25 People Shaping Future in Tech, Science, Medicine, Activism - Rolling Stone
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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.

Elon Musk: The Architect of Tomorrow

Mark Seliger for Rolling Stone

Elon Musk: The Architect of Tomorrow

He’s probably the only person who has started four billion-dollar companies – PayPal, Tesla, SpaceX and Solar City. But at his core, Elon Musk is not a businessman or entrepreneur. He’s an engineer, inventor and, as he puts it, “technologist.” And as a naturally gifted engineer, he’s able to find the design inefficiencies, flaws and complete oversights in the tools that power our civilization.
Read our full cover story here.

Bren Smith: Fishing to Feed the World

Fresh catch: Smith at his farm off the coast of Branford, Connecticut

Courtesy of Greenwave

Bren Smith: Fishing to Feed the World

“We don’t use fertilizers, we don’t use antibiotics, we don’t use pesticides,” says Bren Smith, the founder of GreenWave and owner of a 20-acre, fully sustainable seafood farm off the coast of Connecticut. “I don’t even have to feed my stock anything.” He calls his method 3D ocean farming, and it involves a system of underwater ropes and hurricane-proof anchors that hold huge harvests of kelp, mussels, scallops and oysters. One acre can produce 250,000 shellfish and 10 tons of kelp, a crop Smith is particularly excited about. “Kelp is like a gateway drug,” he says, noting there are possibly thousands of other edible sea plants, many of them with more calcium than milk and more protein than red meat. Kelp can also be used in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, fertilizers, livestock feed and biofuel, all while converting tremendous amounts of CO2 into oxygen. “If you covered six percent of the ocean with our farms, you could feed the world and capture all of man’s carbon,” Smith offers.

He turned to aquaculture in the 1990s, as the North Atlantic cod stock crashed. Organized seafood farming was supposed to be the answer to overfishing, but Smith discovered it was merely another way of abusing the seas – polluting coastal waterways with pesticides and pumping fish full of antibiotics. “We were growing neither fish nor food,” Smith wrote. “We were running the equivalent of Iowa pig farms at sea.”

After his oyster farm on Long Island Sound was destroyed by hurricanes, Smith redesigned his infrastructure – growing larvae in tanks on land and then transferring them to “sea socks.” The breakthrough has attracted a growing number of corporate partners, like Google and Patagonia, and hundreds of applicants to GreenWave’s 3D ocean-farm development program, which guarantees purchase of 80 percent of crops from new farmers for the first five years. “We have requests to start farms in every coastal state, and 20 countries,” says Smith – more applicants than it can handle at the moment. By next year, there will be 25 farms in the GreenWave network, including two in California, and the company is in talks about establishing farms in Denmark. “The idea is to actually revive the ocean through our farming methods,” says Smith, “and make this as affordable as possible for farmers to do themselves – meaning minimal skills and minimal capital costs.” And, perhaps most important, putting people to work in a job they can feel good about. “To pit working-class people against environmentalists is the biggest trick,” says Smith. “Everyday people can farm the ocean. It’s a job that gives people agency and the fulfillment of growing food, while helping to solve some of our world’s biggest challenges: climate change and food insecurity.” JN

Anthony Romero: A Civil-Rights Leader for a New Era

Mandel Ngan/Getty

Anthony Romero: A Civil-Rights Leader for a New Era

As head of the nation’s oldest and most prominent civil-liberties organization, Anthony Romero has the distinction of being one of the leading thorns in Donald Trump’s side. Since the election, the 52-year-old -attorney has overseen legal fights against virtually every facet of the administration’s agenda, filing more than 100 lawsuits on issues ranging from the Muslim ban to the rollback of voting rights to eroding the DREAM Act, undercutting LGBTQ rights and fighting for criminal-justice reform. “When civil liberties and civil rights are most imperiled,” Romero says, “it’s important to go on offense, not just defense.” This year, the ACLU’s membership has almost quadrupled to roughly 1.6 million; many of these new members are younger people energized to work at the grassroots level. “We are at a place in time when people don’t just want to write a check, they want to be put to work to make a difference,” says Romero. But first they must get through the Trump presidency. The ACLU has 350 lawyers who bring cases all across the country. “The Trump administration has 19,000 at their disposal,” he says, with 11,000 of them working for Jeff Sessions’ Justice Department. “Never underestimate the power of the federal government,” Romero says. “We need to be smart and strategic, we need to play the long game, and we need to make sure that we hold off the worst over the next four years.” JR

Simona Levi: Bringing Down the Banks

David Gonz¡Lez/EFE/ZUMA

Simona Levi: Bringing Down the Banks

Imagine if Occupy Wall Street had actually brought bankers to justice. That, in essence, is what Simona Levi and Xnet, her collective of digital activists, did in Spain. In 2012, following a year of massive protests against inequality and government corruption, Levi set her sights on a Spanish bank whose near-collapse led to a multibillion-dollar European Union bailout. Her group uncovered 8,000 e-mails sent by employees of Caja Madrid and Bankia, revealing “black” credit cards executives used to secretly spend millions on personal travel, parties and luxury items. This year, dozens of the companies’ former directors and board members received prison sentences and fines. Another case, spurred by Levi’s initiative, charged 33 Bankia executives with misrepresenting the bank’s finances. It’s a model of activists holding industry accountable that Levi continues to share at protests, seminars and art projects around the world. “To empower people, we need them to know that fighting is worth it,” she says. “Optimism is our best revenge.” GB

Billy Parish: Bringing Solar Power to the Masses

David Paul Morris/Bloomberg/Getty

Billy Parish: Bringing Solar Power to the Masses

The Green Revolution must be financed. And Billy Parish, 36, has built a billion-dollar business that has yoked the financial muscle of Wall Street to the challenge of powering the nation’s homes with clean, efficient energy. Solar panels may be getting cheaper, but a single rooftop installation can still cost $30,000. In the past, homeowners buying panels had to either front the money or work out a loan from a bank. Parish’s company, Mosaic, has simplified this market by offering a solar mortgage that customers pay down using the savings from their electricity bill. Even accounting for interest payments of five or six percent, typical homeowners will save tens of thousands of dollars in electricity costs over the life of the system – creating a windfall for reducing their carbon footprint. “He’s trying to bring to scale the changes we most need,” says Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org. “If he was the model for entrepreneurs on our planet, we’d be OK.” To date, Mosaic has financed more than $1 billion in rooftop installations. Parish considers it benevolent capitalism – business that can make money and do good. “It’s one of the biggest climate solutions,” he says. “And one of the biggest business opportunities on the planet.” TD

Cruise control: Vogt at the company's garage in San Francisco.

Justin Kaneps for Rolling Stone

Kyle Vogt: Driverless Cars for All

The future of driving is automated. The only question is: Which company will bring the first driverless car to your doorstep? Cruise Automation has an advantage that no self-driving startup can match: the industrial might of the world’s third-largest automaker. General Motors bought Cruise for more than $1 billion in 2016. In September of this year, GM announced production of autonomous Chevy Bolts. But 32-year-old Cruise founder Kyle Vogt admits that the marriage between a disruptive startup and a Big Three carmaker has not been smooth: “Engineers in Silicon Valley think you can whip up software over a weekend to do just about anything. But you can’t whip up an automotive assembly plant. I’m guilty of underestimating the challenge.”

Vogt founded Cruise in 2013 – after his previous startup, Twitch (“the ESPN of gaming”), was bought by Amazon for almost $1 billion. For Vogt, Cruise was a return to a boyhood passion. “I got obsessed with robots at a young age,” he says. He competed on BattleBots in his teens, and at MIT he took part in a contest to send a driverless truck through the desert. He founded Cruise when struck by the epiphany that “technology had caught up” to his dream for a driverless future. He adds, “It’s the coolest thing I could possibly do as an engineer.”

Today, Cruise has deployed a fleet of 130 cars. The company’s automation technology relies on a diverse mix of sensors – lasers, radios and cameras – to create a digitized “view” of traffic. “You wind up with a really vivid picture of the world,” Vogt says. Cruise cars also benefit from the “hive mind” of its networked fleet: “When one car sees a construction zone, all of the cars have that information. It’s as if that car can see around corners.”

The biggest promise of automated driving is that it can prevent accidents and save “millions of lives,” Vogt says. “Self-driving cars have no blind spots.” Eventually, Cruise will deliver “superhuman performance.” So will a kid who is 10 years old today never need a driver’s license? Says Vogt, “That’s very likely.” TD

Kamala Harris: The Democrats' New Hope

Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Kamala Harris: The Democrats’ New Hope

Kamala Harris might be the frontwoman for tomorrow’s Democratic Party. A child of immigrants, with a law degree from UC-Hastings, the first-term senator sports a formidable track record: As California’s attorney general, she battled Big Banks, securing a $25 billion settlement over robo-signed home foreclosures. She put an abusive, for-profit college conglomerate out of business. She even targeted purveyors of “revenge porn.” On Capitol Hill, she has co-sponsored Bernie Sanders’ “Medicare for All” bill, and won fans for turning the screws to Trump Republicans. In June, Attorney General Jeff Sessions quivered in front of his former Senate colleagues, saying that Harris’ tough questions were “[making] me nervous.” That seemed to be the plan. During her election-night victory speech last November, Harris said, “When our ideals and fundamental values are being attacked, do we retreat or do we fight? I say we fight.” TD

Chase Adam: A True Universal Health Care Plan

Courtesy of Watsi

Chase Adam: A True Universal Health Care Plan

Four hundred million people worldwide cannot access basic health care. In many developing countries, a chief obstacle is not lack of political will or even funding – it’s the crippling inefficiency of no-tech record-keeping that can eat up as much as 40 percent of a health care budget. Patients enroll on clipboards. Their insurance forms languish. Clinics wait weeks to collect payment. “The whole system starts to disintegrate,” says Chase Adam, co-founder of Watsi, a tech startup that’s set to modernize the monstrous bureaucracy of health care around the world.

In Adam’s vision, national health systems in developing countries will soon be able to leapfrog their health systems from the 19th century to the 21st. Watsi has pioneered a system for smartphone-powered health care. “You enroll, your data goes into an application once, you never have to fill out another form,” Adam says. The Watsi app would connect to a national database of medical and insurance records, so that when a patient visits any hospital, “they have all your info.”

The notion of cheaper, seamless, hassle-free health delivery would also be welcome in the United States. But Watsi is piloting its health technology solution at a convent-run hospital in Rwibaale, Uganda. The company began in 2012 as an online crowd-funding site. Back then, people could pitch in to fund surgeries of patients in the developing world – including the Uganda hospital. But soon the dozen or so nuns at the convent asked for some more Silicon Valley know-how. “They’d wanted to start a community health insurance system,” Adam says. A skeleton crew of Watsi staff moved to Uganda and began coding. Today, Watsi’s system serves 6,000 villagers – with insurance that costs less than $1 a month.

A San Franciscan surfer, Adam, 31, cut his teeth after college by working on health care in Haiti. A stint in the Peace Corps in Costa Rica spurred him to launch Watsi. The lightbulb went off when he saw a woman on a bus asking for donations for her son’s surgery – Adam decided that crowd-funding should serve the need.

Adam compares Watsi’s current phase to Netflix’s evolution from mailing DVDs to streaming. “Internally, we call it ‘cuspy’ – it’s right on the cusp of being possible,” he says. “But what we’re doing wouldn’t have been possible five years ago.” TD

Chido Govera: The Magic of Mushrooms

Courtesy of Chido Govera

Chido Govera: The Magic of Mushrooms

After Chido Govera was orphaned at age seven in rural
Marange, Zimbabwe, she attended a program to train young girls in mushroom
cultivation, a process that provides food and income while turning agricultural
waste into rich compost. Today, at 31, she runs the Future of Hope, which has
taught more than 2,500 students (from
Berkeley to Mongolia) a remarkably adaptable model that requires only “a
bit of water, a bit of free space and some material,” she says.
Gallon-size plastic bags are filled with mushroom seed, then placed on
shelves. About three weeks later, mature oyster mushrooms are
ready to eat or sell – the spent substrate can be recycled as compost. “There’s
no one solution to solve all the issues that affect our society,” she
says. “I wanted to simplify the art of cultivating mushrooms so it can be
accessible to all the people who need it.” GB

Jordi Riba: Psychedelics to Heal Your Brain

Courtesy of Jordi Riba

Jordi Riba: Psychedelics to Heal Your Brain

In Barcelona, a
soft-spoken pharmacologist named Jordi Riba is at the forefront of a scientific
vanguard exploring the medical applications of psychoactive substances. From
his lab at the Sant Pau Institute of Biomedical Research, Riba has spent two
decades investigating the neurochemical processes behind ayahuasca, a
plant-based hallucinogen from the Amazon famous for elaborate visions and
heightened emotional states. He’s identified possible structural changes in the
brains of long-term ayahuasca drinkers, specifically a measurable thinning of
the posterior cingulate cortex, a region of the brain associated with the ego.
Even more remarkably, last year, Riba discovered that ayahuasca, rich with
compounds known as “harmala alkaloids,” can promote the creation of
new brain cells. If the potency of these alkaloids can be scaled up, he
believes, they could provide breakthroughs on a range of currently untreatable
neurological conditions, like Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s. “I’m
convinced that in 50 years we’ll know a lot more than we do now about the
brain,” Riba says. “I don’t think it will be long before we see
psychedelics incorporated into the therapeutic arsenal.” AZ

Tristan Harris: The Ethicist of Silicon Valley

Courtesy of Tristan Harris

Tristan Harris: The Ethicist of Silicon Valley

When Tristan Harris sold his tech startup to Google, at age 26, he was already uncomfortable with tech’s fixation on capturing users’ attention. Studies show the average smartphone owner spends more than four hours a day on their device. And engineers in Silicon Valley are only fine-tuning algorithms to keep us using devices more. At Google, Harris took on the title “design ethicist and product philosopher” after his PowerPoint, “A Call to Minimize Distraction & Respect Users’ Attention,” went viral inside the office. Harris warned of the enormous power a few mostly white male employees wield over a billion minds. “There is this lie that all this stuff is good for people,” he says. “What they actually have to do by their stock price is to capture not just the same attention as yesterday, but also more next quarter.” Today, he runs Time Well Spent, a foundation fighting the “fundamental misalignment between the industry’s goal of capturing attention and what would be best for society.” “We have to be willing to confront something as big as the advertising model,” Harris says. “We need to serve people, not serve Nike.” TS

Alex Steffen: Build Up, Not Out

Courtesy of Alex Steffen

Alex Steffen: Build Up, Not Out

Alex Steffen, the
author of Carbon Zero, thinks crowded megacities could be the ideal frontier
for fighting climate change. As cities get denser, their per-capita energy
costs drop. By 2050, he envisions humanity scattered among a constellation of
walkable urban centers, powered by decentralized green energy, with a largely
car-free population living in eco-friendly housing. At a certain point, he
says, “people buy efficient and sustainable buildings just because they
work better.” In the next decade, he foresees a “snap forward,”
the “start of an inevitable process of the zero-carbon future
out-competing the high-carbon future.” The worst mistake we can make “is
to think the world of the next 10 years will be like the world of the last 10,”
Steffen says. The decisions we make now will be “the difference between a
planet with serious climate challenges but a bright future and one working with catastrophe.” SE

Daniel Gross: Diverse Artificial Intelligence

Courtesy of Y Combinator

Daniel Gross: Diverse Artificial Intelligence

intelligence is often associated with dystopian scenarios – from job loss to
robotic overlords – but for Daniel Gross, who guides AI startups at Y
Combinator, one of the most frightening is a handful of conglomerates
controlling a world of thinking computers. At 22, Gross led a machine-learning
group at Apple and saw how tech giants dominated the field. “That is bad
for the world,” he says. The imbalance of power could lead to groupthink,
data control and extreme social inequality. “I’m personally on this holy
mission to ensure there are many startups that are competing, not just five
monolithic companies,” he says. Earlier this year, he co-founded AI Grant,
a nonprofit for experimental projects – fellows are working on everything from
file compression to brain scans. “The weirder or more novel,” says
Gross, “the more excited we are.” He believes that once-tedious or
dangerous work, like job-applicant screening and crop harvesting, will be
entirely performed by machines. But it’s going to take a diverse group of
developers. “Every generation needs its existential worry,” Gross
says. “We can’t have just one Borg company doing everything from search
results to trucking.” BPE

the future issue andrea dutton

Sea change: Dutton beside a fossilized coral reef in the Florida Keys in 2016.

Joshua Bright

Andrea Dutton: The Forensics of Global Warming

According to geologist Andrea Dutton, a 44-year-old assistant professor at the University of Florida, fossilized coral might hold the grim answers to the future of our swiftly warming planet. Not long ago, I walked with her through an old limestone quarry in the Florida Keys – the walls were etched with imprints of ancient corals that lived many thousands of years ago, when the seas were much higher than they are today. “I think of myself as a detective,” she says. “By understanding what happened in the past, we can get a better understanding of what might happen in the future.”

Specifically, Dutton is investigating one of the most important scientific questions of our time, one upon which millions of lives, and trillions of dollars in real estate and other investments, depend: As our planet continues to heat up, how fast will sea levels rise in the coming decades?

Much of Dutton’s research has focused on a period approximately 125,000 years ago, after the last retreat of the glaciers, when temperatures on Earth were almost the same as they are today, but seas were 20 or 30 feet higher. Where did that extra water come from – Greenland? Antarctica? Understanding how fast those ice sheets collapsed previously might offer clues to how fast they will collapse in the future. Dutton is particularly focused on West Antarctica, which contains enough ice to raise the seas by 10 feet. “If West Antarctica is unstable,” she says, “that could be a very big problem for coastal cities in the future.”

Dutton is not the only scientist interested in this question. But she has pursued it with a kind of urgency that belies her cool manner, traveling the world to seek out well-preserved fossilized coral outcroppings that help her learn the story rising water can tell about the sensitivity of the Earth’s climate. To Dutton, coral fossils can be read like tree rings, and dating how fast the corals grew on top of each other can reveal not just how high the water rose in the past, but how fast.

Still, it’s a fiendishly intricate tale – land is always in motion, rising and falling due to pressures from below, and the oceans are pushed around by gravity in mysterious ways. To come up with anything like an “average” sea-level rise for any point in history, Dutton has to factor in a startling amount of physics, from ice-sheet dynamics to glacial rebound of the North American continent. “The more you learn about how the Earth works,” Dutton says, “the more complex it becomes.”

Dutton is a single mom with two young kids. Her
Facebook page is full of pictures of their soccer games and stories like the
frog that accidentally got puréed in her garbage disposal. “I’m a
scientist, and I love my work,” she says. “But I’m not just doing
this because I love science. I’m doing this because I care about the future,
and the kind of world we’re leaving to our kids.” JG

the future issue opus 12

Steve Wedman

Kendra Kuhl, Nicholas Flanders and Etosha Cave: How to Rid the World of CO2

One of the keys to solving global warming is: How can we make carbon pollution useful? Opus 12, founded by former Stanford scholars Kendra Kuhl, Nicholas Flanders and Etosha Cave (from left), has built a reactor to trap the greenhouse gas and convert it into carbon-based compounds that are used to make plastics and liquid fuels. The point, says Flanders, the CEO, is to “recycle our customers’ emissions into new products rather than just throwing that CO2 away.” And Opus 12 isn’t the only company doing it: In June, the world’s first industrial-scale facility to suck CO2 out of the air opened in Switzerland (waste will be used to grow vegetables); a plant in India is using captured carbon to make baking soda. “It’s never a silver bullet, it’s silver buckshot,” says Flanders. “Rethinking our economy from being extractive to one that makes use of waste products just makes a lot of sense.” ZC

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

the future issue

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

the future issue

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

the future issue

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

the future issue

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

the future issue

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

the future issue

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

the future issue

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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