Growing human organs to ease the deadly shortages facing patients desperate for transplants. Deploying organic molecules to store a million times more data than silicon can. Harnessing the unused processing power on your desktop to attack gigantic computational problems, from genetic analysis to spotting hidden customer trends. Massively expanding the data capacity of optical networks to turbocharge the information superhighway. Modifying plants to grow cheap, lifesaving vaccines.
If these sound like far-out, grandly ambitious ideas-well, they are. But they may touch your life sooner than you think, since all of these conceptions are close enough to reality to have received patents in the year 2000. And, as a result of this combination of sweeping vision and nitty-gritty reality, they've been selected by the editors of Technology Review for "5 Patents to Watch," a special section highlighting some of last year's most intriguing and potentially world-changing patents.
Of course, we cannot say with certainty which of the 182,223 patents issued last year by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office will prove to be the most significant in the long run. And the insiders in this game know that. When Technology Review asked MIT Technology Licensing Office director Lita Nelsen to help pinpoint last year's most significant patents, she just chuckled: "You want to borrow my dart board?"
That didn't stop us, though. And we didn't use her dart board, either. Instead, we established some solid criteria that made the task manageable. The patents we chose had to be at the cutting edges of important fields. They had to go beyond scientific advances to represent technological trends with the potential to transform existing businesses or create new industries.
Each of the final five is at the center of a current technology hotbed. Many others are working in each of these fields. Therefore, we decided to put our selections in context by showcasing other notable predecessor, rival or complementary patents. These appear in tables accompanying the patents' descriptions.
Joining the section on 5 Patents to Watch, you'll find our second annual Patent Scorecard, which tracks the U.S. patenting activity of 150 leading firms in eight key high-tech sectors (see "Companies Squeeze the Patent Pipeline," TR March/April 2000). By reading the five patent profiles and then reading the scorecard, you'll get both an in-depth look at some technology hot spots and a broad overview of patenting trends by industry. Let us know how you like it.