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'Technology benefiting humanity'

A new way of delivering an old technology - radio - has come up a winner in a new program of awards to honor "technology benefiting humanity."

The Freeplay Foundation of South Africa was recognized earlier this month for its work in producing wind-up or solar-powered radios that can be used where elbow grease and sunshine are easier to find than the Energizer bunny.

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Since the 1960s, the widespread availability of inexpensive portable radios has revolutionized mass access to news, information, and educational programming in the developing world.

But radios run on batteries, or off a power grid, and neither can be taken for granted in poorer countries. With one of Freeplay's wind-up radios, however, 60 turns of the crank can provide enough charge for 45 minutes of listening.

The awards that Freeplay shared in - $50,000 for each of five winners - were given by the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, Calif., and the Center for Science, Technology, and Society (CSTS) at Santa Clara University a private institution in Silicon Valley. Applied Materials Inc., a chipmaker, presented the awards. Former President Gerald Ford was the keynote speaker at the presentation dinner Nov. 1.

Too often, says James Koch, director of the CSTS, prizes in science and technology honor work whose practical application lies well in the future. "And so we wondered, 'Why not give a prize for technology innovation already benefiting humanity?' "

Accordingly, the judging panels sought to honor innovations that have achieved measurable results, with a potential impact on all humanity. "We wanted to portray technology as an agent of hope," says Mr. Koch.

Freeplay was recognized for its contributions to the field of education. CZBioMed, of Fayetteville, N.C., was honored for furthering human equality through its work in the development of prosthetic limbs, adapted for use in developing countries.

The Institute for the Development of Natural Energy and Sustainability in Brazil was honored for its work in rural electrification, which permits economically and environmentally beneficial changes in grassland agriculture. Rural electrification also helps ease the population squeeze in developing-world cities, because it makes it easier for country people to stay in their villages.

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Joseph DeRisi of the University of California at San Francisco was honored for his research into malaria. For technology benefiting the environment, the winner was the Audubon Center for Research of Endangered Species for its work in assisted-reproduction technology, used to preserve endangered species ranging from the African wildcat to the whooping crane.