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When Steve Jobs died, there was a lot of talk about who would be the next Steve Jobs. But the truth is, rarely can one person reshape the future, and breakthroughs are rarely the product of a corporate titan. Still, new technologies and the people that create them can give us a glimpse of what our future might look like. So as we head into 2013, we decided to ask Steve Henn, NPR's Silicon Valley correspondent, to tell us who he will be keeping an eye on in the coming year.
STEVE HENN, BYLINE: In Silicon Valley and around the world, there are hundreds, really thousands of folks who are toiling away on new technologies, convinced that the things they're building will transform the way we live. And sometimes, they're right. Regina Dugan says there's a lesson in that.
REGINA DUGAN: You should be nice to nerds.
HENN: Dugan used to run DARPA, the Defense Department's advanced research and projects agency.
DUGAN: In fact, I'd go so far as to say if you don't already have a nerd in your life, you should get one.
HENN: DARPA helped create self-driving cars and supported the invention of the Internet. Dugan is a huge fan of the nerd.
DUGAN: I'm just saying.
HENN: So I decided to take Dugan's advice and introduce you to five techies whose research and work I will be keeping a close eye on in the coming year. Nerd number one is Regina Dugan herself. At DARPA, she oversaw a diverse group of projects from developing a space glider that flies at 20 times the speed of sound to research into what it would take to bring high-tech manufacturing back to the United States. Now, Dugan is at Google, overseeing advanced research and technology for Motorola.
JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: She's keeping mum about what she's up to. I'm intensely curious, but in the meantime, on to nerd number two. His name is Babak Parviz. Ten years ago, when he was a newly minted professor working on nano technology, he would get up every morning thinking about his work and blindly grope his way to the bathroom to put on his contact lenses.
BABAK PARVIZ: So I had this always in my mind of how to make small things, how to put these small things into new places. And every morning, I was staring at this piece of plastic at the tip of my finger.
HENN: It wasn't long before he wondered if he could put tiny circuits on a contact lens itself.
PARVIZ: What would that enable? And that got us started in a pretty interesting journey.
HENN: Now, Parviz is developing smart lenses that can talk to devices like your phone and then display text. Others lenses could read body sugar levels someday, and a few are operated with such low power they can run on solar. Parviz now splits his time between the University of Washington and Google where he founded Google Glass. Google Glasses are smart, wirelessly connected glasses. Think of them as another tiny screen, but this one is less than an inch from your eye. So on to nerd number three.
ANDREAS RAPTOPOULOS: I'm Andreas Raptopoulos, the co-founder and CEO of Matternet.
HENN: His idea is kind of out there. In fact, it might be easier to grasp if we start with the problem he's trying to fix.
RAPTOPOULOS: So there's one billion people in the world today that do not have access to all-season roads. So that means that in the rainy season, when roads are washed out, there's 1 billion people in the world that are disconnected from all social and economic activity.
HENN: That means no medicine, no mail, no trade. So Raptopoulos wants to build an automated network of light-weight electric drones to carry small packages. He calls this idea Matternet. The drones would move matter like the Internet moves bits. And he argues the cost would be minuscule compared to paving over a huge portion of the planet to build new roads. But not all nerds are radicals. Some are just trying to tweak what already exists and make it more powerful. That's the case with nerd number four.
GINA BIANCHINI: My name is Gina Bianchini, and I'm the founder of Mightybell.
HENN: 2012 was tough on social Internet companies, but Bianchini believes this wave is just beginning. With Mightybell, she hopes to unlock social media's power by helping small groups of people organize easily and quickly in the real world. And my final nerd to watch, nerd number five, is Apple executive Eddie Cue. There's been endless speculation this year about how Apple could reshape how the world watches TV. If that vision comes to pass in 2013, Cue, who now runs software at Apple, will play a big role making it happen.
But he won't do it alone. In fact, none of the men and women I just mentioned do anything alone, as Babak Parviz pointed out in a recent Ted talk...
BABAK PARVIZ: I would hazard a guess that the era of solo star scientist is probably over.
HENN: Today's big problems are so complex, so interdisciplinary that all of these people make their mark working in teams. Steve Henn, NPR News, Silicon Valley.
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