Interactive Graphic: A New Generation of Robotic Weapons
Several manufacturers and research facilities are changing the face of the battlefield with robots designed to help transport equipment, gather intelligence and attack enemy forces. Distinguishing friend from foe is especially challenging.
December 13, 2010, 8:16 pm
The Human Incubator
By TINA ROSENBERG
FixesFixes looks at solutions to social problems and why they work.
Hospitals, Medicine and Health, Nursing and Nurses, Premature Babies, Third World and Developing Countries
A mother uses the warmth of her body to serve as a human incubator as she cuddle her prematurely born daughter in the Philippines.Bullit Marquez/Associated Press
Sometimes, the best way to progress isn’t to advance — to step up with more money, more technology, more modernity. It’s to retreat.
Towards the end of the 1970s, the Mother and Child Institute in Bogota, Colombia, was in deep trouble. The institute was the city’s obstetrical reference hospital, where most of the city’s poor women went to give birth. Nurses and doctors were in short supply. In the newly created neonatal intensive care unit, there were so few incubators that premature babies had to share them — sometimes three to an incubator. The crowded conditions spread infections, which are particularly dangerous for preemies. The death rate was high.
Dr. Edgar Rey, the chief of the pediatrics department, could have attempted to do what many other hospital officials would have done: wage a political fight for more money, more incubators and more staff.
He would likely have lost. What was happening at the Mother and Child Institute was not unusual. Conditions were much better, in fact, than at most public hospitals in the third world. Hospitals that mainly serve the poor have very little political clout, which means that conditions in their wards sometimes seem to have been staged by Hieronymous Bosch. They have too much disease, too few nurses and sometimes no doctors at all. They can be so crowded that patients sleep on the floor and so broke that people must bring their own surgical gloves and thread. I recently visited a hospital in Ethiopia that didn’t even have water — the nurses washed their hands after they got home at night.
Proof that more money and more technology isn’t always the answer.
Rey thought about the basics. What is the purpose of an incubator? It is to keep a baby warm, oxygenated and nourished — to simulate as closely as possible the conditions of the womb. There is another mechanism for accomplishing these goals, Rey reasoned, the same one that cared for the baby during its months of gestation. Rey also felt, something that probably all mothers feel intuitively: that one reason babies in incubators did so poorly was that they were separated from their mothers. Was there a way to avoid the incubator by employing the baby’s mother instead?
What he came up with is an idea now known as kangaroo care. Aspects of kangaroo care are now in use even in wealthy countries — most hospitals in the United States, for example, have adopted some kangaroo care practices. But its real impact has been felt in poor countries, where it has saved countless preemies’ lives and helped others to survive with fewer problems.
The kangaroo mother method was first initiated in 1979 in Columbia because for lack of incubators.Agence France-Presse A mother and child in Colombia, where the “kangaroo care” method was first used in the late 1970s.
In Rey’s system, a mother of a preemie puts the baby on her exposed chest, dressed only in a diaper and sometimes a cap, in an upright or semi-upright position. The baby is strapped in by a scarf or other cloth sling supporting its bottom, and all but its head is covered by mom’s shirt. The mother keeps the baby like that, skin-to-skin, as much as possible, even sleeping in a reclining chair. Fathers and other relatives or friends can wear the baby as well to give the mother a break. Even very premature infants can go home with their families (with regular follow-up visits) once they are stable and their mothers are given training.
The babies stay warm, their own temperature regulated by the sympathetic biological responses that occur when mother and infant are in close physical contact. The mother’s breasts, in fact, heat up or cool down depending on what the baby needs. The upright position helps prevent reflux and apnea. Feeling the mother’s breathing and heartbeat helps the babies to stabilize their own heart and respiratory rates. They sleep more. They can breastfeed at will, and the constant contact encourages the mother to produce more milk. Babies breastfeed earlier and gain more weight.
The physical closeness encourages emotional closeness, which leads to lower rates of abandonment of premature infants. This was a serious problem among the patients of Rey’s hospital; without being able to hold and bond with their babies, some mothers had little attachment to counter their feelings of being overwhelmed with the burdens of having a preemie. But kangaroo care also had enormous benefits for parents. Every parent, I think, can understand the importance of holding a baby instead of gazing at him in an incubator. With kangaroo care, parents and baby go through less stress. Nurses who practice kangaroo care also report that mothers also feel more confident and effective because they are the heroes in their babies’ care, instead of passive bystanders watching a mysterious process from a distance.
The hospitals were the third beneficiaries. Kangaroo care freed up incubators. Getting preemies home as soon as they were stable also lessened overcrowding and allowed nurses and doctors to concentrate on the patients who needed them most.
Kangaroo care has been widely studied. A trial in a Bogota hospital of 746 low birth weight babies randomly assigned to either kangaroo or conventional incubator care found that the kangaroo babies had shorter hospital stays, better growth of head circumference and fewer severe infections. They had slightly better rates of survival, but the difference was not statistically significant. Other studies have found fewer differences between kangaroo and conventional methods. A conservative summary of the evidence to date is that kangaroo care is at least as good as conventional treatment — and perhaps better.
More From Fixes
Read previous contributions to this series.
In much of the world, however, whether a mother’s chest is better or worse than an incubator is not the point. Hospitals have no incubators, or have only a few. And millions of mothers never see a hospital — they give birth at home. In very poor countries, where pregnant women are unlikely to get the food and care they need, low birth weight babies are very common — nearly one in five babies in Malawi, for example, is too small. Nearly a million low birth weight babies die each year in poor countries. But thanks to kangaroo care, many of them can be saved. The Manama Mission Hospital in southwest Zimbabwe, for example, had available only antibiotics and piped oxygen in its neonatal unit. Survival rates for babies born under 1500 grams (3.3 lbs.) improved from 10 percent to 50 percent when kangaroo care was started in the 1980s. In 2003, the World Health Organization put kangaroo care on its list of endorsed practices.
Dr. Rey took a challenge that most people would assume requires more money, personnel and technology and solved it in a way that requires less of all three. I am not a romantic who wants to abandon modern medical care in favor of traditional solutions. People with AIDS in South Africa need antiretroviral therapy, not traditional healers’ home brews. If you are bitten by a cobra in India, you should not go to the temple. You should go to the hospital for antivenin. Modern medical care is essential and technology very often saves lives.
Kangaroo care, however, is modern medical care, by which I mean that its effectiveness is proven in randomized controlled trials — the strongest kind of evidence. And because it is powered by the human body alone, it is theoretically available to hundreds of millions of mothers who would otherwise have no hope of saving their babies.
But theoretical availability is only helpful for theoretical babies. Another of kangaroo care’s important innovations is that its inventors realized that ideas don’t travel by themselves. They established a way to get the practice from Bogota into hospitals and clinics all over the world — something that takes a lot more creativity and work than it sounds. On Saturday I’ll respond to comments and talk about how kangaroo care has been able to reach the places that need it most.
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Tina Rosenberg won a Pulitzer Prize for her book “The Haunted Land: Facing Europe’s Ghosts After Communism.” She is a former editorial writer for The Times and now a contributing writer for the paper’s Sunday magazine. Her new book, “Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World,” is forthcoming from W.W. Norton.
December 24, 2010
African Huts Far From the Grid Glow With Renewable Power
By ELISABETH ROSENTHAL
KIPTUSURI, Kenya — For Sara Ruto, the desperate yearning for electricity began last year with the purchase of her first cellphone, a lifeline for receiving small money transfers, contacting relatives in the city or checking chicken prices at the nearest market.
Charging the phone was no simple matter in this farming village far from Kenya’s electric grid.
Every week, Ms. Ruto walked two miles to hire a motorcycle taxi for the three-hour ride to Mogotio, the nearest town with electricity. There, she dropped off her cellphone at a store that recharges phones for 30 cents. Yet the service was in such demand that she had to leave it behind for three full days before returning.
That wearying routine ended in February when the family sold some animals to buy a small Chinese-made solar power system for about $80. Now balanced precariously atop their tin roof, a lone solar panel provides enough electricity to charge the phone and run four bright overhead lights with switches.
“My main motivation was the phone, but this has changed so many other things,” Ms. Ruto said on a recent evening as she relaxed on a bench in the mud-walled shack she shares with her husband and six children.
As small-scale renewable energy becomes cheaper, more reliable and more efficient, it is providing the first drops of modern power to people who live far from slow-growing electricity grids and fuel pipelines in developing countries. Although dwarfed by the big renewable energy projects that many industrialized countries are embracing to rein in greenhouse gas emissions, these tiny systems are playing an epic, transformative role.
Since Ms. Ruto hooked up the system, her teenagers’ grades have improved because they have light for studying. The toddlers no longer risk burns from the smoky kerosene lamp. And each month, she saves $15 in kerosene and battery costs — and the $20 she used to spend on travel.
In fact, neighbors now pay her 20 cents to charge their phones, although that business may soon evaporate: 63 families in Kiptusuri have recently installed their own solar power systems.
“You leapfrog over the need for fixed lines,” said Adam Kendall, head of the sub-Saharan Africa power practice for McKinsey & Company, the global consulting firm. “Renewable energy becomes more and more important in less and less developed markets.”
The United Nations estimates that 1.5 billion people across the globe still live without electricity, including 85 percent of Kenyans, and that three billion still cook and heat with primitive fuels like wood or charcoal.
There is no reliable data on the spread of off-grid renewable energy on a small scale, in part because the projects are often installed by individuals or tiny nongovernmental organizations.
But Dana Younger, senior renewable energy adviser at the International Finance Corporation, the World Bank Group’s private lending arm, said there was no question that the trend was accelerating. “It’s a phenomenon that’s sweeping the world; a huge number of these systems are being installed,” Mr. Younger said.
With the advent of cheap solar panels and high-efficiency LED lights, which can light a room with just 4 watts of power instead of 60, these small solar systems now deliver useful electricity at a price that even the poor can afford, he noted. “You’re seeing herders in Inner Mongolia with solar cells on top of their yurts,” Mr. Younger said.
In Africa, nascent markets for the systems have sprung up in Ethiopia, Uganda, Malawi and Ghana as well as in Kenya, said Francis Hillman, an energy entrepreneur who recently shifted his Eritrea-based business, Phaesun Asmara, from large solar projects financed by nongovernmental organizations to a greater emphasis on tiny rooftop systems.
In addition to these small solar projects, renewable energy technologies designed for the poor include simple subterranean biogas chambers that make fuel and electricity from the manure of a few cows, and “mini” hydroelectric dams that can harness the power of a local river for an entire village.
Yet while these off-grid systems have proved their worth, the lack of an effective distribution network or a reliable way of financing the start-up costs has prevented them from becoming more widespread.
“The big problem for us now is there is no business model yet,” said John Maina, executive coordinator of Sustainable Community Development Services, or Scode, a nongovernmental organization based in Nakuru, Kenya, that is devoted to bringing power to rural areas.
Just a few years ago, Mr. Maina said, “solar lights” were merely basic lanterns, dim and unreliable.
“Finally, these products exist, people are asking for them and are willing to pay,” he said. “But we can’t get supply.” He said small African organizations like his do not have the purchasing power or connections to place bulk orders themselves from distant manufacturers, forcing them to scramble for items each time a shipment happens to come into the country.
Part of the problem is that the new systems buck the traditional mold, in which power is generated by a very small number of huge government-owned companies that gradually extend the grid into rural areas. Investors are reluctant to pour money into products that serve a dispersed market of poor rural consumers because they see the risk as too high.
“There are many small islands of success, but they need to go to scale,” said Minoru Takada, chief of the United Nations Development Program’s sustainable energy program. “Off-grid is the answer for the poor. But people who control funding need to see this as a viable option.”
Even United Nations programs and United States government funds that promote climate-friendly energy in developing countries hew to large projects like giant wind farms or industrial-scale solar plants that feed into the grid. A $300 million solar project is much easier to finance and monitor than 10 million home-scale solar systems in mud huts spread across a continent.
As a result, money does not flow to the poorest areas. Of the $162 billion invested in renewable energy last year, according to the United Nations, experts estimate that $44 billion was spent in China, India and Brazil collectively, and $7.5 billion in the many poorer countries.
Only 6 to 7 percent of solar panels are manufactured to produce electricity that does not feed into the grid; that includes systems like Ms. Ruto’s and solar panels that light American parking lots and football stadiums.
Still, some new models are emerging. Husk Power Systems, a young company supported by a mix of private investment and nonprofit funds, has built 60 village power plants in rural India that make electricity from rice husks for 250 hamlets since 2007.
In Nepal and Indonesia, the United Nations Development Program has helped finance the construction of very small hydroelectric plants that have brought electricity to remote mountain communities. Morocco provides subsidized solar home systems at a cost of $100 each to remote rural areas where expanding the national grid is not cost-effective.
What has most surprised some experts in the field is the recent emergence of a true market in Africa for home-scale renewable energy and for appliances that consume less energy. As the cost of reliable equipment decreases, families have proved ever more willing to buy it by selling a goat or borrowing money from a relative overseas, for example.
The explosion of cellphone use in rural Africa has been an enormous motivating factor. Because rural regions of many African countries lack banks, the cellphone has been embraced as a tool for commercial transactions as well as personal communications, adding an incentive to electrify for the sake of recharging.
M-Pesa, Kenya’s largest mobile phone money transfer service, handles an annual cash flow equivalent to more than 10 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, most in tiny transactions that rarely exceed $20.
The cheap renewable energy systems also allow the rural poor to save money on candles, charcoal, batteries, wood and kerosene. “So there is an ability to pay and a willingness to pay,” said Mr. Younger of the International Finance Corporation.
In another Kenyan village, Lochorai, Alice Wangui, 45, and Agnes Mwaforo, 35, formerly subsistence farmers, now operate a booming business selling and installing energy-efficient wood-burning cooking stoves made of clay and metal for a cost of $5. Wearing matching bright orange tops and skirts, they walk down rutted dirt paths with cellphones ever at their ears, edging past goats and dogs to visit customers and to calm those on the waiting list.
Hunched over her new stove as she stirred a stew of potatoes and beans, Naomi Muriuki, 58, volunteered that the appliance had more than halved her use of firewood. Wood has become harder to find and expensive to buy as the government tries to limit deforestation, she added.
In Tumsifu, a slightly more prosperous village of dairy farmers, Virginia Wairimu, 35, is benefiting from an underground tank in which the manure from her three cows is converted to biogas, which is then pumped through a rubber tube to a gas burner.
“I can just get up and make breakfast," Ms. Wairimu said. The system was financed with a $400 loan from a demonstration project that has since expired.
In Kiptusuri, the Firefly LED system purchased by Ms. Ruto is this year’s must-have item. The smallest one, which costs $12, consists of a solar panel that can be placed in a window or on a roof and is connected to a desk lamp and a phone charger. Slightly larger units can run radios and black-and-white television sets.
Of course, such systems cannot compare with a grid connection in the industrialized world. A week of rain can mean no lights. And items like refrigerators need more, and more consistent, power than a panel provides.
Still, in Kenya, even grid-based electricity is intermittent and expensive: families must pay more than $350 just to have their homes hooked up.
“With this system, you get a real light for what you spend on kerosene in a few months,” said Mr. Maina, of Sustainable Community Development Services. “When you can light your home and charge your phone, that is very valuable.”
Mobile Phones for Women: A New Approach for Social Welfare in the Developing World
Telecoms, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and nonprofits are pushing to put mobile phones directly in the hands of women in low- and middle-income countries
Enas Salameh, a 24-year-old college graduate living in the Palestinian West Bank city of Jenin, needed a job this summer. But her family finds it unacceptable for a woman to venture alone into the city without a male companion or an appointment. Fortunately, it's fine to use a mobile phone. In fact, although only 16 percent of Palestinian households have Internet access, 81 percent have a cell phone, according to a 2009 United Nations report. Salameh was thus able to sign up for a text message–based job-matching program sponsored by a service called Souktel. She posted a "mini-resume," browsed for suitable jobs via text messages, and then interviewed in person after an appointment was set. On September 22nd, she started a data-entry job with the German aid agency GTZ.
Although the job does not take advantage of her training in physical therapy, "this is better than staying at home," she says through a translator, "and I think that I am gaining new experiences to be a useful woman in my community." Without mobile phones, says Souktel co-founder Jacob Korenblum, a lot of the approximately 750 women worldwide who have work through the program would still be unemployed.
Mobile technology was available to Salameh, but that's often not the case for women. A 2010 report by London-based telecom industry advocacy group GSMA (for Groupe Speciale Mobile Association) and the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women found a "mobile gender gap" in low- and middle-income countries: women are 21 percent less likely than men to own a mobile phone. The rate is highest in Asia, at 37 percent. Once they get phones women nearly uniformly report feeling safer, more connected and more independent. Nearly half say the phones help increase income and professional opportunities.
So, in October GSMA launched the "mWomen Program," with support from Cherie Blair and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ("mWomen" is for mobile women). The goal is to half the number of women in the developing world who lack mobile phones within three years by putting phones in the hands of another 150 million women.
GSMA's mWomen working group met in Chennai, India, in early November. Twenty-three organizations, including the telecom Ericsson, representing 115 developing countries committed to the project. And the program's recently announced "app challenge"—which solicits apps for simple cell phones and smart phones that can help to address the needs of women living at the "base of the pyramid" in the developing world—has received dozens of entries, including one from Souktel.
But first, women need the phones to run these apps. The working group is therefore examining various business models and marketing tools to overcome cultural, educational and financial barriers. So far, ideas include using direct marketing models similar to those developed by Avon or Tupperware to put women in charge of selling to women and hire only women to serve as customer service representatives for telecoms' female customers, says Trina DasGupta, mWomen program director at GSMA.
Going mobile, skipping computers
Mobile phones are nothing new in the developing world. Nonprofit agencies and NGOs have known for years how to partner effectively with telecommunications companies to deliver social goods such as cash payments to locals via mobile phones. The new challenge is getting the technology directly and specifically into the hands of women, rather than focusing on families. In the latter case the devices typically become male property, and women never touch the phones.
Many women in the developing world, especially those living in more restrictive cultures, are impoverished, semiliterate or illiterate and may rarely leave home alone to avoid the risk of shaming the family. The mWomen movement aims to improve the social welfare of women and their families via mobile technology—more effectively, perhaps, than if the phones and apps were in men's hands. Women are using phones for activities ranging from calling their husbands who may work far away to obtaining health care for their children to running small businesses to reporting violence.
The mWomen approach is no cure-all for gender inequality or poverty. Still, a growing body of research supports the power of information and communications technology (ICT), including mobile phones and related jobs, in promoting women's advancement and overall economic progress. A January 2010 report by the International Center for Research on Women identified success stories for nine technologies that have been integrated into programs to help women advance economically—four of them involve ICT: training women in technical and career skills to enter the ICT labor force; village mobile phones to help female entrepreneurs; outsourced ICT services that provide job opportunities for women; and ICT call centers or kiosks that help them start small businesses. Recognizing women as more than end-users of the technology is key to successful projects.
The proliferation of mobile phones is also renewing enthusiasm among many people who work in the fields of social welfare and social justice as well as providing new inroads for breaking down a worldwide technology gender gap.
"Mobile technology is relatively simple and is more accessible to women," says Katrin Verclas, co-founder and editor of MobileActive.org, a network of NGO and other program directors and managers who use mobile technology for social impact. "And the barrier to use is much lower—it's not as intimidating compared to computers. The intimidation factor for poor and possibly only semiliterate women for a computer versus a mobile phone is completely different by an order of magnitude."
Mobile technology also scales up for large populations in ways that social programs rarely achieve (although small-scale programs can be ideal for reaching highly marginalized or rural populations). "You can only build so many clinics, you can only send so much money. They need more solutions. The mobile phone is a solution to deliver basic services at scale at a much lower cost than it would to build out 100,000 clinics, per se," DasGupta says.
mWomen app pioneers
Dozens of mWomen programs and apps already exist in the field, often conceived and implemented by local women. Program directors, organizers and field workers are comparing notes and sharing strategies via the GSMA, online bulletin boards and in-person gatherings such as a tech salon in New York City organized in September by MobileActive.
Attendees at the New York event learned of a recent pilot program in Africa to introduce cell phones and a text message–driven community bulletin board in 15 villages in Senegal that helped local women post messages and share educational information about malaria. The villages lack running water and electricity, but 58 percent of residents had used a mobile phone. Staffers with the Jokko Initiative trained locals how to navigate the bulletin board by mapping its phone tree—with labeled sticks on the ground. The bulletin board and phones freed the women of the need for men to read and type their messages for them. Erica Kochi, part of the initiative via Jokko-partner United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), says that women's literacy and numeracy went up as they used the phones to share information and calculate savings at the market.
Anne Roos-Weil described Pesinet, a women-run mobile service she co-founded that brings health care to infants in Mali—where one in five children dies before age five, usually from malaria, measles or respiratory diseases—along with other countries in Africa. For a monthly fee of $1 (equivalent to a day's wages), subscribers are visited weekly at home by a Pesinet agent who weighs newborns and asks the mother questions about diarrhea, fever and other health matters. The agent sends the data via a Java mobile phone app to a server accessed by nearby doctor who assesses the child's health. The doctor then recommends a visit to the clinic if necessary, where the child receives a free medical exam and half-price medication for the diseases that kill most children.
Pesinet's subscription base has increased 70 percent since January, and subscribers almost uniformly find it affordable and satisfying. But it needs to double its enrollment to 1,000 subscribers to cover its expenses.
Funding for nonprofits and NGOs can be unstable and subject to the whims of donor nations and individuals. Enter telecommunications companies, along with their customer bases and business models. Telecoms can build a program aimed at social welfare that will take as long as a decade to pay for itself, long after a start-up's donor patience or grant money might run out.
"Telcos have to think of the business angle as well as the social angle," says Shainoor Khoja, managing director for social programs for Roshan, the leading telecommunications service provider in Afghanistan, with 3.8 million active subscribers. "Sometimes NGOs seem to focus on the social angle only, which is their role, without something being sustainable. It's a real problem." Roshan is 51 percent owned by the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development, so it balances mandates for development and profitability. The company was the first in Afghanistan to post a billboard that featured a picture of a woman.
"Straight-out business-wise we are firm believers that putting a mobile phone in the hands of every woman and girl is essential," Khoja says. "We see the mobile phone as not just one communication tool—we see it as much more. Because the minute you put a voice phone in the hands of the woman, you empower her and also give her access to financial services, information, literacy, safety to pursue a livelihood—a whole variety of things that you and I would take for granted, because we have a phone."
Along these lines, Roshan has established 170 "women's public call centers" in Afghanistan, where women with phones purchased via a Roshan-sponsored microfinance loan set up a small business to broker calls and sell airtime to women without phones. The country already has 6,000 public call centers, all run by men. The women's public call centers solve a number of problems at once—women can avoid the shame and danger of entering a male-run call shop alone; they can call their husbands who often work out of town; and female agents who sell their airtime bring a second income to their family as well as gain financial and business management skills.
Mobile phones are particularly valuable to Afghan women during childbirth, when a midwife or doctor may have to be called. Afghanistan has the second highest maternal mortality rate in the world, and as of 2004 women there bore an average of seven children.
Some nonprofits are figuring out ways to build on telecoms' existing services. For instance, MTN, a telecom in South Africa, offers free "please-call-me" text messages. After being beeped or signaled, a party calls back the person who sent the message, saving the original sender the expense of the call. Seeing an opportunity, the nonprofit Praekelt Foundation negotiated with MTN to advertise an AIDS hotline number and other services in the white space at the bottom of one million of these free messages daily. Call volume on the hotline tripled, and operators assisted with information, counseling and referrals to clinics—no small achievement in a nation where AIDS-related mortality in women ages 20 to 39 recently tripled. This effort, which has reached more than 40 million people to date, was part of a project managed from a hospital in a district where 60 percent of pregnant women are HIV-positive.
Despite these advances, founder Gustav Praekelt is ambivalent about embracing the mWomen designation, although nearly all the mobile services his organization provides touch on women's issues. "'mWomen' is such a vague term," Praekelt says." What does it really mean? There are a host of things you can put under that topic. We work on a lot: gender, rape, abuse. These aren't simple questions, and building a simple app isn't going to have enough impact. We believe mobile works because it is so incredibly scalable. So our focus is to achieve really scalable projects. If a project can't ultimately reach up to one million people, we don't want to be involved. We have one billion people in Africa and 400 million phones, and that's what I want to focus on."
To this end, Praekelt announced a $825,000 grant last week from eBay founder Pierre Omidyar's Omidyar Network that will ultimately allow the foundation to extend its please-call-me hotline messaging service to reach up to 500 million people. And a mobile portal, hosted by the telecom Vodafone, will provide a free entertainment-oriented platform for youths to receive information and discuss their issues with love, sex, relations, gender, cultural constraints and HIV. The messaging service and discussion platform could reach half the population of Africa.
Cultural taboos still can retard mobile initiatives. The mobile community received a new shock last month when elders in the Lank village in the Uttar Pradesh state of India forbade unmarried women from using cell phones. They feared that the women were using phones to make plans to elope—a transgression that can result in a so-called honor killing. Young men and women have managed to flirt, rendezvous and elope for centuries before the arrival of mobile phones, but the Lank ban illustrates the remaining social tensions that surround women's growing use of mobile technology in parts of the developing world.
"The issue is not the phone itself," says GSMA's DasGupta. "The issue is about educating community elders on how the mobile phone has more positive benefits in terms of helping women have access to income-generating and education opportunities."
And MobileActive's Verclas notes that some philanthropists believe nonprofit donor dollars go further if you fund a project that focuses on women rather than on men. "There is now a lot of evidence that economic gains of women benefit communities," Verclas says. "So it is not just a woman who benefits. Her children, her community benefits. There is a radiating effect."
Both outsiders and insiders to the NGO world can be a bit hostile to the idea that women-headed agencies and organizations are delivering social welfare–tailored technology primarily or only to women. "When women huddle and talk to each other, there can be a little backlash," Verclas says. "But I come down hard and say that this is the prerogative of excluded communities. I'm unapologetic about that."
And there are larger social changes—attitude shifts—that can come about when women start to actively use mobile technology. Says Roshan's Khoja, "If you came to Afghanistan and saw how women just flip their phones on and communicate, and saw what men think of these women—they think highly of them, they think they are capable and bright. That kind of change is hard to come by."
January 1, 2011
Computers That See You and Keep Watch Over You
By STEVE LOHR
"Perched above the prison yard, five cameras tracked the play-acting prisoners, and artificial-intelligence software analyzed the images to recognize faces, gestures and patterns of group behavior. When two groups of inmates moved toward each other, the experimental computer system sent an alert — a text message — to a corrections officer that warned of a potential incident and gave the location.
The computers cannot do anything more than officers who constantly watch surveillance monitors under ideal conditions. But in practice, officers are often distracted. When shifts change, an observation that is worth passing along may be forgotten. But machines do not blink or forget. They are tireless assistants.
The enthusiasm for such systems extends well beyond the nation’s prisons. High-resolution, low-cost cameras are proliferating, found in products like smartphones and laptop computers. The cost of storing images is dropping, and new software algorithms for mining, matching and scrutinizing the flood of visual data are progressing swiftly.
A computer-vision system can watch a hospital room and remind doctors and nurses to wash their hands, or warn of restless patients who are in danger of falling out of bed. It can, through a computer-equipped mirror, read a man’s face to detect his heart rate and other vital signs. It can analyze a woman’s expressions as she watches a movie trailer or shops online, and help marketers tailor their offerings accordingly. Computer vision can also be used at shopping malls, schoolyards, subway platforms, office complexes and stadiums.
All of which could be helpful — or alarming.
“Machines will definitely be able to observe us and understand us better,” said Hartmut Neven, a computer scientist and vision expert at Google. “Where that leads is uncertain.”
Google has been both at the forefront of the technology’s development and a source of the anxiety surrounding it. Its Street View service, which lets Internet users zoom in from above on a particular location, faced privacy complaints. Google will blur out people’s homes at their request.
Google has also introduced an application called Goggles, which allows people to take a picture with a smartphone and search the Internet for matching images. The company’s executives decided to exclude a facial-recognition feature, which they feared might be used to find personal information on people who did not know that they were being photographed.
Despite such qualms, computer vision is moving into the mainstream. With this technological evolution, scientists predict, people will increasingly be surrounded by machines that can not only see but also reason about what they are seeing, in their own limited way."
January 17, 2011
Heavy Doses of DNA Data, With Few Side Effects
By JOHN TIERNEY
When companies tried selling consumers the results of personal DNA tests, worried doctors and assorted health experts rushed to the public’s rescue. What if the risk assessments were inaccurate or inconsistent? What if people misinterpreted the results and did something foolish? What if they were traumatized by learning they were at high risk for Alzheimer’s or breast cancer or another disease?
The what-ifs prompted New York State to ban the direct sale of the tests to consumers. Members of Congress denounced the tests as “snake oil,” and the Food and Drug Administration has recently threatened the companies with federal oversight. Members of a national advisory commission concluded that personal DNA testing needed to be carefully supervised by experts like themselves.
But now, thanks to new research, there’s a less hypothetical question to consider: What if the would-be guardians of the public overestimated the demand for their supervisory services?
In two separate studies of genetic tests, researchers have found that people are not exactly desperate to be protected from information about their own bodies. Most people say they’ll pay for genetic tests even if the predictions are sometimes wrong, and most people don’t seem to be traumatized even when they receive bad news.
“Up until now there’s been lots of speculation and what I’d call fear-mongering about the impact of these tests, but now we have data,” says Dr. Eric Topol, the senior author of a report published last week in The New England Journal of Medicine. “We saw no evidence of anxiety or distress induced by the tests.”
He and colleagues at the Scripps Translational Science Institute followed more than 2,000 people who had a genomewide scan by the Navigenics company. After providing saliva, they were given estimates of their genetic risk for more than 20 different conditions, including obesity, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, several forms of cancer, multiple sclerosis and Alzheimer’s. About six months after getting the test results, delivered in a 90-page report, the typical person’s level of psychological anxiety was no higher than it had been before taking the test.
Although they were offered sessions, at no cost, with genetic counselors who could interpret the results and allay their anxieties, only 10 percent of the people bothered to take advantage of the opportunity. They apparently didn’t feel overwhelmed by the information, and it didn’t seem to cause much rash behavior, either.
In fact, the researchers were surprised to see how little effect it had. While about a quarter of the people discussed the results with their personal physicians, they generally did not change their diets or their exercise habits even when they’d been told these steps might lower some of their risks.
“We had theorized there would be an improvement in lifestyle, but we saw no sign whatsoever,” Dr. Topol says. “Instead of turning inward and becoming activists about their health, they turned to medical screening. They had a significant increase in the intent to have a screening test, like a colonoscopy if they were at higher risk for colon cancer.”
The people in the study chose on their own to pay for the tests — about $225, a steep discount from the retail price at the time — so they weren’t necessarily representative of the general population. But in another study, published in Health Economics, researchers surveyed a representative sample of nearly 1,500 people and found most people willing to take a test even if didn’t perfectly predict their risks for disease.
About 70 percent of the respondents were willing to take even an imperfect test for genetic risks of Alzheimer’s, and more than three-quarters were willing to take such tests for arthritis, breast cancer and prostate cancer. Most people also said they’d be willing to spend money out of their own pocket for the test, typically somewhere between $300 and $600.
A minority of the respondents didn’t want the tests even if they were free, and explained that they didn’t want to live with the knowledge. But the rest attached much more value to the tests than have the experts who have been warning of the dangers.
“The medical field has been paternalistic about these tests,” says Peter J. Neumann, the lead author of the study, who is director of the Center for the Evaluation of Value and Risk in Health at Tufts Medical Center. “We’ve been saying that we shouldn’t give people this information because it might be wrong or we might worry them or we can’t do anything about it. But people tell us they want the information enough to pay for it.”
Why do experts differ from consumers on this issue? You could argue that the experts are better informed, but you could also argue that some of them are swayed by their own self-interest. Traditionally, people have had to go through a doctor to get a test, which could mean paying a fee to the physician as well as to a licensed genetic counselor. Buying tests directly from a company like Navigenics or 23andMe can cut out hundreds of dollars in fees to the middlemen.
To experts, the tests may seem unnecessary or wasteful when there’s nothing doctors can do to prevent the disease. But consumers have other reasons to want the results. They may find even bad news preferable to the anxious limbo of uncertainty; they may consider an imprecise test better than nothing at all.
“We should recognize that consumers might reasonably want the information for nonmedical reasons,” Dr. Neumann says. “People value it for its own sake, and because they feel more in control of their lives.”
The traditional structure of American medicine gives control to doctors and to centralized regulators who make treatment decisions for everyone. These genetic tests represent a different philosophy, and point toward a possible future with people taking more charge of their own care and seeking treatments customized to their bodies. “What we have today is population medicine at the 30,000-foot level,” says Dr. Topol. “These tests are the beginning of a new way to individualize medicine. One of the most immediate benefits is being able to use the genetic knowledge to tweak the kind of drugs people take, like choosing among statins and beta blockers to minimize side effects.”
That may be the self-empowered future, but for now residents of New York still can’t be trusted to buy these tests directly. It’s paternalism run amok, says Lee Silver, a professor of molecular biology and of public policy at Princeton, who is developing another variety of genetic test for consumers.
“It seems like a no-brainer,” Dr. Silver says, “that any competent adult should be free to purchase an analysis of their own DNA as long as they have been informed in advance of what could potentially be revealed in the analysis. You should have access to information about your own genome without a permission slip from your doctor.”
The paternalists argue that it’s still unclear how to interpret some of these genetic tests — and it is, of course. But if you ban these tests, or effectively eliminate them for most people by imposing expensive and time-consuming restrictions, how does that help the public? When it comes to knowing their own genetic risks, most people seem to prefer imperfect knowledge to perfect ignorance.
By Marianne De Nazareth
Freelance Journalist - India
Wednesday, 19 January 2011 00:00
What Hajee has invented is off-the-grid energy
Sustainable energy is the need of the hour especially with fossil fuels being spoken about in negative tones today, with the fear of rising Green House Gas (GHG) emissions. So, to meet the UNEP Sasakawa Prize winner for 2009/2010 in Bali, Indonesia was a great honor.
The Sasakawa prize is given in recognition to a project where lives are changed through sustainable innovations. The UNEP Sasakawa Prize, worth US$200,000, is given out annually to applicants who have invented sustainable and replicable grassroots projects around the world.
The winners are selected by an illustrious panel of four including Nobel peace prize laureate and UN messenger of Peace, Wangari Maathai. Others in the jury included UNEP executive director Achim Steiner, Nobel chemistry laureate and 1999 Sasakawa winner Professor Mario Molina, and Ms. Wakako Hironaka, member of Japan’s house of Councilors. The UNEP Sasakawa prize is sponsored by the Japan-based Nippon Foundation.
Sameer Hajee, one of the two winners, engineered his winning design through his company Nuru Designs which he founded in 2008. He worked as a microprocessor design engineer in Silicon Valley, California and as a telecom engineer for Afghanistan’s first mobile phone network provider, Roshan, in Kabul.
Hajee has a bachelor degree in Electrical Engineering from McMaster University in Canada and an MBA from INSEAD, one of the world’s leading business schools. He also studied at the Wharton School in the US through the INSEAD-Wharton Alliance. He is a Canadian national with native roots in Kenya.
Young and handsome, Hajee said that he had successful trial runs of his invention in Gujarat, West India and in Kenya.
“I am totally committed to social enterprise and the technology I develop is to help the poor rural population. Two billion lack access to energy sources across the developing world. In India I visited them and found they spent a quarter of their monthly salaries on kerosene,” he told OnIslam.net.
Although the government subsidizes kerosene, still it forms a significant part of people’s tiny income. Kerosene also has a very harmful impact on the environment. Hajee wants to remove kerosene from these rural households.
“You see kerosene is also carcinogenic and that hits so many women and children who breathe these kerosene fumes in their closed, tiny huts.”
What Hajee has invented is off-the-grid energy. The concept is being replicated in Kenya and India and is spinning off employment opportunities.
SameerIMG_3186Hajee's invention empowers the locals to avoid their dependence on fossil fuels, which causes GHG emissions and helps to alleviate their poverty.
When asked what he was going to do with the US$100,000-prize, Hajee smiles and says, “I want to use it to scale up my operations in Rawanda, Kenya and India. I have used local bicycle parts to make the machine.”
The machine looks like two cycle pedals fitted on a box and is raised on a stand to pedal on. The machine charges a set of pod light bulbs which can be used for task-based lighting. For instance, studying, looking after a baby at night, and the toilet. It can charge five light bulbs to provide to forty hours of light. To charge the bulbs, a person pedals it with their feet at a comfortable speed and not necessarily faster than one rotation per second.
Hajee was proud that his invention tries to use human-power efficiently.
“That is not a tiring speed for a normal man. The machine costs US$150 which is bought by an entrepreneur with micro-finance. The rental is 20 cents per light bulb and the entrepreneur can pay back his loan in six months. In India, there are five entrepreneurs in Madhya Pradesh and Orissa.”
Jury member and Nobel laureate Wangaari Maathai said to the gathered audience at the Prize giving ceremony that the panelists judging the winners looked at various parameters before choosing the winners. The main point is that the invention had to be inexpensive to build and can be replicated in different countries.
The innovations had to respond to the needs of the marginalized who are most often dependant on basic resources to live. These projects also empower the locals to avoid their dependence on fossil fuels, which causes GHG emissions and helps to alleviate their poverty.
As for Hajee, he was very proud of his innovation.
“It is one thing to develop an idea, but it is quite another to be there to see its success, [and to help] overcomeme poverty with a simple tool.”
February 28, 2011
Space Tourism May Mean One Giant Leap for Researchers
By KENNETH CHANG
If all goes as planned, within a couple of years, tourists will be rocketing into space aboard a Virgin Galactic space plane — paying $200,000 for about four minutes of weightlessness — before coming back down for a landing on a New Mexico runway.
Sitting in the next seat could be a scientist working on a research experiment.
Science, perhaps even more than tourism, could turn out to be big business for Virgin and other companies that are aiming to provide short rides above the 62-mile altitude that marks the official entry into outer space, eventually on a daily basis.
A $200,000 ticket is prohibitively expensive except for a small slice of the wealthy, but compared with the millions of dollars that government agencies like NASA typically spend to get experiments into space, “it’s revolutionary,” said S. Alan Stern, an associate vice president of the Southwest Research Institute’s space sciences and engineering division in Boulder, Colo.
He is a spirited evangelist for the science possibilities of what is known in aerospace circles as suborbital travel. Just as important as the lower cost, scientists will be able to get their experiments to space more quickly and more often, Dr. Stern said.
“We’re really at the edge of something transformational,” he added.
Dr. Stern’s institute announced Monday that it has signed a contract and paid the deposit to send two of its scientists up in Virgin’s SpaceShipTwo vehicle. Southwest also intends to buy six more seats — $1.6 million in tickets over all.
April 25, 2011
Digging Deeper, Seeing Farther: Supercomputers Alter Science
By JOHN MARKOFF
SAN FRANCISCO — Inside a darkened theater a viewer floats in a redwood forest displayed with Imax-like clarity on a cavernous overhead screen.
The hovering sensation gives way to vertigo as the camera dives deeper into the forest, approaches a branch of a giant redwood tree, and then plunges first into a single leaf and then into an individual cell. Inside the cell the scene is evocative of the 1966 science fiction movie “Fantastic Voyage,” in which Lilliputian humans in a minuscule capsule take a medical journey through a human body.
There is an important difference — “Life: A Cosmic Journey,” a multimedia presentation now showing at the new Morrison Planetarium here at the California Academy of Sciences, relies not just on computer animation techniques, but on a wealth of digitized scientific data as well.
The planetarium show is a visually spectacular demonstration of the way computer power is transforming the sciences, giving scientists tools as important to current research as the microscope and telescope were to earlier scientists. Their use accompanies a fundamental change in the material that scientists study. Individual specimens, whether fossils, living organisms or cells, were once the substrate of discovery. Now, to an ever greater extent, researchers work with immense collections of digital data, and the mastery of such mountains of information depends on computing power.
The physical technology of scientific research is still here — the new electron microscopes, the telescopes, the particle colliders — but they are now inseparable from computing power, and it is the computers that let scientists find order and patterns in the raw information that the physical tools gather.
Computer power not only aids research, it defines the nature of that research: what can be studied, what new questions can be asked, and answered.
“The profound thing is that today all scientific instruments have computing intelligence inside, and that’s a huge change,” said Larry Smarr, an astrophysicist who is director of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, or Calit2, a research consortium at the University California, San Diego.
In the planetarium’s first production, “Fragile Planet,” the viewer was transported through the roof of the Morrison, first appearing to fly in a graceful arc around the Renzo Piano-designed museum and then quickly out into the solar system to explore the cosmos. Where visual imagery was once projected on the dome of the original Morrison Planetarium using an elaborate home-brew star projector, the new system is powered by three separate parallel computing systems which store so much data that the system is both telescope and microscope. From incomprehensibly small to unimaginably large, the computerized planetarium moves seamlessly over 12 orders of magnitude in the objects it presents. It can shift “from subatomic to the large-scale structure of the universe,” said Ryan Wyatt, an astronomer who is director of the planetarium.
It is, said Katy Börner, an Indiana University computer scientist who is a specialist in scientific visualization, a “macroscope.” She uses the word to describe a new class of computer-based scientific instruments to which the new planetarium’s virtual and physical machine belongs. These are composite tools, with different kinds of physical presences that have such powerful and flexible software programs that they become a complete scientific workbench that can be reconfigured by mixing and matching aspects of the software to tackle specific research problems.
The planetarium’s macroscope is designed for education, but it could be used for research. Like any macroscope, its essence is its capacity for approaching huge databases in a variety of ways. “Macroscopes provide a ‘vision of the whole,’ ” Dr. Börner wrote in the March issue of The Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery, “helping us ‘synthesize’ the related elements and detect patterns, trends and outliers while granting access to myriad details.’ ” She said software-based scientific instruments are making it possible to uncover phenomena and processes that in the past have been, “too great, slow or complex for the human eye and mind to notice and comprehend.”
Computing is reshaping scientific research in a number of ways, Dr. Börner notes. For example, independent scientists have increasingly given way to research teams as cited by scientific papers in the field of high-energy physics that routinely have hundreds or even thousands of authors. It is unsurprising, in a way, since the Web was invented as a collaboration tool for the high-energy physics community at CERN, the European nuclear research laboratory, in the early 1990s. As a result research teams in all scientific disciplines are increasingly both interdisciplinary and widely distributed geographically.
So-called Web 2.0 software, with its seamless linking of applications, has made it easier to share research findings, and that in turn has led to an explosion of collaborative efforts. It has also accelerated the range of cross-disciplinary projects as it has become easier to repurpose and combine software-based techniques ranging from analytical tools to utilities for exporting and importing data.
A macroscope need not be in a single physical location. To take one example, a midday visitor to the lab of Tom DeFanti, a computer graphics specialist, in the Calit2 building in San Diego is greeted by a wall-size array of screens that appears to offer a high-resolution window into a vacant laboratory somewhere else in the world. The distant room is a parallel laboratory at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia. Four years ago representatives of that university visited Calit2 and initiated a collaboration in which the American scientists helped create a parallel scientific visualization center in Thuwal connected to the Internet by up to 10 gigabits of bandwidth — enough to share high-resolution imagery and research.
Saudi researchers now have access to a software system known as Scalable Adaptive Graphics Environment, or SAGE, originally developed to permit scientists working far apart to share and visualize research data. SAGE is essentially an operating system for visual information, capable of displaying and manipulating images up to about one-third of a billion pixels — as much as 150 times more than what can be displayed on a conventional computer display.
“The killer application is collaboration; that is what people want,” Dr. DeFanti said. “You can save so much energy by not flying to London that it will run a rack of computers for a year.”
More than a decade ago Dr. Smarr began building a distributed supercomputing capability he called the OptIPuter, because it used the fiber-optic links among the nation’s supercomputer centers to make it possible to divide computing problems as well as digital data so that larger scientific computing loads could be shared.
The advent of high-performance computing systems, however, created a new bottleneck for scientists, he said. “Over the past decade computers have become over a thousand times faster because of Moore’s Law and the ability to store information has gone up roughly 10,000 times, while the number of pixels we can display is maybe only a factor of two different,” he said.
To make it possible for visualization to catch up with accelerating computing capacity, researchers at Calit2 and others have begun designing display systems called OptIPortals that offer better ways of representing scientific data.
Recently, the Calit2 researchers have begun building scaled-down versions called OptIPortables, which are smaller display systems that can be fashioned like Lego blocks from just a handful of displays, rather than dozens or hundreds. The OptIPortable displays can be quickly set up and moved, and Dr. DeFanti said his lab was now at capacity assembling systems for research groups around the world.
Within many scientific fields software-based instruments are quickly adding new functions as open-source systems make it possible for small groups or even individuals to add features that permit customization.
Cytoscape is a bioinformatics software tool set that evolved, beginning in 2001, from research in the laboratory of Leroy Hood at the University of Washington. Dr. Hood, one of the founders of the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle, was a pioneer in the field of automated gene sequencing, and one of his graduate students at the time, Trey Ideker, was exploring whether it was possible to automate the mapping of gene interactions.
As complex a task as gene sequencing is, charting the multiplicity of interactions that are possible among the roughly 30,000 genes that make up the human chromosome is even more complex. It has led to the emergence of the field of network biology as biologists begin to build computer-aided models of cellular and disease processes.
“Very quickly we realized we weren’t the only ones facing this problem and that others were independently developing software tools,” Dr. Ideker said. The researchers decided to take what at the time was a large risk, and began to develop their code as an open-source software development project, meaning that it could be freely shared by the entire biological community. The project picked up speed when Dr. Ideker, who is now chief of genetics at the U.C.S.D. School of Medicine, merged his efforts with Gary Bader, a biologist who now runs a computational biology laboratory at the University of Toronto.
The project picked up collaborators in the past decade as other researchers decided to contribute to it rather than develop independent tools. The project picked up even more speed because the software was designed so that new modules could be contributed by independent researchers who wanted to tailor it for specific tasks.
“We allowed what we called plug-ins back in 2001 — nowadays with Apple’s success you would call them an app,” he said. “There are a couple of hundred apps available for Cytoscape.” The project is now maintained with a $6.5 million grant from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences at the National Institutes of Health.
Tools like Cytoscape have a symbiotic relationship with immense databases that have grown to support the activities of scientists who are studying newer fields like genomics and proteomics. Gene sequencing led to the creation of Genbank, which is now maintained by the National Center for Biotechnology Information. And with a growing array of digital data streams, other databases are being curated — in Europe, for example, at the European Bioinformatics Institute, which has begun to build an array of new databases for functions like protein interactions. Cytoscape helps transform the disparate databases into a federated whole with the aid of plug-ins that allow a scientist to pick and chose from different sources.
For Dr. Börner, the Indiana University computer scientist, the Cytoscape model is a powerful one that builds on the sharing mechanism that is the foundation of the Internet
The idea, she said, is inspired by witnessing the power and impact of the sharing inherent in Web services like Flickr and YouTube. Moreover, it has the potential of being rapidly replicated across many scientific disciplines.
“You can now also share plug-in algorithms,” she said. “You can now create your own library by plugging in your favorite algorithms into your tool.”
May 22, 2011
When the Internet Thinks It Knows You
By ELI PARISER
ONCE upon a time, the story goes, we lived in a broadcast society. In that dusty pre-Internet age, the tools for sharing information weren’t widely available. If you wanted to share your thoughts with the masses, you had to own a printing press or a chunk of the airwaves, or have access to someone who did. Controlling the flow of information was an elite class of editors, producers and media moguls who decided what people would see and hear about the world. They were the Gatekeepers.
Then came the Internet, which made it possible to communicate with millions of people at little or no cost. Suddenly anyone with an Internet connection could share ideas with the whole world. A new era of democratized news media dawned.
You may have heard that story before — maybe from the conservative blogger Glenn Reynolds (blogging is “technology undermining the gatekeepers”) or the progressive blogger Markos Moulitsas (his book is called “Crashing the Gate”). It’s a beautiful story about the revolutionary power of the medium, and as an early practitioner of online politics, I told it to describe what we did at MoveOn.org. But I’m increasingly convinced that we’ve got the ending wrong — perhaps dangerously wrong. There is a new group of gatekeepers in town, and this time, they’re not people, they’re code.
Today’s Internet giants — Google, Facebook, Yahoo and Microsoft — see the remarkable rise of available information as an opportunity. If they can provide services that sift though the data and supply us with the most personally relevant and appealing results, they’ll get the most users and the most ad views. As a result, they’re racing to offer personalized filters that show us the Internet that they think we want to see. These filters, in effect, control and limit the information that reaches our screens.
By now, we’re familiar with ads that follow us around online based on our recent clicks on commercial Web sites. But increasingly, and nearly invisibly, our searches for information are being personalized too. Two people who each search on Google for “Egypt” may get significantly different results, based on their past clicks. Both Yahoo News and Google News make adjustments to their home pages for each individual visitor. And just last month, this technology began making inroads on the Web sites of newspapers like The Washington Post and The New York Times.
All of this is fairly harmless when information about consumer products is filtered into and out of your personal universe. But when personalization affects not just what you buy but how you think, different issues arise. Democracy depends on the citizen’s ability to engage with multiple viewpoints; the Internet limits such engagement when it offers up only information that reflects your already established point of view. While it’s sometimes convenient to see only what you want to see, it’s critical at other times that you see things that you don’t.
Like the old gatekeepers, the engineers who write the new gatekeeping code have enormous power to determine what we know about the world. But unlike the best of the old gatekeepers, they don’t see themselves as keepers of the public trust. There is no algorithmic equivalent to journalistic ethics.
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, once told colleagues that “a squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.” At Facebook, “relevance” is virtually the sole criterion that determines what users see. Focusing on the most personally relevant news — the squirrel — is a great business strategy. But it leaves us staring at our front yard instead of reading about suffering, genocide and revolution.
There’s no going back to the old system of gatekeepers, nor should there be. But if algorithms are taking over the editing function and determining what we see, we need to make sure they weigh variables beyond a narrow “relevance.” They need to show us Afghanistan and Libya as well as Apple and Kanye.
Companies that make use of these algorithms must take this curative responsibility far more seriously than they have to date. They need to give us control over what we see — making it clear when they are personalizing, and allowing us to shape and adjust our own filters. We citizens need to uphold our end, too — developing the “filter literacy” needed to use these tools well and demanding content that broadens our horizons even when it’s uncomfortable.
It is in our collective interest to ensure that the Internet lives up to its potential as a revolutionary connective medium. This won’t happen if we’re all sealed off in our own personalized online worlds.
Eli Pariser, the president of the board of MoveOn.org, is the author of “The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding From You.”
July 3, 2011
Tools of Entry, No Need for a Key Chain
By MATT RICHTEL and VERNE G. KOPYTOFF
SAN FRANCISCO — Front pockets and purses are slowly being emptied of one of civilization’s most basic and enduring tools: the key. It’s being swallowed by the cellphone.
New technology lets smartphones unlock hotel, office and house doors and open garages and even car doors.
It’s a not-too-distant cousin of the technology that allows key fobs to remotely unlock automobiles or key cards to be waved beside electronic pads at office entrances. What’s new is that it is on the device more people are using as the Swiss Army knife of electronics — in equal parts phone, memo pad, stereo, map, GPS unit, camera and game machine.
The phone simply sends a signal through the Internet and a converter box to a deadbolt or door knob. Other systems use internal company networks, like General Motors’ OnStar system, to unlock car doors.
Because nearly everyone has a cellphone, a number of start-ups, lock companies and carmakers are betting on broad acceptance of the technology.
July 21, 2011
Race to the Moon Heats Up for Private Firms
By KENNETH CHANG
Now that the last space shuttle has landed back on Earth, a new generation of space entrepreneurs would like to whip up excitement about the prospect of returning to the Moon.
Spurred by a $30 million purse put up by Google, 29 teams have signed up for a competition to become the first private venture to land on the Moon. Most of them are unlikely to overcome the financial and technical challenges to meet the contest deadline of December 2015, but several teams think they have a good shot to win — and to take an early lead in a race to take commercial advantage of our celestial neighbor.
At the very least, a flotilla of unmanned spacecraft could be headed Moonward within the next few years, with goals that range from lofty to goofy.
One Silicon Valley venture, Moon Express, is positioning itself as a future FedEx for Moon deliveries: if you have something to send there, the company would like to take it. Moon Express was having a party on Thursday night to show off the flight capabilities of its lunar lander, based on technology it licensed from NASA, and “to begin the next era of the private commercial race to the Moon,” as the invitation put it.
“In the near future, the Moon Express lunar lander will be mining the Moon for precious resources that we need here on Earth,” the invitation promised. “Years from now, we will all remember we were there.”
August 13, 2011
A Theory of Everything (Sort of)
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
LONDON burns. The Arab Spring triggers popular rebellions against autocrats across the Arab world. The Israeli Summer brings 250,000 Israelis into the streets, protesting the lack of affordable housing and the way their country is now dominated by an oligopoly of crony capitalists. From Athens to Barcelona, European town squares are being taken over by young people railing against unemployment and the injustice of yawning income gaps, while the angry Tea Party emerges from nowhere and sets American politics on its head.
What’s going on here?
There are multiple and different reasons for these explosions, but to the extent they might have a common denominator I think it can be found in one of the slogans of Israel’s middle-class uprising: “We are fighting for an accessible future.” Across the world, a lot of middle- and lower-middle-class people now feel that the “future” is out of their grasp, and they are letting their leaders know it.
Why now? It starts with the fact that globalization and the information technology revolution have gone to a whole new level. Thanks to cloud computing, robotics, 3G wireless connectivity, Skype, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Twitter, the iPad, and cheap Internet-enabled smartphones, the world has gone from connected to hyper-connected.
This is the single most important trend in the world today. And it is a critical reason why, to get into the middle class now, you have to study harder, work smarter and adapt quicker than ever before. All this technology and globalization are eliminating more and more “routine” work — the sort of work that once sustained a lot of middle-class lifestyles.
The merger of globalization and I.T. is driving huge productivity gains, especially in recessionary times, where employers are finding it easier, cheaper and more necessary than ever to replace labor with machines, computers, robots and talented foreign workers. It used to be that only cheap foreign manual labor was easily available; now cheap foreign genius is easily available. This explains why corporations are getting richer and middle-skilled workers poorer. Good jobs do exist, but they require more education or technical skills. Unemployment today still remains relatively low for people with college degrees. But to get one of those degrees and to leverage it for a good job requires everyone to raise their game. It’s hard.
Think of what The Times reported last February: At little Grinnell College in rural Iowa, with 1,600 students, “nearly one of every 10 applicants being considered for the class of 2015 is from China.” The article noted that dozens of other American colleges and universities are seeing a similar surge as well. And the article added this fact: Half the “applicants from China this year have perfect scores of 800 on the math portion of the SAT.”
Not only does it take more skill to get a good job, but for those who are unable to raise their games, governments no longer can afford generous welfare support or cheap credit to be used to buy a home for nothing down — which created a lot of manual labor in construction and retail. Alas, for the 50 years after World War II, to be a president, mayor, governor or university president meant, more often than not, giving things away to people. Today, it means taking things away from people.
All of this is happening at a time when this same globalization/I.T. revolution enables the globalization of anger, with all of these demonstrations now inspiring each other. Some Israeli protestors carried a sign: “Walk Like an Egyptian.” While these social protests — and their flash-mob, criminal mutations like those in London — are not caused by new technologies per se, they are fueled by them.
This globalization/I.T. revolution is also “super-empowering” individuals, enabling them to challenge hierarchies and traditional authority figures — from business to science to government. It is also enabling the creation of powerful minorities and making governing harder and minority rule easier than ever. See dictionary for: “Tea Party.”
Surely one of the iconic images of this time is the picture of Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak — for three decades a modern pharaoh — being hauled into court, held in a cage with his two sons and tried for attempting to crush his people’s peaceful demonstrations. Every leader and C.E.O. should reflect on that photo. “The power pyramid is being turned upside down," said Yaron Ezrahi, an Israeli political theorist.
So let’s review: We are increasingly taking easy credit, routine work and government jobs and entitlements away from the middle class — at a time when it takes more skill to get and hold a decent job, at a time when citizens have more access to media to organize, protest and challenge authority and at a time when this same merger of globalization and I.T. is creating huge wages for people with global skills (or for those who learn to game the system and get access to money, monopolies or government contracts by being close to those in power) — thus widening income gaps and fueling resentments even more.
Put it all together and you have today’s front-page news.
Massive Biometric Project Gives Millions of Indians an ID
By Vince Beiser Email Author
August 19, 2011 |
1:27 pm |
Wired September 2011
"Kiran has never touched or even seen a real computer, let alone an iris scanner. She thinks she’s 32, but she’s not sure exactly when she was born. Kiran has no birth certificate, or ID of any kind for that matter—no driver’s license, no voting card, nothing at all to document her existence. Eight years ago, she left her home in a destitute farming village and wound up here in Mongolpuri, a teeming warren of shabby apartment blocks and tarp-roofed shanties where grimy barefoot children, cargo bicycles, haggard dogs, goats, and cows jostle through narrow, trash-filled streets. Kiran earns about $1.50 a day sorting cast-off clothing for recycling. In short, she’s just another of India’s vast legions of anonymous poor.
Now, for the first time, her government is taking note of her. Kiran and her children are having their personal information recorded in an official database—not just any official database, but one of the biggest the world has ever seen. They are the latest among millions of enrollees in India’s Unique Identification project, also known as Aadhaar, which means “the foundation” in several Indian languages. Its goal is to issue identification numbers linked to the fingerprints and iris scans of every single person in India.
That’s more than 1.2 billion people—everyone from Himalayan mountain villagers to Bangalorean call-center workers, from Rajasthani desert nomads to Mumbai street beggars—speaking more than 300 languages and dialects. The biometrics and the Aadhaar identification number will serve as a verifiable, portable, all but unfakable national ID. It is by far the biggest and most technologically complicated biometrics program ever attempted."
The Oxford Multi Spectral scanner was developed for imaging ancient papyri. Photo: OMS
A scanner which combines the convenience of a desktop scanner with the functionality of a powerful laboratory imaging device has been developed at the University of Oxford’s Faculty of Classics, and is now being commercialised by a new company Oxford Multi Spectral Limited which was today spun out by the University’s technology transfer company Isis Innovation.
The scanner was developed for imaging ancient papyri and the technology has been used to successfully scan, restore and archive over a quarter of a million historically significant manuscripts.
Oxford Multi Spectral Limited (OMS) will focus on the applications in restoring manuscripts and art, as well as the huge potential market for detecting forged security and border control documents, bank notes and forensic evidence.
September 29, 2011, 7:55 pm
Making Change Happen, on a Deadline
By TINA ROSENBERG
Rapid Results, a strategy designed for corporations, is helping communities in Africa set goals and solve problems in 100 days or less.
"PreFabricated surpassed its goal using a strategy called Rapid Results, in which a group of people choose a project and carry it out in 100 days. Companies in Addis that used Rapid Results got their H.I.V. testing rates up to about 75 percent — triple the norm. The same method has been used in Nicaragua to help pig farmers raise fatter pigs and to improve dairy farms’ milk quality. In Rwanda, two villages doubled the number of attended births in less than 100 days, and the Rapid Results team went on to work on other projects to protect mothers’ health. In Madagascar, four districts quintupled the use of family planning services in 50 days, and the Health Ministry then began the program on a national scale. Kenya is using Rapid Results in virtually all its ministries; one campaign in the province of Nyanza circumcised 40,000 men in two months — a crucial achievement for AIDS prevention. Rapid Results has made Kenya by far the leader in Africa in scaling up circumcision. Villages in Ghana, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Eritrea and other countries have used Rapid Results to improve local infrastructure as well — digging wells, constructing bridges and roads, building schools.
Rapid Results is an eccentric idea. Nadim Matta, a management consultant who is president of the Rapid Results Institute in Stamford, Conn., likes to say that what’s missing to turn poor places into rich places isn’t more information, money, technology, workshops, programs, evaluation or any of the other things that development organizations normally provide. What’s missing are motivation and confidence.
At first glance, this seems crazy — can we cheerlead our way into the middle class?"
October 3, 2011, 2:30 pm
Disrupters and Adapters, Continued: Will the Internet Save Newspapers?
The two visions of higher education’s future I described in my column this week – Stanford Professor Sebastian Thrun’s mission of a virtual university and Stanford President John Hennessy’s devotion to a flesh-and-blood campus – intrigued me because of the larger context. So much of the debate about the impact of new technology tends to be polarizing. The utopians versus the skeptics, the idealists versus the realists, those who throw themselves headlong into the great mosh pit of the new, and those who cherish the familiar and time-honored.
To the champions of the new, those who hesitate are Luddites and curmudgeons and reactionaries, destined to be left behind in the march of civilization. (I speak from some experience. The response to recent columns, in which I suggested that social media and news aggregation have their downsides, taught me that, whatever limitations Twitter may have as a vehicle for discussion, it is an excellent medium for name-calling.) To those who have not chosen to move their social lives to Facebook and Google+, or who believe that maybe content doesn’t necessarily want to be free, the digiphiles can sometimes feel a little like a cult of scolds.
What struck me about the rival views of higher education is that it is not so much a stark choice as a kind of tense synergy between old and new. As digital access continues to spread and technologies like telepresence and virtual reality improve, the Web will offer ever better education to wider and wider audiences at lower and lower prices. Education, to borrow a Tom Friedmanism, will be flatter. But there will still be nodes of excellence, actual campuses offering actual human contact.
Hennessy, not surprisingly, stresses the virtues of the non-virtual, especially for undergraduates, and especially in liberal arts. Proximity has real advantages in refining the skills of thought and expression, and nothing quite matches the experience of coexisting with people of diverse backgrounds. Thrun concedes a residential campus is “a fantastic experience.” “Many people find their life partner,” he added. “You hang out with people who are pre-selected to be successful people.” And the extraordinary alliance Stanford has forged with the city of Palo Alto has proven that, sometimes, location can generate explosive creativity. Technology will surely supplant some of the expensive infrastructure of a top college degree, but it is a long, long way from replicating the experience.
You may find yourself more drawn more to Thrun’s status-quo-disrupting mission of delivering education to the masses, or you may find your heart is with Hennessy’s not-quite-so-fast defense of a university system that has produced generations of great scholars. But it is entirely plausible to find them both indispensable.
I think the same thing can be said of many industries, including my own. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
Technology upended the music business – except that today there are more musical choices, more widely accessible, at a reasonable price. (And you can still buy your music on vinyl if you like.) Technology was supposed to render books irrelevant – until eBooks came along to save them. (And you can still buy books in print.)
I think the same may well prove true of the newspaper business – that, having assisted in the death of many newspapers, technology will save those that adapt.
By the way, to digress for a minute, those who say the Internet killed newspapers should review their history. For one thing, nobody has killed more newspapers than newspaper publishers, who culled competition to create monopoly markets. When I left the staff of The Oregonian in 1979, Portland had two daily newspapers. Three years later the Newhouse chain (which owned both of them) closed the afternoon paper. When I left the staff of the Dallas Times Herald in 1985, it was one of two good newspapers jostling for primacy in that city. In 1991, the Belo Corporation, owner of the rival Dallas Morning News, bought the Times Herald for $55 million, and shut it down the next day. It’s no surprise that many of the cities that had newspapers die in recent years have been two-paper cities where the papers had been kept on life support by joint operating agreements. Their demise is sad, but it was a long time coming.
Nor can the Internet be blamed for the Great Recession, which did its part for the newspaper mortality rate. Advertisers hunkered down, cutting off the financial oxygen that most newspapers depend on.
The Internet did its part by siphoning off classified ad revenue that, for many major dailies, was 40 percent of their income; by breaking down the barriers to entry, allowing anyone to start a news site on line; and by nurturing a belief that newspaper content was free. The Great Disrupter did its damage, and some newspapers that had survived monopolist newspaper companies and the recession could not endure.
But for some newspapers that have embraced the opportunities created by the Internet, there is real cause for optimism. The Internet has given us new ways of gathering news, and new ways of telling stories. It has enlarged our audience many fold. It has tapped into the creative energy of good journalists and engendered – at The Times, and elsewhere – an openness to experimentation.
And it holds real promise of rescuing our business model. The New York Times and the Times-owned Boston Globe, the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal, to cite a few of the most prominent examples, have all persuaded readers to pay for their content on line.
It’s not divulging any dark secret to say that, when The Times began grappling with its digital future, we were not immune from that utopian-realist divide that has emerged at Stanford. There were partisans of scale, who argued for the primacy of an immense audience to drive ad revenues, and partisans of quality, who argued that people would pay for gold-standard journalism. What we discovered – at least, what we hope and believe we have discovered – is that it’s a false choice. If you build it, they will come.
Maybe it’s not too early to start drafting the new narrative: How the Internet Saved the Newspaper.
FROM the 1960s through the 1980s, the United States of America conducted a long experiment in ugliness. Our architects grew bored with beauty, our designers tired of elegance, our urban planners decided that function should trump form. We bulldozed row houses and threw up housing projects. We built public buildings out of raw concrete. We wore leisure suits and shoulder pads, buried heart-of-pine floors under shag carpeting, and paneled our automobiles with artificial wood.
This is the world in which Steve Jobs came of age. It was, not coincidentally, a world in which it became easy to believe that the United States was in decline. Our churches looked like recreation centers, and our rec centers looked like re-education camps. Our campuses and civic spaces were defaced by ziggurats of cement. Our cities had crime-ridden towers and white elephant shopping centers where the neighborhoods used to be. Our suburbs were filled with what James Howard Kunstler described as the “junk architecture” of strip malls and ranch houses.
Then, gradually and haltingly, beauty began to make a comeback. A “new urbanist” movement championed a return to walkable neighborhoods, human-scale housing, and pleasant public spaces. Our clothes became less garish, our cars more curvaceous, our civic architecture less offensive. And most remarkably, our machines ceased to be utilitarian boxes, and became something beautiful instead.
When we think about what Jobs meant to turn-of-the-millennium America, this is the place to start: not just with the technical wizardry behind Macs and iPhones and iPads, but with the Apple founder’s eye for grace and style, and his recognition of the deep connection between beauty and civilization.
There would have been some sort of desktop computer without the Macintosh, some sort of popular smartphone without the iPhone, some kind of big-screen computer animation without Pixar. But there was no guarantee that any of these technological wonders would be so exquisite, or that the age of information would also be an age of artistry.
Jobs wasn’t an artist himself. But he was a curator, a critic and a patron. Whether he was deciding that the first Macintosh computer would feature beautiful typography or telling Pixar’s animators to “make it great,” he played a decisive role in restoring a kind of defiant aestheticism to American life.
Like the glories of Art Deco and the allure of the “Mad Men” era, his products were a rebuke to the idea that the aesthetics of modern life needed to be utilitarian and blah. From the Apple store to “The Incredibles,” Jobs revived the romance of modernity — the assumption, shared by Victorian science-fiction writers and space-age dreamers alike, that the world of the future should be more glamorous than the present.
The question is whether this revival has staying power. The age of architectural Brutalism is past, but between the travails of planning-by-committee and the red tape of bureaucracy, our civic projects still tend to be uninspired in design and interminable in execution. (The newest additions to the Washington Mall, the World War II and Martin Luther King Jr. memorials, look like rejected rough drafts for monuments rather than inspiring finished products.) For all its successes, the new urbanism sometimes feels more like a reclamation project than a renaissance: it’s saved the row houses of yesterday without building the neighborhoods of tomorrow.
So too with technology, where some of the eulogies for Jobs have highlighted the gulf between the computer revolution’s rapid progress and the lack of advancement in fields like medicine and transportation. The iPhone and the iPad may be aesthetically perfect, but in an otherwise stagnant society their charms can be an invitation to solipsism — holding up mirrors to our vanity, instead of opening windows to breakthroughs more impressive than the latest app.
You can see a version of this peril in our politics as well. In a sense, Barack Obama’s 2008 march to the White House was the iPhone of political campaigns: a perfect marriage of aesthetics, spectacle and social media, a revival of the old New Frontier excitement, the natural culmination of glamour’s post-1970s comeback in American life. But three years later much of that looks like an illusion — a temporary echo of liberalism’s golden age, evoking successes that today’s Democratic Party can’t recapture.
Right now, Steve Jobs’s legacy seems more secure than President Obama’s. (Certainly his fan base is less fickle.) But there’s still a danger that we’ll look back on Apple’s golden age and see it as a fleeting creative spike in a larger story of cultural decline.
Whether that happens is up to tomorrow’s innovators. If they learn anything from Jobs, it should be that their vocation isn’t just about uniting commerce and technology. It’s about making the modern world more beautiful as well.
October 30, 2011
Concerns Are Raised About Genetically Engineered Mosquitoes
By ANDREW POLLACK
These mosquitoes are genetically engineered to kill — their own children.
Researchers on Sunday reported initial signs of success from the first release into the environment of mosquitoes engineered to pass a lethal gene to their offspring, killing them before they reach adulthood.
The results, and other work elsewhere, could herald an age in which genetically modified insects will be used to help control agricultural pests and insect-borne diseases like dengue fever and malaria.
October 31, 2011
Decoding the Brain’s Cacophony
By BENEDICT CAREY
ST. HELENA, Calif. — The scientists exchanged one last look and held their breath.
Everything was ready. The electrode was in place, threaded between the two hemispheres of a living cat’s brain; the instruments were tuned to pick up the chatter passing from one half to the other. The only thing left was to listen for that electronic whisper, the brain’s own internal code.
The amplifier hissed — the three scientists expectantly leaning closer — and out it came, loud and clear.
“We all live in a yellow submarine, yellow submarine, yellow submarine ....”
“The Beatles’ song! We somehow picked up the frequency of a radio station,” recalled Michael S. Gazzaniga, chuckling at the 45-year-old memory. “The brain’s secret code. Yeah, right!”
Dr. Gazzaniga, 71, now a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is best known for a dazzling series of studies that revealed the brain’s split personality, the division of labor between its left and right hemispheres. But he is perhaps next best known for telling stories, many of them about blown experiments, dumb questions and other blunders during his nearly half-century career at the top of his field.
Now, in lectures and a new book, he is spelling out another kind of cautionary tale — a serious one, about the uses of neuroscience in society, particularly in the courtroom.
Brain science “will eventually begin to influence how the public views justice and responsibility,” Dr. Gazzaniga said at a recent conference here sponsored by the Edge Foundation.
And there is no guarantee, he added, that its influence will be a good one.
October 29, 2011
Addicted to Exercise?
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
FOR decades, scientists have studied areas deep within the brain that seem associated with pleasure and addiction.
Put an electrode in that part of a rat’s brain, and it will become obsessed with stimulating those areas. When rats are allowed to push a lever in exchange for a mild current that produces a “high” in the “pleasure centers,” they will press the lever up to 7,000 times per hour.
These rats forget to eat or drink, and they must be unhooked to prevent self-starvation. Male rats ignore females in heat to get a fix, and nursing mothers ignore their babies.
“Pressing that lever became their entire world,” David J. Linden, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University medical school, writes in his fascinating new book, “The Compass of Pleasure.”
Professor Linden explains how drugs such as cocaine that light up these pleasure centers (there are several interconnected areas) actually rewire the brain to increase cravings. You can look at magnified photos of rat brains and tell which animal was given cocaine and which wasn’t.
Yet it’s not just drugs. Brain scans suggest that everything from sugar to sex lights up the brain’s pleasure circuitry. These all can have neurological consequences that correspond to what we think of as addiction. For example: exercise.
February 19, 2012
Physicists Create a Working Transistor From a Single Atom
By JOHN MARKOFF
Australian and American physicists have built a working transistor from a single phosphorus atom embedded in a silicon crystal.
The group of physicists, based at the University of New South Wales and Purdue University, said they had laid the groundwork for a futuristic quantum computer that might one day function in a nanoscale world and would be orders of magnitude smaller and quicker than today’s silicon-based machines.
In contrast to conventional computers that are based on transistors with distinct “on” and “off” or “1” and “0” states, quantum computers are built from devices called qubits that exploit the quirky properties of quantum mechanics. Unlike a transistor, a qubit can represent a multiplicity of values simultaneously.
That might make it possible to factor large numbers more quickly than with conventional machines, thereby undermining modern data-scrambling systems that are the basis of electronic commerce and data privacy. Quantum computers might also make it possible to simulate molecular structures with great speed, an advance that holds promise for designing new drugs and other materials.
Sometimes simpler is better
UW researcher’s X-ray device could help to “knock out” tuberculosis in developing countries
Karim Karim University of Waterloo associate professor Karim S. Karim is developing a low-cost digital x-ray tool to detect TB in developing countries.
Philip Walker/Record staff
WATERLOO — It only takes an inexpensive digital X-ray detector to help stamp out a disease that is killing millions of people in developing countries, an award-winning University of Waterloo researcher says.
Karim S. Karim is developing a $1,000 digital X-ray device to screen for tuberculosis, a killer disease that affects a third of the world’s population and claims 1.8-million lives annually, most of them in Asia and Africa.
Karim, who was born in Pakistan, has seen the devastation that tuberculosis can do. He vividly recalls being a child in Pakistan and seeing patients with tuberculosis cough up blood. Both of his parents were doctors, he says, and he heard about the disease a lot at home.
“Tuberculosis is something that I have seen, and it’s bad . . . . It was a big thing there. In fact, I’d say it’s more prevalent than heart disease. It’s in all ages, but the worst segment that’s affected is the young ones. It’s the biggest tragedy there.”
As a scientist, Karim made a key discovery that led him to challenge the disease.
And that is that you don’t need to come up with the best advancement, the highest-performing technology or the most-talked-about solution in order to make a difference in the world, he says.
This month, the associate professor in the UW department of electrical and computer engineering was named one of 15 “rising star” researchers by Grand Challenges Canada.
Grand Challenges is an independent not-for-profit organization funded through a federal government program that urges the best minds to find solutions to the world’s health problems.
Karim received a $100,000 seed grant to develop his digital X-ray detector further. He could receive $1 million to continue the work if his innovation is judged to have the highest potential of the proposals. Other winners include a scientist who is using chicken feathers as a filter to remove arsenic in water supplies and a researcher who is developing a medical records system for use in the worst slum in Nairobi.
Digital X-ray detectors currently cost about $100,000 and are produced for general use in hospitals in developing countries, Karim says. But because there are too few hospitals, they aren’t very accessible, he says.
So Karim is developing a low-cost digital X-ray detector that will screen for tuberculosis only. He’s using existing detectors and modifying them so that they’re smaller — since the detector will only be used to examine the lungs, not the full chest. Then they can be used in tuberculosis screening clinics in developing countries, he says.
“The technology is out there,” he says. “The larger the panel, the larger the cost. You cut the area in half and you’ve taken half the cost out.” Karim is working with Aga Khan University in Pakistan, which is providing him with images of patients with tuberculosis in order to help him build a prototype. “I want to build a system that I can now ship to Aga Khan University in Pakistan for them to test,” he says.
“The ultimate vision would be a network of low-cost health care clinics in developing countries.” Screening would help detect the disease so people can be cured. Besides saving lives, the diagnostic tool has the potential to help change a country’s prosperity, he says.
“Right now, the problem that grips a lot of developing countries is their workforce gets decimated by preventable diseases like tuberculosis. If you can find a way to screen and knock out tuberculosis, now you’ve got a massive improvement in the workforce, therefore the economy and positive change comes about.”
During his research career, Karim says, he experienced a series of eureka moments that made him realize that aiming for the ultimate in scientific discovery isn’t always the most useful approach.
But that’s a different way of thinking for many researchers, whose culture it is to continue to raise the bar by developing faster, newer, better technology than anything that exists, says Karim, adding that he’s “not knocking fundamental science.”
He had to give his own head a shake before he accepted his own conclusions, he says.
“I think it’s a bizarre thing for a researcher to say . . . but I actually think this is a key point,” Karim says.
“I’ve been developing all this wonderful technology that is an inch better or an ounce better or a per cent better. We’re constantly pushing that envelope of performance, but what does it really mean to get it out there?”
Karim says he learned this lesson after trying to commercialize technology he developed while working on his PhD in Waterloo, then at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver where he taught from 2003 to 2007.
One project he developed was a low-dose, real-time X-ray camera.
“I had developed something improved, but not necessarily what was needed.”
He decided that he needed to learn from businesspeople. They “always have the end use in mind because if you don’t have the end use in mind, you’re going to fail in business,” he says.
He applied for a Science to Business fellowship that was offered by a federal health research funding agency and would pay the cost for him to obtain a master of business administration degree.
He got the funding, and was on the road, twice a week, for 7 a.m. classes at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto.
With full teaching responsibilities at UW and two young daughters, he couldn’t have managed the work and study load without the help of his wife, Tasreen Charania, who is also working on her PhD, he says. He will finish the MBA program in April.
Karim has learned to think of the consumer, rather than taking “the deep dive into technology.” As a result, he says, he took old technology and low-cost materials and made them perform better to produce a fast, low-dose X-ray camera with good image quality. A Canadian company is now interested in the results of that research, he says.
What he learned at business school also led him to enter the Grand Challenges Canada competition with his idea for a revised screening technology for tuberculosis. If his idea is used, “it’s huge,” he says.
“We’d be giving people a chance at a better life . . . or at life, period.” He says he views the research as a fulfilling way to give back to the community. “It tends to meet the needs of the spirit.”
March 7, 2012
Cost of Gene Sequencing Falls, Raising Hopes for Medical Advances
By JOHN MARKOFF
MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — In Silicon Valley, the line between computing and biology has begun to blur in a way that could have enormous consequences for human longevity.
Bill Banyai, an optical physicist at Complete Genomics, has helped make that happen. When he began developing a gene sequencing machine, he relied heavily on his background at two computer networking start-up companies. His digital expertise was essential in designing a factory that automated and greatly lowered the cost of mapping the three billion base pairs that form the human genome.
The promise is that low-cost gene sequencing will lead to a new era of personalized medicine, yielding new approaches for treating cancers and other serious diseases. The arrival of such cures has been glacial, however, although the human genome was originally sequenced more than a decade ago.
Now that is changing, in large part because of the same semiconductor industry manufacturing trends that opened up consumer devices like the PC and the smartphone: exponential increases in processing power and transistor density are accompanied by costs that fall at an accelerating rate.
As a result, both new understanding and new medicines will arrive at a quickening pace, according to the biologists and computer scientists.
“For all of human history, humans have not had the readout of the software that makes them alive,” said Larry Smarr, director of the California Institute of Telecommunications and Information Technology, a research center that is jointly operated by the University of California, San Diego, and the University of California, Irvine, who is a member of the Complete Genomics scientific advisory board. “Once you make the transition from a data poor to data rich environment, everything changes.”
Complete Genomics, based in Mountain View, is one of more than three dozen firms hastening to push the cost of sequencing an entire human genome below $1,000. The challenge is part biology, part chemistry, part computing, and in Complete Genomics’ case, part computer networking.
Complete Genomics is a classic Silicon Valley start-up story. Even the gene sequencing machines, which are housed in a 4,000-square-foot room bathed in an eerie blue light, appear more like a traditional data center than a biology lab.
In 2005 ,when Clifford Reid, a successful Silicon Valley software entrepreneur, began to assemble his team, he approached Dr. Banyai and asked if he was interested in joining a gene sequencing start-up. Dr. Reid, who was also trained in physics and math, had spent a year as an entrepreneur-in-residence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he had become a convert to bioinformatics, the application of computer science and information technologies to biology and medicine.
Dr. Banyai had even less experience in biology.
Formerly with the Internet networking start-ups GlimmerGlass and Silicon Light Machines, he in turn began by reading a pioneering 2005 article in the journal Science in which a group of researchers in George Church’s genetics laboratory at Harvard describe a new technique intended to speed gene sequencing.
Today Dr. Banyai is finishing the second generation of a machine that blends robotics, chemistry, optics and computing. It is emblematic of the serendipitous changes that take place when a manufacturing process is transformed: performance increases and cost falls at an accelerating rate.
“Genomes are now being sequenced incredibly cheaply,” said Russ B. Altman, who is a founder of Personalis, a start-up based in Palo Alto, Calif., that is developing software to interpret genomes. “On the discovery and science side we will be able to do clinical trials. We’ll be able to check the entire genome.”
Recently, on the company’s Web site, Dr. Reid predicted that the cost of gene sequencing could eventually be as low as that of a blood test: “I believe that the impact on the medical community of whole human genome sequencing at a cost comparable to a comprehensive blood test will be profound, and it will raise a host of public policy issues (privacy, security, disclosure, reimbursement, interpretation, counseling, etc.), all important topics for future discussions,” he wrote.
Dr. Banyai said he had found that Silicon Valley start-up ideas tracked well. “There is this remarkable thing that happens in start-ups. You make up this plan and then you step off a cliff and magically a little bridge appears,” he noted, as new technologies appear in the nick of time.
In the case of Complete Genomics, the company is riding in part on big advances being made in industrial digital cameras that are capable of capturing the fluorescent molecules that are used to “read” small sequences of DNA.
In the last half-year, a new generation of cameras, more frequently used for factory inspection systems, has made it possible to speed up the Complete Genomics sequencing process tenfold. That, the company has said, will drive its capacity to 100,000 genomes annually from 10,000.
The parallels between the evolution of the nascent gene sequencing industry and the Valley’s chip makers are striking. By placing more circuits on a silicon wafer at an exponentially increasing pace since the early 1960s, the semiconductor industry transformed the cost of computing. As a result, today the world’s most powerful supercomputer from the 1980s nestles comfortably in your hand and costs several hundred dollars.
Complete Genomics’ competitors are also exploiting designs to drive costs down. For example, Life Technologies, based in Carlsbad, Calif. uses a direct approach to read the bases in the genome from an array of sensors on the surface of a semiconductor chip. As more sensors are packed onto each successive generation of technology, the cost of sequencing will also fall sharply.
Last month, Oxford Nanopore Technologies created an industry sensation when it introduced a machine that sequenced genes using an alternative approach called nanopore sequencing, in which a strand of DNA is read as it is pulled through a microscopic hole.
The system is scheduled to be available later this year. However, it has an error rate much higher than that of the Complete Genomics system, which has independently been given high marks for accuracy.
Because there is no clear winner yet, all of the companies are pushing hard to get down the cost curve as fast as possible
In 2011, Complete Genomics became one of the market leaders. This year, it has produced more than 3,000 sequences at a cost of about $5,000 each. Dr. Banyai’s higher capacity second generation system is now being installed and will begin production during the first half of this year. A third generation design has been completed.
What initially set Complete Genomics apart from the field was its strategy of offering gene sequencing as a service, rather than selling a machine to laboratories. More recently, Illumina, one of its crucial competitors, has also begun offering sequencing as a service, in addition to selling its machines.
“Our competitors have to supply kits that can be executed by a graduate student rolling out of bed with a hangover,” said Dr. Reid. “We don’t live with that standard, and that can be tremendously liberating. Ours can be horrifically complex as long as it can be executed by a robot.”
The company also began with the business intent of sequencing only the human genome, rather than those of other species, too — a strategy that was heresy in 2005, when the founders set out to raise money. At that time, only two human genomes had been sequenced. However, Complete Genomics founders argue that focusing just on the human genome has given them a leg up.
“You make a whole bunch of decisions that don’t work well for corn or bacteria, but they work very well for humans,” Dr. Reid said.
Invented by the British chemist Humphry Davy in the early 1800s, it spent nearly 80 years being passed from one initially hopeful researcher to another, like some not-quite-housebroken puppy. In 1879, Thomas Edison finally figured out how to make an incandescent light bulb that people would buy. But that didn’t mean the technology immediately became successful. It took another 40 years, into the 1920s, for electric utilities to become stable, profitable businesses. And even then, success happened only because the utilities created other reasons to consume electricity. They invented the electric toaster and the electric curling iron and found lots of uses for electric motors. They built Coney Island. They installed electric streetcar lines in any place large enough to call itself a town. All of this, these frivolous gadgets and pleasurable diversions, gave us the light bulb.
We tend to rewrite the histories of technological innovation, making myths about a guy who had a great idea that changed the world. In reality, though, innovation isn’t the goal; it’s everything that gets you there. It’s bad financial decisions and blueprints for machines that weren’t built until decades later. It’s the important leaps forward that synthesize lots of ideas, and it’s the belly-up failures that teach us what not to do.
When we ignore how innovation actually works, we make it hard to see what’s happening right in front of us today. If you don’t know that the incandescent light was a failure before it was a success, it’s easy to write off some modern energy innovations — like solar panels — because they haven’t hit the big time fast enough.
Worse, the fairy-tale view of history implies that innovation has an end. It doesn’t. What we want and what we need keeps changing. The incandescent light was a 19th-century failure and a 20th- century success. Now it’s a failure again, edged out by new technologies, like LEDs, that were, themselves, failures for many years.
That’s what this issue is about: all the little failures, trivialities and not-quite-solved mysteries that make the successes possible. This is what innovation looks like. It’s messy, and it’s awesome. Maggie Koerth-Baker
DNA Blueprint for Fetus Built Using Tests of Parents
By ANDREW POLLACK
For the first time, researchers have determined virtually the entire genome of a fetus using only a blood sample from the pregnant woman and a saliva specimen from the father.
The accomplishment heralds an era in which parents might find it easier to know the complete DNA blueprint of a child months before it is born.
That would allow thousands of genetic diseases to be detected prenatally. But the ability to know so much about an unborn child is likely to raise serious ethical considerations as well. It could increase abortions for reasons that have little to do with medical issues and more to do with parental preferences for traits in children.
“It’s an extraordinary piece of technology, really quite remarkable,” said Peter Benn, professor of genetics and developmental biology at the University of Connecticut, who was not involved in the work. “What I see in this paper is a glance into the future.”
The paper, published Wednesday in the journal Science Translational Medicine, was written by genome scientists at the University of Washington. They took advantage of new high-speed DNA sequencing and some statistical and computational acrobatics to deduce the DNA sequence of the fetus with about 98 percent accuracy.
The process is not practical, affordable or accurate enough for use now, experts said. The University of Washington researchers estimated that it would cost $20,000 to $50,000 to do one fetal genome today.
But the cost of DNA sequencing is falling at a blistering pace, and accuracy is improving as well. The researchers estimated that the procedure could be widely available in three to five years. Others said it would take somewhat longer.
It is already possible to determine the DNA sequence of a fetus by acquiring fetal cells through amniocentesis or chorionic villus sampling, which involves testing the placental tissue. But these procedures are invasive and carry a slight risk of inducing a miscarriage.
For couples worried about passing on a genetic disease, it is also possible to use in vitro fertilization and have an embryo genetically tested before implantation into the womb.
July 3, 2012
Rapid H.I.V. Home Test Wins Federal Approval
By DONALD G. McNEIL Jr.
After decades of controversy, the Food and Drug Administration approved a new H.I.V. test on Tuesday that for the first time makes it possible for Americans to learn in the privacy of their homes whether they are infected.
The availability of an H.I.V. test as easy to use as a home-pregnancy kit is yet another step in the normalization of a disease that was once seen as a mark of shame and a death sentence.
The OraQuick test, by OraSure Technologies, uses a mouth swab and gives results in 20 to 40 minutes. A previous test sold over the counter required a user to prick a finger and mail a drop of dried blood to a lab.
Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the longtime AIDS researcher and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, called the new test a “positive step forward” and one that could help bring the 30-year-old epidemic under control.
Getting an infected person onto antiretroviral drugs lowers by as much as 96 percent the chance that he or she will transmit the virus to someone else, so testing and treatment have become crucial to prevention. About 20 percent of the 1.2 million infected Americans do not know they have the disease, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates, and about 50,000 more get infected each year.
Dr. Robert Gallo, who headed the National Institutes of Health lab that developed the first American blood test for the virus in 1984, called the F.D.A. approval “wonderful because it will get more people into care.”
The idea of a home test has long been mired in controversy. The first application for one was made in 1987, and the F.D.A. has been considering OraSure’s simple mouth-swab test since 2005.
But the history of AIDS and the human immunodeficiency virus that causes it are unique. AIDS emerged in the 1980s wrapped in a shroud of stigma. It was spread by sex, drug injections and blood transfusions. Along with hemophiliacs, heroin users and Haitians, the most vocal group of early victims was gay men, who were then in the throes of a loud and defiant liberation movement.
Because merely being tested for H.I.V. was seen as tantamount to being publicly revealed as gay or addicted to drugs, and because an H.I.V.-positive result was a death sentence, groups like the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and newspapers like The New York Native advised their members and readers to shun testing until ironclad guarantees of anonymity were put in place.
Alarmists predicted a wave of suicides if home tests were made available. At hearings, advocates for AIDS patients handed out copies of an obituary of a San Francisco man who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge after learning he was infected. C.D.C. officials warned their F.D.A. counterparts that home testing could lead to a surge of new patients that would swamp overburdened health clinics, according to an F.D.A. document.
So, even as tests for other stigmatized diseases like syphilis were once part of getting a marriage license and home pregnancy kits became available at every corner pharmacy, H.I.V. tests lived in a special limbo, usually requiring a counseling session and the signing of a consent form, adding to the air of dread.
Even when antiretroviral drugs emerged in the mid-1990s, states were slow to rewrite laws governing testing.
Mark Harrington, the executive director of the Treatment Action Group, an AIDS advocacy organization, said in an interview that he thought such fears were “a thing of the past” now that it is clear that early treatment saves lives. “Any tool that speeds up diagnosis is really needed,” he said.
The new test has some drawbacks. While it is extremely accurate when administered by medical professionals, it is less so when used by consumers. Researchers found the home test accurate 99.98 percent of the time for people who do not have the virus. By comparison, they found it to be accurate 92 percent of the time in detecting people who do. One concern is the “window period” between the time someone gets the virus and begins to develop the antibodies to it, which the test detects. That can take up to three months.
So, while only about one person in 5,000 would get a false negative test, about one person in 12 could get a false positive.
Any positive test needs confirmation in a doctor’s office, the F.D.A. said, and people engaged in high-risk sex should test themselves regularly.
The agency does not intend for the home test to replace medical testing, but instead to provide another way for people to find out their H.I.V. status, said Dr. Karen Midthun, director of the F.D.A.’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research.
The home test should be available in 30,000 pharmacies, grocery stores and online retailers by October, said Douglas Michels, OraSure’s chief executive. The price has not yet been set. But he said it would be higher than the $17.50 now charged to medical professionals because the company will do more complicated packaging for the home kit, open a 24-hour question line, and advertise to high-risk groups, including gay men, blacks and Hispanics, and sexually active adults. Still, he said, it will be kept inexpensive enough to appeal to people who might want to buy several a year.
Because the F.D.A. approved the home test only for people 17 and older, retail stores may ask customers to show ID, he said. The restriction is not for medical reasons, but because only a few subjects age 14 to 16 were tested, he said, “so that was the deal we worked out with the F.D.A.”
Whether having to show identification would deter teenagers or young-looking people from buying a test is unclear. Mr. Harrington said he thought it might.
In contrast, teenage girls are not legally required to show identification to buy pregnancy tests.
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