Home Culture Culture Lists

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.

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