Tech’s top ten thinkers

Visionaries, engineers, number crunchers, sociologists: technology’s top thinkers are as diverse as technology itself.

These are the ideas people, the worriers and the insightful scientists that can both imagine future directions and predict the impact that new innovations will have.

We haven’t chosen the biggest names, or those who have risen to prominence by talking a good game, because behind the scenes there are often brilliant minds with a vision for the future or engineers with a passion.

While they don’t always receive the recognition of, say, Steve Jobs or Larry Ellison, these ten are quietly shaping the technology industry in extraordinary ways.

THE BUG SWATTER: Nathan Myhrvold

Nathan Myhrvold Independent wealth has set Nathan Myhrvold’s mind free since leaving his role as Microsoft’s chief technology officer in 1999.

A true Renaissance man – he is a world-champion barbecue chef, a palaeontologist who has uncovered multiple T-Rex skeletons, a wildlife photographer and a hi-tech cookbook author – Myhrvold spends his days brainstorming innovations with his colleagues at venture capital firm Intellectual Ventures.

The firm makes money by licensing patented ideas and has more than 3,000 still waiting to be fully explored.“We take some of our best inventors and try to come up with ideas for solving problems in the world,” Myhrvold said at a recent Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) conference. “And we try to solve them with dramatic, out-of-the-box ideas.”

Ideas such as using the company’s supercomputer to tackle malaria. Myhrvold’s model covered every road and village in Madagascar, and included rainfall, humidity and temperature data to predict standing pools of water where mosquitoes breed. The model mapped the mosquitoes over a year, showing their movements, and the resulting peaks in malaria infections. His team then used high-speed camera footage to capture the mosquitoes’ wing beats, targeting the insect rather than the disease itself.

Myhrvold describes how mosquitoes could be blasted out of the sky using cheap consumer electronics

Myhrvold describes how mosquitoes could be blasted out of the sky using cheap consumer electronics. “Your Blu-ray player has a very cheap blue laser in it; a scanner has a mirror galvanometer in it that can steer very accurately where a laser is aimed; and there’s signal processing in digital cameras,” he said. “What if we could put all that together to shoot them out of the sky with lasers?”

Protection from malaria is only one role for this laser battery – Myhrvold says that by shining a non-lethal laser on a bug before zapping it, the technology could identify the insect before destruction. This would offer a potential alternative to pesticides, without killing beneficial insects such as bees.


Urs Holzle When your company has datacenters the size of two football pitches, you need a big brain to keep them running smoothly. Nobody is closer to the cutting edge of this than Urs Hölzle.

An “old-school” computer scientist, Hölzle has been key in the move to massive datacenters at Google, in part due to his work writing compilers to make code work across platforms. Hölzle has reshaped the way people think about computing at scale, solving problems that have hampered mainframes for decades.

In The Datacenter as a Computer, Hölzle argued that modern datacenters were different from traditional hosting facilities and shouldn’t be viewed as a collection of co-located servers. Instead, Hölzle says it’s crucial to treat the datacenter as one warehouse-scale computer that can be tweaked to improve performance.

And in today’s green and cost-conscious environment, Hölzle is developing new ideas for choosing the type of processors and number of cores used in datacenters. Large-scale computing is least efficient when it’s doing the most regular tasks, he wrote in The Case for Energy-Proportional Computing. “Addressing this perfect mismatch will require significant rethinking of components and systems – energy proportionality should become a primary design goal.”

He has outlined how improvements in the energy profile of every system component, particularly the memory and disk subsystems, could double server efficiency.

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