insects in May that year, it was downloaded more than a million times in a single day.

Nordic Food Lab found that largely missing in all the hype was a fundamental question: taste. “If you want to convince the world to eat insects, you have to consider it from the perspective of the eater,” says Bom Frøst. Many of the foods that were available were freeze-dried or used as a topping. For people to fall in love with a new food group, it wasn’t enough to grind up crickets and add peanut butter – they wanted to draw on the culinary traditions that have valued insects for centuries: In Japan, hornets are deep-fried until they puff up and crisp; Kenyans prepare termites by preserving them in honey; in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, tacos can be filled with ant eggs or caterpillars. “In most cases, insects aren’t eaten because people are starving,” says Evans. “They’re eaten because they’re a delicacy.”

Even as Nordic Food Lab brings attention to new edible species, it hopes to emphasize the risks of scaling production too quickly. “Many of the flaws of raising pork or cows or chicken can easily be repeated with insects,” says Bom Frøst. Plus, if Westerners only embrace Big Agriculture insects, he says, we’ll miss out on treats like honey ants, whose abdomens swell with the sweet and sour nectars of desert blooms. Or the 40 tons of bee larvae produced as byproduct in Denmark each year, a delicacy the team describes as “something in between bacon and foie gras.” Because even if the entire world learns to love eating insects, says Evans, “we have to make sure they don’t start to taste like cardboard.” GB

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Ethan Hill/Redux

Kate Orff: Remapping Cities for Climate Change

If our cities are going to survive rising seas, we’re
going to need someone as inventive as Kate Orff. On the south shore of  Staten Island, which was devastated by Hurricane Sandy’s
storm surge, her landscape-architecture and urban design firm, SCAPE, is
constructing a “living breakwater,” a series of barriers and wildlife
habitats to make the coast more resilient. A project in Lexington, Kentucky,
will turn the footprint of a polluted creek into an interactive path
spotlighting the region’s unique limestone. In Brooklyn’s notoriously polluted
Gowanus Canal, SCAPE aims to reintroduce native oysters, as an all-natural
filtration system. “It’s probably overwhelming for the next generation,
given the problems they’ve inherited,” Orff says. “I try to match
this anxiety with projects that enable people to feel like they’re
participating in a process to change their cities and communities.” JB

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Laura Segall/Redux

Sue Sisley: Hard Proof of the Benefits of Pot

When it comes to marijuana, the primary obstacle
preventing widespread medical breakthroughs is a lack of clinical trials.
Researchers are only allowed to use marijuana grown by a single farm at the
University of Mississippi – the pot is significantly less potent and sometimes
arrives at laboratories covered in mold. The approval process for new research
requires sign-off from two federal agencies, and often takes years. Enter Sue
Sisley, an Arizona physician who has made it her mission to establish the
benefits of cannabis while simultaneously drawing attention to the bureaucratic
stranglehold hindering research. Her advocacy work helped roll back a number of
onerous pot research requirements. This year, even as the DEA began accepting
applications for additional growers to compete with Mississippi, Sisley exposed
the “sub-optimal study drug” on a PBS NewsHour segment. “The
U.S. government has systematically impeded this work for years,” she says.
“We were forced to become activists. We really just wanted to do the
science.” ACL

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Ford Foundation

Darren Walker: Philanthropy Aimed at the Wealth Gap

The nation’s major philanthropies have long operated by noblesse oblige, seeking to blunt the sharp edges of capitalism by funding programs that sustain the poor. Under the leadership of Darren Walker, the Ford Foundation is taking a different tack. “In philanthropy we must move from a perspective of generosity to a perspective of justice,” Walker told a conference in Stockholm in October. “We need to look at the root causes of injustice, of poverty, of climate change.” Walker began his career redeveloping housing in Harlem, then spearheaded the Rockefeller Foundation’s rebuilding programs in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Now leading the nation’s third-largest foundation, with a $12 billion endowment, he is pioneering a model of disruptive philanthropy, targeting the causes of inequality. In April, he announced a $1 billion investment in socially beneficial businesses, including builders of affordable housing in the U.S. and companies expanding credit in the developing world. “We are putting a significant amount of our money,” Walker said, “where our mission is.” TD

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Sarah Deragon

KJ Erickson: Imagining a Money-Free Society

KJ Erickson’s online marketplace, Simbi, wasn’t necessarily designed for disaster relief. The site hosts 175,000 users, who offer services like legal advice, language lessons and tantric counseling in exchange for credits to trade in the future. The idea is to offer “a supplemental economy,” says Erickson. “A lot of people are struggling to make ends meet in the dollar-based economy.” But when Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston, she says, “we saw a lot of people posting services related to the hurricane.” On the site’s “pay it forward” option, users offered free shelter and other services to displaced victims, a practice that’s been repeated in the aftermaths of Hurricane Irma and the Las Vegas shootings. “We became an emergency-relief campaign,” she says. TS

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Karl Mondon/Newscom

Brian Armstrong: The Online-Spending Revolution

Before Brian Armstrong launched Coinbase, a user-friendly
way to buy, sell and store online currencies like Bitcoin, the only way to
purchase cryptocurrency was wiring money to an unregulated exchange in Japan or
Slovenia. “It turned out the killer feature everybody wanted,” he
says, “was to buy and sell using funds from their bank.” Coinbase’s
Bitcoin banking system has since allowed 11.9 million users to exchange more
than $40 billion in digital assets. Already, some employees in nations like
Argentina, where the currency is unstable, choose to receive salaries in
Bitcoin. This year, Coinbase launched Toshi, a mobile-messenger app designed as
a bank replacement, which offers a digital wallet and the ability to send
messages and money to other users worldwide. “There’s really this gold
rush that’s going on,” says Armstrong. He ultimately sees Bitcoin – or one
of its younger rivals – treated as a true global currency. And given
crypto-currencies’ inherent security and seamless exchange, Armstrong believes
the next step is a thoroughly monetized Internet, where every “like”
has a tiny amount of money attached. “If you’re a moderator on a
subreddit, you’re just doing it because you’re passionate,” Armstrong
says. “But in this new world, you can imagine thousands of people earning
a living, either curating the content or managing the community or providing
insightful answers to people. It makes the GDP of the whole Internet go up.” BPE

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Cheap Science: Prakesh with a paper microscope

Ryumin Alexander/ZUMA

Manu Prakash: High-Tech for Low-Cost Medicine

Manu Prakash, a Stanford bioengineering professor and recipient of a MacArthur “genius grant” in 2016, was visiting a medical clinic in Uganda several years ago when he saw something alarming: Staffers were using an expensive centrifuge – vital in the detection of diseases like malaria and tuberculosis – as a doorstop. They had no electricity to power it, he said. Prakash, 37, has grown accustomed to scenes like this while traveling through resource-starved parts of the world. To help, he’s devoted himself to what he calls “frugal science: the idea that if you make science accessible and scalable, it will have impacts on global health and education beyond our imagination.”

Prakash’s experience in Uganda led him and his team of researchers to develop a cheap centrifuge that anyone could use, despite limited funds and minimal training. First, they scrutinized a variety of simple spinning toys, eventually settling on the centuries-old whirligig as their model. The result is the Paperfuge: paper discs fitted with tubes that can hold blood samples, connected to twine strings that allow a user to spin the discs at up to 125,000 rpm, thereby separating out, say, malaria parasites. To study those parasites, a user might deploy another ingenious invention of Prakash’s, the Foldscope – an origami-inspired paper microscope capable of high-powered imaging, the component materials of which cost just $1.

At least 50,000 Foldscopes have been distributed in 135 countries. Someone used one to study air pollutants in China; others have tested for counterfeit drugs and diagnosed animal and plant diseases. Tools like these, Prakash says, represent “a means of creativity. Sometimes we forget how wonderful this world is. If we can bring that to people, we can change their attitudes toward problems. If we make people curious, I’d call it a success.” JW

the future issue

Gene doctor: Zhang in his CRISPR lab at the Broad Institute.

Tony Luong

Feng Zhang: Medicine’s New Frontier

In 2013, when MIT molecular biologist Feng Zhang was just 32, he became the first scientist to successfully edit human cells using CRISPR, a gene-modifying technology that could ultimately be used to fix cellular mutations. The technology is now leading breakthroughs in treating HIV, cancer and neurodegenerative diseases – to say nothing of its potential for re-engineering coral reefs and harnessing algae’s biopower. “It’s like a renaissance period,” Zhang says. “We have wanted to do this for a long time, and we are now reaching a stage where we can.”

CRISPR uses a bacterial system to snip DNA with the simplicity of an Easy-Bake Oven. To treat diseases like leukemia and Alzheimer’s, scientists foresee targeting genetic mutations with, well, near-surgical precision. At the same time, the tech is being used to research seed size, advance microscope resolution, modify pig organs and develop virus resistance. Another godfather of CRISPR, Harvard’s George Church, is investigating whether CRISPR might even revive extinct species like the woolly mammoth – he’s splicing its DNA into Asian elephant cells. CRISPR will soon become part of an emerging line of cancer gene therapies. “It’s the holy grail for cancer,” says Rick Young, whose MIT lab has deployed CRISPR to close in on a key genetic cause of the disease. “We’re doing the best work of our careers – we’re at the epicenter of a revolution.”

Revolutions, though, can go awry. Recently, DARPA, a military research agency, began funding technology to thwart genetic catastrophes. Intelligence agencies reportedly have started their own development teams as well. “A thousand dollars of CRISPR stuff and a toilet, and you have a bioweapon,” says Hank Greely, a Stanford bioethicist. “That makes me nervous.”

For now, Zhang is leading a search for genomic tools that could one day surpass CRISPR, systems that work with even greater accuracy, speed and bulk. “It is an exciting time to be a biologist,” he says. BW

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