15 visionaries who have already seen the future

18 Dec 2017

Image: Brian A Jackson/Shutterstock

Working with the most advanced science and technology, these visionaries are mapping out the shifting landscape of the 21st century.

Some of us are just looking to 2018 while others have the vision to see further.

Here are the pioneers working at the forefront of science and technology, developing artificial intelligence, robotics, smart materials, medical devices and the new forms of transport that will define the 21st century.

But this advanced sci-tech revolution needs the thinkers, too, to foresee the challenges up ahead and keep us on a track that is both progressive and inclusive.

Genevieve Bell

Technologist and anthropologist Dr Genevieve Bell is one of the foremost, sharpest minds in answering the question: how will technology and humans merge now and in the future?

‘It is time for a conversation about our possible digital and human futures, and about the world we might want to make together’

After spending almost two decades at Intel, holding roles including vice-president and senior fellow of research at the company’s social science research groups, Bell returned to her native Australia in 2017 to become director of the 3A Institute – for Autonomy, Assurance and Agency – at Australian National University. She will now lead a major 10-year project to expand the institute’s computer science and engineering prowess to make Australia a major international player in these fields.

Michael Buckwald

Few companies have the tech world as excited for virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) as Leap Motion, and CEO Michael Buckwald has been instrumental in its funding success. Earlier this year, Leap Motion raised $50m to develop better hand tracking. With this investment, the company plans to bring its technology out of the consumer space and into new applications such as education, healthcare and industrial training simulation.

“With the rapid adoption of VR/AR over the next few years within industries – and integration into how we live, work and play – it is essential that we lay the groundwork for a magical user experience through a unified design philosophy,” said Buckwald in October.

John Chambers

After 20 years on the board at Cisco, one of the biggest networks companies on the planet, John Chambers announced in September that he was stepping down for “the next chapter” in his life.

Over the course of a few decades, Chambers has consistently been on point when it comes to major internet and mobile trends, most notably for calling on the US – and other nations, for that matter – to create a national digital economic policy. Not content with retiring, Chambers has begun working with innovative IoT start-ups, including one that uses smart technology to farm crickets for food.

Robin Chase

Robin Chase

Robin Chase, co-founder of Zipcar and lead of Meadow Networks speaking at Inspirefest 2016. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

As we’ve seen with the surge in interest in autonomous cars and trucks, the transport sector is being shook up in a big way, and Robin Chase is playing a part in that. Her big jump into the sector came with the founding of Zipcar, which claims to be the world’s largest car-sharing platform, which she then followed up with Veniam, a networks company that mobilises vehicle data.

However, Chase is also now working on developing the sector’s very fabric with Meadow Networks, a firm that advises city, state and federal government agencies about wireless applications in the transportation sector, and their impacts on innovation and economic development.

Jonathan Coleman

Jonathan Coleman

Prof Jonathan Coleman, AMBER principal investigator and professor in the School of Physics at TCD. Image: Naoise Culhane

Ireland’s wizard of graphene – the wonder material just one atom thick – is arguably Prof Jonathan Coleman of AMBER. Having received €2.2m in European funding last year, Coleman and his research team went on to find a way to print electronics in 2D using the flexible, durable and conductive material.

This discovery opens the path for industries such as ICT and pharmaceuticals to cheaply print a host of electronic devices. This includes everything from solar cells to LEDs, with applications including interactive smart food and drug labels as well as next-generation banknote security and e-passports.

Jens Ducrée

Jens Ducree

Prof Jens Ducrée, director of the Fraunhofer Project Centre at DCU. Image: Nick Bradshaw

As founding director of the Fraunhofer Project Centre for Embedded Bioanalytical Systems at Dublin City University (DCU), Prof Jens Ducrée’s research into microfluidics could enable us to perform a number of lab tests from the comfort of our own home. His work is pioneering ‘lab-on-a-chip’ technology whereby a person can place a drop of blood into a chip and diagnose potential issues, saving considerable time, effort and money.

The German native has published more than 300 peer-reviewed contributions to microfluidics, has 20 patents to his name and has won more than €15m in funding to support his research.

David Moloney

David Moloney

David Moloney, director of machine-vision technology at Intel. Image: Maxwells

On stage at Inspirefest 2017, David Moloney, director of machine-vision technology at the Intel New Technology Group, went as far as to say that the onset of AI will bring a greater revolution than when electricity was first harnessed.

‘The genie is well and truly out of the bottle. Embrace AI or be flattened’

Since making the move to the Silicon Valley giant after the surprise takeover of Movidius, where he was CTO, Moloney has spoken openly to urge countries such as Ireland to start putting resources in place to get ahead of the curve when it comes to AI.

Andrew Ng

A towering figure in the field of AI research, Andrew Ng has transformed the AI strategies of Google and Baidu, where he laid the foundation for some of their biggest products to date.

With a strong passion for AI development, Ng left Baidu earlier this year to both offer an online course in the technology and establish a $150m fund for AI companies. He then recently announced a new company, Landing.ai, which aims to develop a wide range of AI transformation programmes in industry, from the introduction of new technologies and reshaping organisational structure, to employee training.

Valeria Nicolosi

Valeria Nicolosi, Amber

AMBER researcher Prof Valeria Nicolosi. Image: Naoise Culhane

It is something of a coup to have someone such as Prof Valeria Nicolosi working here in Ireland, with her work in nanomaterials and advanced microscopy making her Europe’s only five-time European Research Council awardee. Working at the AMBER centre at Trinity College Dublin (TCD), Nicolosi is leading the EU’s 3D2DPrint project to develop entirely new types of energy storage devices that can charge in just a few minutes, last longer than today’s batteries and be hidden within any kind of material.

In the span of just a few years, her research has brought in more than €12m in funding for TCD and her related projects.

Lorna Ross

Lorna Ross

Lorna Ross, Fjord’s new group design director and studio lead. Image: John Ohle

With a design career spanning 25 years, Lorna Ross has been a principal research scientist at the MIT Media Lab and a pioneer of wearable technologies. One of her accomplishments is Project RED, a whole new set of tools to identify patients with the capacity to perform dialysis at home, which she described at Inspirefest 2016.

Earlier this year, and after eight years as the design director of the Mayo Clinic Center for Innovation, Ross returned to Ireland to lead Accenture’s new Fjord studio in Dublin as its group design director and studio lead. A futurist at heart, Ross has been widely recognised for her ability to anticipate shifts in the social, cultural and economic context for design.

Patricia Scanlon

Patricia Scanlon

Patricia Scanlon on stage at Inspirefest 2017. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

It has been a year to remember for Inspirefest speaker Patricia Scanlon, founder of Soapbox Labs, as her children’s speech technology platform celebrated millions of euro in funding from the EU and Astia Angels.

‘I knew how big voice technology was getting, but no one was looking at kids’ stuff’

Starting out as a research engineer at Bell Labs, Scanlon’s idea for Soapbox Labs came after she realised the market for child-oriented speech-recognition apps was pretty limited. Under her leadership, Soapbox’s technology has been licensed to third-party developers and platforms to voice-enable any technology product for reading, robotics, language learning, smart toys and more.

Ray Kurzweil

Ray Kurzweil. Image: Bill Wadman

Futurist Ray Kurzweil is an author and director of engineering at Google. He predicts that AI will reach human-level intelligence by 2029. While anyone could make a prediction like that, few are as heavily weighted as Kurzweil, who has previously made scarily accurate predictions. In the late ’90s, Kurzweil wrote almost 150 predictions for the year 2009. More than 85pc were correct, and 78pc were exactly to the year.

‘We have already eliminated all jobs several times in human history’

The good news is that Kurzweil’s vast knowledge of AI hasn’t led him to believe that the technology will destroy employment. In fact, he is confident that history will repeat itself, and jobs as we currently know them will be replaced with others.

Conor Walsh

Conor Walsh

Conor Walsh, associate professor of engineering and applied sciences at Harvard University. Image: Rolex Awards

Irish man Conor Walsh is excelling in the field of robotics – particularly, soft robotics – at the Harvard John A Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, as well as being a core faculty member at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. With his help, thousands of people with movement difficulties could one day walk comfortably using an exosuit designed using soft robotics, which would be capable of being worn under clothing.

Walsh’s suit saw him being named one of 10 winners of the prestigious international Rolex awards for engineering achievements.

Andy Way

Professor Andy Way is a machine translation expert

Prof Andy Way of Dublin City University. Image: DCU

Prof Andy Way of DCU is a machine-translation expert and has been involved in the field for 30 years. He currently serves as deputy director of the Adapt Centre, the work of which is hoping to dissolve language barriers by deploying machine translation to break down “key challenges in enabling content to flow fluently across the globe”, according to the man himself.

The work Way is doing has far-reaching consequences and could be leveraged for anything from demystifying holidays abroad, to helping aid workers communicate with locals in the aftermath of natural disasters.

Michael Zaworotko

Michael Zaworotko

Prof Michael Zaworotko, now co-director of the Synthesis and Solid State Pharmaceutical Centre and Bernal Institute chair. Image: Connor McKenna

Considered one of the best living chemists in the world, Prof Michael Zaworotko made the move to Ireland in 2013 to become chair of crystal engineering at University of Limerick’s Bernal Institute.

Zaworotko has almost 400 peer-reviewed papers to his name and sits in the top percentile of the most-cited researchers. He helped UL to get its first paper in the journal Science thanks to materials he developed, which have the potential to lead to novel CO2 storage and energy-generation devices. For his efforts, Zaworotko was named as Science Foundation Ireland’s Researcher of the Year for 2017, and is now co-director of the Synthesis and Solid State Pharmaceutical Centre.


Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM. Super Early Bird Tickets for Inspirefest 2018 are on sale until 24 December 2017.

Updated, 8.30am, 20 December 2017: This article was updated to clarify that David Moloney was previously CTO of Movidius.