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Emerging technologies include hydrogen cars, biocomputing

The car of the future may be propelled by a fuel cell you could refill with hydrogen at your home. Rather than being mostly mechanical, this car is based on electronics housed in a skateboard-like chassis on which the Batmobile-like passenger compartment sits like a laptop computer on a docking station.

Lawrence D. Burns, vice president of General Motors research and development and planning, described this GM concept car at Technology Review magazine's Emerging Technologies Conference at MIT on Sept. 24-25.

As part of a panel on "Where Technology Is Heading," Burns showed images of the working prototype of the Hy-Wire, which has no internal combustion engine, transmission or drive train. The driver sits in front of a huge window, twisting a joystick to accelerate and squeezing it to brake. The controls can be shifted from the left to the right side of the vehicle.

In addition to its innovative design features, the car is completely pollution-free. But switching from a system that is 98 percent dependent on petroleum to one primarily dependent on hydrogen will take some doing, Burns said.

Besides learning about cool new cars, conference attendees heard about drug giant Pfizer Inc.'s work on genetically targeted new drugs and Intel Corp.'s work on wireless network sensors that can monitor locations from afar. The sensors are being used to monitor microclimates affecting the human-sensitive nesting habits of Leach's storm petrels, a western North Atlantic seabird that returns to Great Duck Island, Maine, only during the breeding season.

Several hundred people in academia and industry attended sessions on topics ranging from stem cells and genomics to the future of e-commerce and nanofabrication. On Wednesday, the third group of TR100 awards were presented to a selected 100 top innovators, and two individual awards were also presented. For details, go to

One of the conference's four keynote speakers, Dell founder and CEO Michael Dell, said his company plans to move into the "digital home" market. "The PC is not just a computing device," he said. "It's entertainment. It's music. It's videos. It's television. When you look at the other technologies in the home, they are proprietary. With an IP-based network, you could have everything connected."

Scientists and pharmaceutical companies have had "a long history of the intersection of biology and science, but what we need to incorporate now is computer science," said Todd Golub, director of cancer genomics at the Whitehead Institute/MIT Center for Genomic Research. Powerful computers and systems biology are key to figuring out which of the approximately 30,000 genes in the human genome need to be targeted for specific diseases, he said. One result of such work is that researchers can pinpoint two different types of leukemia just by looking at the genome, which is critical for getting the right treatment to the right patient.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 1, 2003.

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