The Independent/Bosch Technology Horizons Award: The winners

What's your vision of the next big technological change? The winners of our competition have their say
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The Independent Online

In March, The Independent, Bosch and The Royal Academy of Engineering launched the Technology Horizons Award, offering students aged 14 to 24 the chance to have their articles printed in The Independent - and to win cash prizes of up to £1,000.

The 200th anniversary of the birth of Isambard Kingdom Brunel was in April 2006. Brunel's contribution to engineering and technology during the industrial revolution in 19th-century Britain shaped much of the way we live our lives today, and he continues to inspire. The competition asked: "What is your vision of the next technological revolution?"

There were two age categories, 14 to 18 and 19 to 24. Students in the first category were asked to write a 500-word article and the older students 750 words. There were prizes for the schools with the greatest number of entrants.

The Royal Academy of Engineering said: "Technology is increasingly important to modern living. Young people must take a critical look at emerging technologies if they are to make informed decisions on the advantages and disadvantages. For many entrants, this competition will be the first step towards a deeper engagement with technology and engineering."

The entries were judged in July, and culminated in an awards ceremony, hosted by Johnny Ball. Speakers included Andy Cowell, chief engineer in engine development for the Mercedes McLaren Team.

November will see the launch of the second competition, on the theme "Ecology and Technology, how can modern technologies protect the environment?"

The winners of the Technology Horizons Award competition are:

Aged 14-18:

1st: Sophie Walker, Charterhouse School, Godalming

2nd: Christopher Byrne

Runners-up: Hayley Bonner; Kelly Brendel; Chloe Jane Cotgrove; Ethan Fowler; Daniel Janes

Aged 19-24:

1st: Sang Nguyen, St John's College, Cambridge

2nd: James Horton

Runners-up: Nina Fowler; Elizabeth James; Naaila Khan; Matthew Linares; Dan Lockton.

Winning schools: Bodedern School, Anglesey; Warriner School, Banbury

Winning essay 14-18 age group

In so many ways our own Brave New World is poised on the edge of an abyss. The Daily Shriek trumpets climate change, the miseries of Aids and TB, globalisation, bio-warfare, twin-tower terrorism, the yellow peril of China, population explosion and - much worse - the end of cheap four-star. Surely, all is lost.

I can't help smiling. In my mind's eye I see Isambard Kingdom Brunel in his big hat. He's not standing on the edge of that abyss, but hanging by his toenails to get a better look into it. In his hand, his trusty notebook. In his mind, the engineering solutions: tension or compression, iron or steel. The biggest hole in history is the best reason to build the biggest bridge, the longest span, the cheapest drug, and the cleanest fuel. Yes, it's the best reason to build a brighter future.

And look at the tools that are coming on stream. What would IKB have made with energy from fusion, nano-technology, TCP/IP, petaflops, the double-edged light sabre of genetic engineering, and - nearly forgot - sudoku on the mobile phone.

Well, we are going to find out because the world is now stuffed full of IKBs. A century of emancipation and education - only in the developed world, sadly, so far - has seen to that. The opportunities are truly endless but the bridge over the abyss has to be planned, paid for and built. "We the people" get the bill and the building.

So who project manages the Great Work? Who is the mastermind who can plan the route ahead? Who decides whether your DNA is defective and must be terminated? Who decides who earns and who learns? Who controls the purse strings? George Bush and Tony Blair? Mega Conglomerate and Media Mogul? Now, that is scary. Tell me it's not so. Tell me there's a better way.

Our political and economic world is simply not up to the job. Cringe at their first attempts at the 21st century: compulsory ID cards, epsilon-minus eugenics, crocodile concern for Africa's poor black oilfields, the hundred years' war on terror, no clean water for the world, no control over energy abuse. No hope.

"If there's hope," another George - Orwell - once wisely wrote, "it lies with the proles." If we the people don't realise that we must take control of our own destiny, then all is indeed lost. We need new forms of government. Representative party democracy is a sick joke. Place your plant-dye cross on a scrap of tree bark and get back to the factory for another five years. You've just signed away all your rights to influence the important decisions.

Compare that sterility with the vibrant political discussions on the internet. It is now possible for the people to make those decisions for themselves. True democracy is but a mouse click or SMS away.

The future is indeed technologically challenged. But there is hope. The small man in the big hat is still here. And this time we are Legion.

Sophie Walker

Winning essay 19-24 age group: 'The pupils simultaneously learn the same information, almost like reading the teacher's mind'

We learn by using tried and trusted methods such as reading books, attending lectures and from our past experiences. What we need is something that can bypass these tedious conventional methods; something entirely effortless.

Learning is simply making a new connection between the nerves in your brain (if you didn't know this, then you have probably just made one). Suppose someone inside an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machine begins learning by, say, reading a book. The machine can scan his or her brain activity and determine precisely where these events occur. This data is sent through to a network of electrodes attached to nearby peoples' heads. These electrodes then stimulate exactly the same neural activity in these people as the reader. This effectively means that as one teacher learns, the pupils can simultaneously learn exactly the same information, almost like reading the teacher's mind.

The electrodes operate by remotely activating and commanding teams of nanobots, injected into the students, with precisely programmed instructions. The nanobots work inside a student's brain to alter the neural network structure and make new connections that mimic the connections recently forged in the teacher. The nanobots are powered by the same electricity that passes along the student's nervous system. The nanobots contain samples of the pupil's DNA. Together with data from the Genome Project, this allows them to extend nerve tissue and synapses along a predetermined path. The framework of this path consists of open-ended carbon nanotubes.

As we do not all have the same brain size and shape, a calibration nanobot must first be used to map a certain part of the teacher's brain to the corresponding part of the student's brain. This nanobot uses a solid-state gyroscope to help pinpoint its relative position in the brain. After scanning both teacher and learner's brains, 3D holographic projections of the brains are stored and compared by an onboard computer that calculates which brain sections match up.

This concept can be extended to large-scale use by uploading the datastream to the internet. This enables everyone who has access to the Web and a NERD (neural emission replication device) to attain knowledge from individual transmitters around the world. People will be able to tune into whatever they want to learn, because there will be thousands of trained readers learning, and thereby teaching, a plethora of different subjects. What we then have is comparable to a supreme upgrade in TV. But why stop at reading? Perhaps, the NERD will gradually conform to the trend of miniaturisation and, following the introduction of cheap room-temperature superconductors, we will see mass produced portable MRI machines.

No, David Beckham's latest fashion accessory is not an eccentric cumbersome hat. It's a portable NERD radio transmitter that provides young children with the opportunity to learn how to play football from the best in the business. While Beckham does all the sweat-drippingly hard work, all we will have to do in order to be as good as him, is lie back and make sure we imitate his fashion statement (albeit with a receiver rather than a transmitter).

Beware. There lurk some ominous consequences of the NERD. Over-eager parents who simply wish to give their child the best possible head start in life, by providing a high-quality education, may fall into a terribly naive trap. "Aha," they think, "I will make sure my child is the most intelligent child around." Thus the poor child is perpetually inundated with brain input scans from experts in all fields. By the age of three, the toddler knows relativity and quantum theory inside out.

However, when it is so easy to learn without lifting a finger, that is exactly what the child faces. When the child is accidentally unhooked from the NERD receiver at the age of five, the parents discover to their horror that they had completely forgotten to teach their little child how to walk. Barely able to summon the strength to lift a finger, the child collapses in a heap exclaiming, "Unfortunately my centre of mass has shifted such that the resultant torque due to gravity has caused to me to accelerate in the direction of the origin of the gravitational field. Please provide assistance." Ironically, had the parents been better educated about raising the child, this whole sorry predicament might have been avoided. So you see, even with the most advanced innovative technology, some people will never learn....

(In short, there may be a technological revolution that allows people to influence the way other people think. Such a technology needs to be used very wisely if at all.)

Sang Nguyen