Solar Flashlight Lets Africa's Sun Deliver the Luxury of Light to the Poorest Villages
By WILL CONNORS and RALPH BLUMENTHAL
FUGNIDO, Ethiopia — At 10 p.m. in a sweltering refugee camp here in western Ethiopia, a group of foreigners was making its way past thatch-roofed huts when a tall, rail-thin man approached a silver-haired American and took hold of his hands.
The man, a Sudanese refugee, announced that his wife had just given birth, and the boy would be honored with the visitor's name. After several awkward translation attempts of "Mark Bent," it was settled. "Mar," he said, will grow up hearing stories of his namesake, the man who handed out flashlights powered by the sun.
Since August 2005, when visits to an Eritrean village prompted him to research global access to artificial light, Mr. Bent, 49, a former foreign service officer and Houston oilman, has spent $250,000 to develop and manufacture a solar-powered flashlight.
His invention gives up to seven hours of light on a daily solar recharge and can last nearly three years between replacements of three AA batteries costing 80 cents.
Over the last year, he said, he and corporate benefactors like Exxon Mobil have donated 10,500 flashlights to United Nations refugee camps and African aid charities.
Another 10,000 have been provided through a sales program, and 10,000 more have just arrived in Houston awaiting distribution by his company, SunNight Solar.
"I find it hard sometimes to explain the scope of the problems in these camps with no light," Mr. Bent said. "If you're an environmentalist you think about it in terms of discarded batteries and coal and wood burning and kerosene smoke; if you're a feminist you think of it in terms of security for women and preventing sexual abuse and violence; if you're an educator you think about it in terms of helping children and adults study at night."
Here at Fugnido, at one of six camps housing more than 21,000 refugees 550 miles west of Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, Peter Gatkuoth, a Sudanese refugee, wrote on "the importance of Solor."
"In case of thief, we open our solor and the thief ran away," he wrote. "If there is a sick person at night we will took him with the solor to health center."
A shurta, or guard, who called himself just John, said, "I used the light to scare away wild animals." Others said lights were hung above school desks for children and adults to study after the day's work.
Mr. Bent's efforts have drawn praise from the United Nations, Africare, Rice University and others.
Kevin G. Lowther, Southern Africa director for Africare, the largest American aid group for Africa, said his staff was sending 5,000 of his lights, purchased by Exxon Mobil at $10 each, to rural Angola.
Dave Gardner, a spokesman for Exxon Mobil, said the company's $50,000 donation in November grew out of an earlier grant it made to Save the Children to build six public schools in Kibala, Angola, a remote area of Kwanza Sul Province.
"At a dedication ceremony for the first four schools in June 2006," Mr. Gardner said in an e-mail message, "we noticed that a lot of the children had upper respiratory problems, part of which is likely due to the use of wood, charcoal, candles and kero for lighting in the small homes they have in Kibala."
The Awty International School, a large prep school in Houston, has sent hundreds of the flashlights to schools it sponsors in Haiti, Cameroon and Ethiopia, said Chantal Duke, executive assistant to the head of school.
"In places where there is absolutely no electricity or running water, having light at night is a luxury many families don't have and never did and which we take for granted in developed countries," Ms. Duke said by e-mail. Mr. Bent, a former Marine and Navy pilot, served under diplomatic titles in volatile countries like Angola, Bosnia, Nigeria and Somalia in the early 1990s.
In 2001 he went to work as the general manager of an oil exploration team off the coast of the Red Sea in Eritrea, for a company later acquired by the French oil giant Perenco. But the oil business, he said, "didn't satisfy my soul."
The inspiration for the flashlight hit him, he said, while working for Perenco in Asmara, Eritrea. One Sunday he visited a local dump to watch scavenging by baboons and birds of prey, and came upon a group of homeless boys who had adopted the dump as their home.
They took him home to a rural village where he noticed that many people had nothing to light their homes, schools and clinics at night.
With a little research, he discovered that close to two billion people around the world go without affordable access to light.
He worked with researchers, engineers and manufacturers, he said, at the Department of Energy, several American universities, and even NASA before finding a factory in China to produce a durable, cost-effective solar-powered flashlight whose shape was inspired by his wife's shampoo bottle.
The light, or sun torch, has a narrow solar panel on one side that charges the batteries, which can last between 750 and 1,000 nights, and uses the more efficient light-emitting diodes, or L.E.D.s, to cast its light. "L.E.D.s used to be very expensive," Mr. Bent said. "But in the last 18 months they've become cheaper, so distributing them on a widespread scale is possible."
The flashlights usually sell for about $19.95 in American stores, but he has established a BoGo — for Buy One, Give One — program on his Web site, BoGoLight.com , where if you buy one flashlight for $25, he will buy and ship another one to Africa, and donate $1 to one of the aid groups he works with.
Mr. Bent, who is now an oil consultant, lives in Houston with his wife and four young children. When he is not in the air flying his own plane, he is often on the road.
Traveling early this month in Ethiopia's border area with Sudan, Mr. Bent stopped in each town's market to methodically check the prices and quality of flashlights and batteries imported from China.
He unscrewed the flashlights one by one, inspecting the batteries, pronouncing them "terrible — they won't last two nights."
On his last day along the border, Mr. Bent visited Rapan Sadeeq, 21, a Sudanese refugee who is something of a celebrity in his camp, Bonga, for his rudimentary self-made radios, walkie-talkies and periscopes.
The two men huddled in the hut, discussing what parts would be needed to power the radio with solar panels instead of clunky C batteries. "Oh, I can definitely send you some parts," Mr. Bent said. "You can be my field engineer in Ethiopia."
Will Connors reported from Fugnido, Ethiopia, and Ralph Blumenthal from Houston.
Sometimes thinking small can get things done. To bring artificial light to an isolated village or refugee camp could require building an enormous hydroelectric dam, followed by laying hundreds of miles of cable. Or it could take the donation of a $10 solar flashlight.
As Will Connors and Ralph Blumenthal reported in The Times recently, the entrepreneur Mark Bent, through his company SunNight Solar, has developed and manufactured a solar-powered flashlight that gives up to seven hours of light, before recharging, and can last close to three years between battery replacements. The flashlight retails for around $20 in American stores, but corporate donors have gotten them for aid groups at half the price, a deep discount but still a profit for Mr. Bent.
One might be tempted to ask what’s the big deal about a flashlight? In America they often sit under car seats for years without being used, or are the object of fruitless searching when the power goes out.
Artificial light is among the easiest things for people in the developed world to take for granted. But to those living off the grid — a number approaching 2 billion people worldwide — access to a safe, affordable source of light can be life-changing. The productive day stretches past sunset to allow students to do schoolwork or small vendors to extend their selling hours. Light means added safety, whether at home or traveling alone, particularly for women. As a replacement for kerosene and wood fires, the flashlights are a boon for the environment.
As technologies advance, people in wealthy countries carry ever smaller computers in knapsacks and phones in their pockets. But the same advances bring simple, rugged technologies like the solar torch within reach of the poor. The brightest minds shouldn’t be afraid to think incrementally. Often that’s where you find the best results.
Scientist wants to patent life form
Man-made bacterium could create ethanol
CanWest News Service
Saturday, June 09, 2007
A leading U.S. scientist has applied to patent the world's first man-made life form.
Hailed as the biggest, most controversial genetics breakthrough since the cloning of Dolly the sheep, Dr. Craig Venter -- the scientist who led the private-sector race to map the human genome -- says his research team has figured out which genes provide the bare essentials for life. Now he wants the commercial rights to their use.
Venter plans to cobble together synthetic versions of these genes to create the world's first artificial living being, a bacterium called mycoplasma laboratorium, which could then be programmed to convert sunlight into eco-friendly fuels such as hydrogen or ethanol.
The plan represents a quantum leap in genetics, from reading the DNA of living organisms, to writing it from scratch.
"This is a biological bombshell," warns Pat Mooney of the Ottawa-based Erosion, Technology and Concentration Group (ETC), a biotechnology watchdog that discovered the patent application this week.
Once you've created an artificial bacterium, "it becomes a small step to do the same for a plant, an animal, and eventually even a human being," said Jim Thomas, also with ETC.
"Society hasn't even discussed what the environmental and ethical implications are when humans create novel life-forms the planet has never seen before," Mooney said, let alone the ethics of allowing a company to gain sole control over the set of genes that constitute the basic building blocks of life, he added.
Venter has filed patent applications in the U.S. and at the World Intellectual Property Organization, an international body that issues patents for more than 100 countries, including Canada.
The ETC Group has appealed to the patent authorities to turn down the applications.
Venter's research team would manufacture the essential genes, insert them into a "ghost" cell and add selected artificial genes.
Venter says the main goal would be to produce hydrogen and ethanol which "could save an estimated $20 billion per year on fuel costs over the next 50 years (and) decrease greenhouse emissions by 1.7 billion tonnes per year," the firm says on its website.
But Mooney said a programmable life form could "just as easily be used to make a bio-weapon."
Mooney said Venter's organism is almost certain to get released into the environment with untold consequences.
Breakthrough sees stem cells derived from other cells
Scientists use discovery to create baby mice
CanWest News Service
Thursday, June 07, 2007
With a few strokes of genetic trickery, scientists have transformed mouse skin cells into embryonic stem cells and proved their potency by using the new cells to produce baby mice.
The experiments are seen as a major advance for regenerative medicine, which aims to custom-build tissues and cells to repair ailing and aging bodies.
Scientists caution there are serious safety issues that must be resolved before the techniques could ever be used on people, but they say the advance points to a new way of making embryonic stem cells for patients from their own cells.
There is no need to destroy embryos, and might allow researchers to sidestep many of the ethical objections now dogging stem-cell research.
Three teams, one in Japan and two in the U.S., reported Wednesday in the journals Nature and Cell Stem Cell they have reprogrammed skin cells to an embryonic state.
"Neither eggs nor embryos are necessary," says Shinya Yamanka of Kyoto University, who pioneered the technique that's been replicated by the U.S. teams.
All three groups individually used the cells to generate live mice.
The feat has the stem-cell world buzzing.
"It's pretty phenomenal," Michael Rudnicki, scientific director of Canada's Stem Cell Network and director of molecular medicine at the Ottawa Health Research Institute, said in an interview.
The skin cells reverted to embryonic stem cells, or a state the scientists describe as nearly identical to it, after they added four genes to the skin cells. The genes triggered a process that made the cells become "pluripotent" and capable of turning into any type of cell found in the body, which is the hallmark of embryonic stem cells and what makes them so alluring.
"This is very exciting scientifically because these four genes can reprogram any cell, it would seem, to become an embryonic stem cell," says Rudnicki. The technique presents a possible "work around" that could eliminate the need to use embryos to generate cells for regenerative medicine, he says.
Until now, the only way to obtain embryonic stem cells has been to take them from an embryo. Producing cells that are a genetic match for a patient would entail making a clone of that person and harvesting the cells when the cloned embryo is days old, which raises thorny ethical issues and is illegal in several countries, including Canada.
The new work promises cells free of such contentious issues.
"You could take a skin cell, or a blood cell, and reprogram it with these four genes to make embryonic stem cells," says Rudnicki.
They could then be turned into any type of cell required for therapeutic use, be it neurons to treat Alzheimer's or insulin producing for diabetics.
He cautions that significant hurdles still need to be overcome.
"You wouldn't want any of these cells put into a person or they'd end up with tumours," Rudnicki says of the cell lines created for the experiments. He notes one of the genes used to reprogram the cells is involved in cancer.
Yamanaka's team reports 20 per cent of the mice produced from the reprogrammed cells developed cancer. He and his colleagues think the risk can be eliminated.
The three teams produced live mice from their reprogrammed cells by injecting them into days-old mouse embryos. The baby mice proved the reprogrammed cells can give rise to every kind of tissue type, including sperm and eggs, the so-called "germ line" cell that is passed on to the next generation.
"Germ line transmission is the final and definitive proof that these cells can do anything a traditionally derived embryonic stem cell can do," says Rudolf Jaenisch of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who led the team working at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research.
Meanwhile, the scientists say cell lines taken from human embryos are still essential to researchers striving to understand their biology.
"We still need to work with embryonic stem cells, to compare them and understand them," says Rudnicki.
His network has financed derivation of a few Canadian cell lines created from human embryos donated by couples who had undergone fertility treatment and no longer needed the extra embryos.
The debate over stem-cell use has been polarized by ethical and moral concerns. Unfortunately, much time has been spent in debate that could have been spent in forging ahead with research.
That could all come to an end soon with the announcement that a Japanese genetics researcher has successfully produced human stem cells, without resorting to the ethically charged practice of creating embryos to obtain them.
Shinya Yamanaka, who opposes embryo use, stimulated mouse skin cells to revert to stem cells, a technique which, if it can be duplicated in humans, will allow researchers to forge ahead with the treatments that patients with diabetes, Parkinson's and other diseases are so desperately waiting for.
Meanwhile, other exciting research on adult stem cells could soon make the demand for embryonic cells obsolete.
According to the U.S. National Institutes of Health, an adult stem cell is "an undifferentiated cell found among differentiated cells in a tissue or organ." Baxter International, a biotechnology and medical products firm based in Deerfield, Ill. is one of numerous companies undertaking a study in which heart patients' own stem cells are removed, purified in the lab, and reimplanted in the heart to see if they can be used to treat congestive heart failure. The results of the study will be out in 2009, says the Chicago Tribune, but a Phoenix company claims to have already successfully treated 12 heart patients with the technique.
An enlightened society does not create human life in the lab in order to sacrifice it to another cause. Nor does such a society turn a blind eye to using human embryos on the pretext that it is all in the name of science.
The Baxter research and Yamanaka's work with mouse skin cells clearly show there are alternatives. Researchers need to focus on refining and perfecting these morally neutral options. Enough time has been spent debating the ethics of embryo use. It's a non-starter.
Patients have been waiting too long for help while the debate raged -- and that is an immoral situation, too.
July 23, 2007
Birth Without the Bother?
By NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF
Earlier this year in Gujarat, India, I came across a most unusual kind of outsourcing: womb-rental.
Americans looking for a surrogate mother to bear a child can save a fortune and avoid regulations by paying an Indian woman $4,000 or $5,000 to carry their fetus. An embryo that has been created in vitro by the American parents is implanted in the Indian woman’s uterus and she goes through the pregnancy and delivers the baby — and then hands it over to the Americans.
Ultimately, that kind of surrogacy could be mixed with genetic screening of embryos — to weed out babies of the “wrong” gender or with the “wrong” characteristics — to save busy couples the bother of pregnancy or the nuisance of chance.
Yes, all this gives me the willies, too. So some of the most monumental decisions we will face in the coming years will involve where we draw the line making some genetic tinkering legal and some illegal.
One of the crucial evolving technologies is P.G.D., or preimplantation genetic diagnosis. This allows a couple to test embryos that have been created in vitro when they are roughly three days old.
P.G.D. is now used principally to test for serious genetic diseases, including Down syndrome and Tay-Sachs. But it could equally be used to test for milder risks.
Five years ago, I tested my own DNA for 130 common genetic markers (a perk of journalism is the chance to test new technologies) and found that I have markers that give me slightly increased risk of blood clots, schizophrenia, Type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s. On the other hand, I didn’t have many other common genetic risk factors, including those associated with colon cancer, melanoma or breast cancer.
Everybody has some of these troublesome genetic predispositions. But in the future we could use P.G.D. to screen out these kinds of genetic risks.
Nonmedical screening would also be possible. Dr. Dean Hamer, a prominent geneticist, believes that the VMAT2 gene is the “God gene,” associated with spirituality. What if religious families prefer embryos with a genetic disposition for faith?
Michael Sandel, the Harvard philosopher, begins his new book on genetics, “The Case Against Perfection,” with the story of a deaf couple who sought a child who would be deaf as well. “Is it wrong to make a child deaf by design?” he asks, then refining the question: “Is there still something wrong with parents picking and choosing the kind of child they will have?”
Yes, there is.
Like Professor Sandel, I worry that our scientific capabilities may surpass our wisdom. Look at the dog kingdom. All of today’s dogs descended from wolves, and in less than 15,000 years we ended up with Chihuahuas and Great Danes. We may do the same to our own descendants.
As Liza Mundy notes in her fascinating new book, “Everything Conceivable: How Assisted Reproduction is Changing Men, Women and the World,” the main driving force in the new technologies is simply the profit motive.
“What is at work in assisted reproduction,” she writes, “is often not science but business.”
So where do we regulate and draw the line? My vote is to allow genetic technologies aimed at combating disease or infertility, but to bar any effort that goes beyond the curative to enhance the germ line DNA of our offspring.
International womb-rental troubles me but in the end would pass muster. It helps infertile American couples who might not otherwise be able to afford a baby, and the Indian women are thrilled with the chance to earn what for them are substantial sums, at less risk than with their other options.
Likewise, I would tolerate egg trafficking, a booming industry that offers women money to have their eggs extracted. Infertile couples need eggs — and why shouldn’t the donors be paid?
As for genetic screening, I would accept P.G.D. to cull embryos at risk for medical problems, even those that strike only in old age like Alzheimer’s. And my vote is to allow parents to use P.G.D. to choose the sex of a child in the U.S., although I would feel differently in countries like China or India where the son preference could create a huge shortage of girls.
What should cross the line into illegality is fiddling with the heritable DNA of humans to make them smarter, faster or more pious — or more deaf. That is playing God not just with a particular embryo but with our species, and we should ban it.
The first ovary transplant between women who are not identical twins has been performed successfully in Belgium, offering a new route to fertility for women.
Teresa Alvaro, who is now 37, has started to menstruate again and has produced two eggs that have been fertilized with her husband's sperm after receiving grafts of ovary tissue donated by her sister, Sandra, 34.
The revolutionary procedure, performed by Jacques Donnez, of the Catholic University of Louvain, near Brussels, has given Teresa fresh hope of children. She became infertile at 20 because of treatment for a rare blood disorder. It also opens a new approach to restoring the fertility and menstrual cycles of thousands of women who have suffered premature ovarian failure, usually as a result of chemotherapy or an early menopause.
While a handful of ovary transplants have been conducted before, all these procedures have involved identical twins. As such twins share all their genes, there is no risk of tissue rejection.
Teresa and Sandra are the first ordinary sisters to take part in a successful transplant, and their case shows that the technique can work for patients who do not have an identical twin.
Man reawakened after six years in vegetative state
Research offers hope for severely brain damaged
CanWest News Service
Thursday, August 02, 2007
A 38-year-old man unable to communicate or feed himself for six years has been reawakened from a coma-like state by tiny electrodes implanted deep in his brain.
The man, incapacitated after an assault left him in a "minimally conscious state," is now interacting with family and friends and gradually regaining more control of his mind and body.
The American family has requested anonymity, but the man's mother gave a tearful account in a teleconference Wednesday of how her son was declared a "vegetable" and placed in a care facility after his skull was crushed and he was "left for dead" after a robbery.
She thanked doctors for bringing back the eldest of her three sons, who had loved music, drawing and comic books.
With the electrodes now delivering weak electrical pulses to his brain for 12 hours a day, she says he is once again connecting with the world. He can watch movies, drink from a cup, cry, laugh, express pain and say "I love you, mommy."
"I still cry every time I see him, but now it's tears of joy," she said.
Researchers, who describe the case in the journal Nature, say deep-brain stimulation is opening the door to treatment of severe brain damage and might eventually help thousands of families.
Dr. Ali Rezai, director of the Center for Neurological Restoration at the Cleveland Clinic, led the surgical team that implanted two electrodes in the man's brain in 2005, wiring them to pacemaker batteries in his chest in a bid to switch on undamaged regions of his brain. Rezai likens the result to a pacemaker for the brain. The doctors charting the man's progress say the changes have been "remarkable and sustained."
"He regularly uses words and gestures and responds to questions quickly," says Dr. Joseph Giacino, co-leader of the study and associate director of the New Jersey Neuroscience Institute. The man, who lives in an East Coast rehabilitation centre, no longer requires a feeding tube and can drink from a cup and brush his hair. He routinely speaks in snatches of two and three words and has been able to recite the first 16 words of the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance.
Deep-brain stimulation is widely used to treat Parkinson's patients and movement disorders, but this is the first reported case of using the technique to restore consciousness. If it can be replicated, the doctors say the technique could change the standard of care for patients locked in a "minimally conscious state," or MCS. Unlike people in a persistent vegetative state, MCS patients show intermittent signs of awareness and may even attempt to communicate using simple words or signals.
"However, these glimpses of consciousness are usually rare, fleeting and unsustained," the researchers report.
The U.S. team plans to try the procedure on 11 more patients as part of a government-approved trial. If successful, it could lead to re-evaluation of countless people in the minimally conscious state. There is little reliable data on how many people are in such a state, but the researchers say one study has estimated there could be as many as 280,000 North Americans.
"Any intervention that can unlock the neurological potential of patients in MCS should have us reconsider how we care for these individuals," says Dr. Joseph Fins, chief of medical ethics at New York's Weill Cornell Medical College, who is helping guide the project. "It will force us to take a second look at each case and -- for appropriate patients -- move away from the therapeutic nihilism that has so plagued this population, most of whom are ignored, receiving what is euphemistically described as 'custodial care.' "
Observers caution the procedure has so far only been shown to work in one carefully selected patient and much more research is needed.
"It is impressive, but it is just the first step," says Dr. Elena Moro, the neurologist in charge of deep-brain stimulation at Toronto Western Hospital. The Toronto team, the largest group of its kind in Canada, implants deep-brain stimulation electrodes in about 60 patients a year to treat movement disorders, pain, epilepsy and, as part of an on-going clinical trial, severe depression.
The probes target different regions of the brain depending on the disorder. Moro says it is not clear how the electrical impulses work to reduce pain, restore the ability to walk or, as appears to be the case with the U.S. man, to reconnect individuals with the conscious world. The U.S. researchers speculate the electrical impulses are amplifying their MCS patient's brain activity and are "bumping up" its efficiency.
CREDIT: Jenelle Schneider, Calgary Herald
Pastor Steve Osmond of First Assembly Church uses his Facebook account to keep in touch with people he's met in his ministry.
Originally created as an online network for college students, Facebook is now the hottest way to connect with friends, family and co-workers.
It's quickly eclipsing other network sites such as Nexopia and MySpace. Users are hooking up with old friends and collecting people like trading cards.
"Hey, have you got Joel?"
"Ya. I got him. You got Nicki?"
"No! That's weird -- I gotta add her."
Rumour has it that even job recruiters are rifling through the pages of Facebook, dodging flying sheep, looking for college grads with intelligent profiles. Users can put up as little or as much information about themselves as they like, including a line or two about their political and religious views.
Even the clergy is turning to Facebook to keep tabs on the faithful.
Steve Osmond, co-lead pastor of First Assembly Pentecostal Church, 6031 Elbow Dr. S.W., has abandoned his MySpace page in favour of Facebook.
"It's simple, open, clean and professional," says Osmond. "I can stay connected with people who I never would have remembered. People who have left my consciousness. They send you a message and it's like, yeah, I forgot all about that person."
As soon as Facebook users log in, a feature called "news feed" pops up. If anyone has changed status, or added photos or information, it shows up on the news feed.
The heart of Facebook is the Friends List and Osmond boasts more than 300 friends across Canada -- 116 in Calgary alone. That roster includes members of his congregation, couples he has married, youth he has counselled and co-workers and family from his native Newfoundland. Facebook users can create and belong to special interest groups, and Osmond has joined several, such as 24-7 Prayer Canada, YC Generation, Christians Uniting for a Revival in Canada and others.
There are currently more than 500 Christian groups registered on the Facebook site.
"Belonging to a group means you're entering a conversation, like a blog with like-minded people. They're centred around a cause or event," says Osmond, who estimates he spends about two hours a week on Facebook.
As useful as Facebook is, Osmond believes communicating with people face-to-face is still the way to go.
"But that may be more to do with my age," says Osmond, who admits there aren't many people over 40 on the site. The majority of his 300-plus friends are in their 20s. Among that generation, he believes communicating online can be more beneficial than chatting in
"Youth pastors use it as a pastoring tool to find out what's going on in students' lives," Osmond says.
"It's just as effective a tool as being there in person and having coffee. Students are more honest online. It's almost like they forget there's a person on the other end of the computer. If you really want to know what kids are like, talk to them online. They're really different when they come to church."
Not all youth pastors feel that way.
Denver Wilson at Sunwest Christian Fellowship is a
22-year-old youth pastor who uses Facebook himself, but says it can't be the basis of a real relationship.
"There is something about real face-to-face conversation that the Internet can't duplicate," says Wilson, who has 400 friends nationwide on Facebook and has posted 82 photos for public viewing.
"I've noticed the younger generation (junior high age) in particular depending on these tools for social interaction. To me, this is a big concern," he says.
With his frequently updated Facebook site complete with links to his blogspot musings, Wilson is far from being a techno-prude. However, he worries about a future generation that is increasingly lonely and isolated.
"Don't settle for relationship through a screen," he warns.
Osmond says that, like MySpace, Facebook is a fad and something else will eventually come along to replace it.
"But what's not a fad is the deep desire for people to connect with each other."
August 22, 2007
Go Green and Save Money
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
Have your eyes recently popped out of your head when you opened your electric bill? Do you, like me, live in one of those states where electricity has been deregulated and the state no longer oversees the generation price so your utility rates have skyrocketed since 2002?
If so, you need to listen to a proposal being aired by Jim Rogers, the chairman and chief executive of Duke Energy, and recently filed with the North Carolina Utilities Commission. (Duke Energy is headquartered in Charlotte.) It’s called “save-a-watt,” and it aims to turn the electricity/utility industry upside down by rewarding utilities for the kilowatts they save customers by improving their energy efficiency rather than rewarding them for the kilowatts they sell customers by building more power plants.
Mr. Rogers’s proposal is based on three simple principles. The first is that the cheapest way to generate clean, emissions-free power is by improving energy efficiency. Or, as he puts it, “The most environmentally sound, inexpensive and reliable power plant is the one we don’t have to build because we’ve helped our customers save energy.”
Second, we need to make energy efficiency something that is as “back of mind” as energy usage. If energy efficiency depends on people remembering to do 20 things on a checklist, it’s not going to happen at scale.
Third, the only institutions that have the infrastructure, capital and customer base to empower lots of people to become energy efficient are the utilities, so they are the ones who need to be incentivized to make big investments in efficiency that can be accessed by every customer.
The only problem is that, historically, utilities made their money by making large-scale investments in new power plants, whether coal or gas or nuclear. As long as a utility could prove to its regulators that the demand for that new plant was there, the utility got to pass along the cost, and then some, to its customers. Mr. Rogers’s save-a-watt concept proposes to change all of that.
“The way it would work is that the utility would spend the money and take the risk to make its customers as energy efficient as possible,” he explained. That would include installing devices in your home that would allow the utility to adjust your air-conditioners or refrigerators at peak usage times. It would include plans to incentivize contractors to build more efficient homes with more efficient boilers, heaters, appliances and insulation. It could even include partnering with a factory to buy the most energy-efficient equipment or with a family to winterize their house.
“Energy efficiency is the ‘fifth fuel’ — after coal, gas, renewables and nuclear,” said Mr. Rogers. “Today, it is the lowest-cost alternative and is emissions-free. It should be our first choice in meeting our growing demand for electricity, as well as in solving the climate challenge.”
Because energy efficiency is, in effect, a resource, he added, in order for utilities to use more of it, “efficiency should be treated as a production cost in the regulatory arena.” The utility would earn its money on the basis of the actual watts it saves through efficiency innovations. (California’s “decoupling” systems goes partly in this direction.)
At the end of the year, an independent body would determine how many watts of energy the utility has saved over a predetermined baseline and the utility would then be compensated by its customers accordingly.
“Over time,” said Mr. Rogers, “the price of electricity per unit will go up, because there would be an incremental cost in adding efficiency equipment — although that cost would be less than the incremental cost of adding a new power plant. But your overall bills should go down, because your home will be more efficient and you will use less electricity.”
Once such a system is in place, Mr. Rogers added, “our engineers would wake up every day thinking about how to squeeze more productivity gains out of new technology for energy efficiency — rather than just how to build a bigger transmission or distribution network to meet the growing demands of customers.” (Why don’t we think about incentivizing U.S. automakers the same way — give them tax rebates for save-a-miles?)
That is how you produce a more efficient energy infrastructure at scale. “Universal access to electricity was a 20th century idea — now it has to be universal access to energy efficiency, which could make us the most energy productive country in the world,” he added.
Pulling all this off will be very complicated. But if Mr. Rogers and North Carolina can do it, it would be the mother of all energy paradigm shifts.
August 26, 2007
Mind Over Matter, With a Machine’s Help
By JASON PONTIN
WOULD that thinking made it so, people sometimes wistfully say. But Christopher deCharms, the chief executive of Omneuron, a start-up in Menlo Park, Calif., believes the adage.
The company he founded has created technologies that teach sufferers to think away their pain, and plans to similarly treat addiction, depression and other intractable neurological and psychological conditions.
Omneuron is one of a number of new companies that are commercializing a brain-scanning technology called real-time functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. Using large scanners to measure blood flow to different parts of the brain, the technology makes the brain’s activity visible by revealing which of its parts are busiest when we perform different tasks.
While fMRI dates back to the early 1990s, hitherto it has been used mainly by doctors in hospitals to make diagnoses. The commercialization of brain scanning is a recent development, spurred by the refinement of the technology. Omneuron, which Dr. deCharms founded in 2001 and whose research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health, uses fMRI to teach people how to play with their own heads. Other entrepreneurs are working on ways to deploy fMRI as a lie detector, a tool for conducting marketing research or an instrument to make brain surgeries safer and more precise.
Here’s how Omneuron uses fMRI to treat chronic pain: A patient slides into the coffin-like scanner and watches a computer-generated flame projected on the screen of virtual-reality goggles; the flame’s intensity reflects the neural activity of regions of the brain involved in the perception of pain. Using a variety of mental techniques — for instance, imagining that a painful area is being flooded with soothing chemicals — most people can, with a little concentration, make the flame wax or wane. As the flame wanes, the patient feels better. Superficially similar to an older technology, electroencephalogram biofeedback, which measures electrical feedback across multiple areas of the brain, fMRI feedback measures the blood flow in precise areas of the brain.
“We believe that people will use real-time fMRI feedback to hone cognitive strategies that will increase activation of brain regions,” Dr. deCharms said. With practice and repetition, he said, this could lead to “long-term changes in the brain.”
In time, he hopes, a patient could evoke the effect without the machine.
In a 2005 study, Dr. deCharms and Sean Mackey, associate director of the pain management division at Stanford, showed that eight patients with recalcitrant pain felt their discomfort reduced by as much as 64 percent by using Omneuron’s technology.
If fMRI proves effective in treating pain, it could be big business. According to the American Chronic Pain Association, one in three Americans will experience chronic pain at some point in life. At any one time, more than 50 million Americans complain of pain. And Dr. deCharms contends that fully one-third find their pain resistant to traditional treatments like narcotics. Omneuron’s technologies could offer such patients some relief, and without side effects.
The pain-relief industry is huge: the average American spends as much as $900 a year on pain medications, whose effects are generally short-lived.
But Dr. deCharms says that controlling pain is just one of many possible uses for fMRI feedback. Today, Omneuron is also researching treatments for addiction, depression and other psychological illnesses. In addition, he said. the company has contemplated “several dozen applications,” including the treatment of stroke and epilepsy. Brain scanning could even be used to improve athletic performance, he speculated.
Doctors and drug-abuse experts are particularly excited about the idea of treating addiction using fMRI. While scientists have talked about such an application since the technology was invented, Omneuron is the first to work on a real therapy. “We might have a tool to help control the inner sensation of craving,” said Nora D. Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which helped fund Omneuron’s research into addiction.
A growing number of ventures hope to turn fMRI into a business. The most well-publicized is No Lie MRI, which wants to sell brain scanning to law firms and governmental bodies like police departments or security and intelligence agencies as a replacement for the notoriously unreliable polygraph test. No Lie MRI has already begun selling what it calls its truth verification technology for about $10,000 to individuals keen to prove their innocence.
Joel Huizenga, the chief executive of No Lie MRI, said: “A technology gets known by its first product. For fMRI, that application is going to be truth verification.”
Mr. Huizenga says he would also like to sell fMRI to marketers who wish to determine whether consumers are responding to advertising, a commercial application of an emerging field of research called neuro-economics.
Other brain-scanning ventures include Cephos, another lie-detection company, and Imagilys, which sells fMRI to surgeons who want to map the brains of patients before operations.
For its part, Omneuron would make money not by building fMRI centers — which are expensive and fairly common in larger hospitals — but by selling clinical skills, software and equipment.
“I imagine the business model would be akin to Lasik eye surgery,” Dr. deCharms says. “We’d provide the technology to outpatient treatment centers.”
There are challenges to the commercialization of brain scanning, and the most important may be regulatory. Clinical trials can take many years, and federal approval is famously unpredictable. But until clinical data and federal approval are forthcoming, Dr. deCharms says, Omneuron cannot sell its technology as a clinical treatment.
Ed Boyden, an assistant professor at the Media Lab of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a researcher in neuroengineering, distinguishes sharply among different brain-scanning ventures. “If you want to commercialize this technology,” he said, “then the use has to approximate real-world situations.”
In his view, tests of fMRI truth verification don’t meet that criterion. For instance, in studies at the University of Pennsylvania in 2002 and 2005, subjects were told to conceal the identity of a card under questioning. FMRI was able to distinguish falsification 77 percent of the time.
Mr. Huizenga was so inspired by this research that he decided to start his company, confident that fMRI would soon identify lies 90 percent of the time.
But Dr. Boyden says he believes that being asked to tell a falsehood that everyone knows is a falsehood is not the same thing as lying to deceive someone. Thus, whatever brain patterns fMRI detects when a person constructs such a requested fiction may be different from whatever happens when we lie.
By contrast, Dr. Boyden says: “What I like about Omneuron is that it’s working with real-world situations. They gave people visualization strategies which they could monitor — and which produced real, measurable results.”
If Dr. deCharms and Omneuron are successful, and can teach us to train our brains to manage neurological and psychological conditions, they will have given us something that has challenged philosophers, psychologists and yogis alike: gaining some reliable control over our own thoughts.
Jason Pontin is the editor in chief and publisher of Technology Review, a magazine and Web site owned by M.I.T. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Melissa Mills, 15, at a news conference in Edmonton on Tuesday, holds the mechanical heart that aided her recovery.
Last January, 15-year-old Melissa Mills became the third pediatric patient in Canada to receive a mechanical heart to keep her alive until she could receive a transplant.
Now the Camrose teenager is the first Berlin heart patient in Canada to be weaned from the device not because a donor heart was found, but because her own heart recovered.
"I wish I could keep it . . . it saved my life and it means so much to me," Melissa said Tuesday as she clasped the plastic and metal device in her hands.
Melissa must return it to the Berlin heart program at Edmonton's Stollery Children's Hospital, where it will likely be used for training purposes.
"We are just beginning to understand all the implications for the Berlin heart," said Dr. Ivan Rebeyka, head of the pediatric cardiac surgery for the Capital Health Region and clinical leader of the Berlin heart program.
"We are thrilled with Melissa's outcome and excited by what this means for future patients," Rebeyka said.
Last fall, the Stollery Children's Hospital became North America's first training and support centre for the world's first mechanical heart designed for children.
To date, five patients have received Berlin hearts at the Stollery.
Three have since received heart transplants, one is still wearing device and the other is Melissa.
"We thought the miracle was that the Berlin heart would give us time to find the perfect donor heart for Melissa. We are overwhelmed that instead, the Berlin heart gave her own heart time to rest and repair itself," said Melissa's mother, Sharon Mills.
Last June, Melissa, a hearty 14-year-old looking forward to summer holidays, became tired and lethargic. A chest X-ray showed her heart had become enlarged, most likely because of a virus.
In August, she was transferred to the Stollery in such grave condition her parents were told to prepare for the possibility she might not survive.
She needed a heart transplant -- quickly.
As Melissa's condition continued to deteriorate while she waited for a suitable donor, her doctors elected to implant a Berlin heart, hoping to give the petite teen time to recover while she waited.
In the weeks that followed, doctors were surprised to see Melissa's heart was starting to recover on its own. Over the next few months, she was gradually weaned from the device as her heart muscle continued to regain much of its strength.
On Jan. 22, after 146 days on the device, she had her Berlin heart removed.
She was released from hospital on March 22.
Rebeyka said Melissa's heart has recovered enough that she no longer needs a heart transplant. While she still requires medication and monitoring, she is healthy enough to carry on a fairly normal life, he said.
"We are taking it day-by-day. As long as she does what she is supposed to, everything should be OK," her mother said. "We just have to find a new kind of normal for us."
Stem cell research in the United States has been hobbled for years by severe and misguided restrictions on federal funding. But now a vexing additional problem is slowing even privately financed research. There are distressingly few women willing to donate their eggs for experiments at the frontiers of this promising science.
A respected team of stem cell researchers at Harvard spent nearly $100,000 over the course of a year advertising for egg donors. Hundreds of qualified women were interested enough to call but, after hearing what was entailed, not one was willing to donate eggs. Many were likely deterred by the time, effort and pain required — including daily hormone injections and minor surgery — to retrieve the eggs. And they were almost certainly discouraged by the meager compensation.
Although women can be paid thousands of dollars to donate eggs for fertility treatments, ethical guidelines and some state laws say they cannot be paid much for donating to research. These restrictions are meant to protect the women against exploitation, but they have created a dearth of egg donors for stem cell research.
Surplus embryos from fertility clinics can seldom be used to study specific diseases or develop treatments for them. Scientists need to develop new stem cell lines genetically matched to patients with diseases like diabetes or Parkinson’s. They typically take the nucleus of a patient’s skin cell and inject it into an egg whose nucleus has been removed. If all goes well, the desired stem cell can be derived from the result.
With few human eggs available, some privately financed stem cell scientists are studying animal eggs to see if they can work the same magic when injected with a human nucleus. That may send shivers of apprehension through people who imagine rogue scientists creating grotesque half-human, half-animal creatures in the laboratory. But a thorough examination of the process by British regulators should alleviate such fears.
The British have approved, in principle, the creation of “cybrid embryos,” produced when scientists grow human embryos in animal eggs. Although the embryos would be, in some sense, animal-human hybrids, there would be remarkably little animal — only about 0.1 percent — in the mix. The embryos, and the stem cells derived, would be virtually identical to cells in the patient.
There is little doubt that human eggs would be better for research and ultimately treatment. But with a shortage of donors, animal eggs could prove a valuable alternative. Meanwhile, many scientists are hoping that it will be possible, without using eggs at all, to convert human skin cells directly into embryonic stem cells, as has been shown possible in mice. That would be an elegant solution to the vexing egg donor problem.
September 25, 2007
The Space Age
New Horizons Beckon, Inspiring Vision if Not Certainty
By JOHN SCHWARTZ
Fifty years of spaceflight have taken people to the Moon and have sent unmanned vehicles zipping to the fringes of the solar system. What could the next 50 years bring?
Much more, or potentially not much more. Government-financed space travel could stall in the face of America’s growing aversion to risk and a kind of orbital ennui. NASA has, after all, already tried for more than a decade to develop follow-on vehicles to the flawed space shuttle and is in the process of trying again.
Private enterprise is stepping up, but the industry is still fragile.
Michael D. Griffin, the NASA administrator, said in an interview that he was confident of one thing for the foreseeable future: “We’re going to have a space program.”
Beyond that, all bets are off.
“The one thing of which we can be certain,” Mr. Griffin wrote in a recent essay on the Web site of the magazine Aviation Week and Space Technology, “is that in trying to envision the world of 2057, two generations in the future, we will be wrong.”
Experts in government, industry and science agree, however, that these three broad trends will shape the coming decades in space:
¶NASA has embarked on a program to return to the Moon by 2020, not just for what some critics call “flags and footprints,” but also for a lasting presence with scientific research and preparation for expeditions to asteroids and, eventually, Mars. The space shuttle program is being wound down by 2010 to create the next generation of vehicles.
¶Other nations, notably Russia and China, have ambitious plans and could spur a space race like the one that sent Americans to the Moon. “It took Sputnik for us to recognize what the Soviet Union was up to,” said Harrison H. Schmitt, who flew the last mission to the Moon, in 1972. “I don’t know what it will take this time.”
¶Private enterprise is moving ahead, beginning with space tourism and, later, transport services for NASA and other governments to outposts like the International Space Station. Beyond that, ventures could include mining on asteroids and manufacturing drugs in space.
John M. Logsdon, director of the space policy institute at George Washington University, says a big question has yet to be answered.
“At the level of government, I think we’re still struggling as to why we’re sending people to space,” Dr. Logsdon said. “It’s a decent question, and I think it’s an unanswered question.”
That leaves the manned space program at a precarious point, he said, adding: “If the current proposals to restart human exploration fail politically, indeed, the human space flight endeavor conducted under government auspices might well lose its momentum. I obviously hope that doesn’t happen. But it’s far from a slam dunk that we’re going back to the Moon and on to Mars.”
Entrepreneurs say they have the answer — money. Peter Diamandis, a founder of the Ansari X Prize, the $10 million competition to put a pilot in space without government financing, said that with all the energy and minerals to be found there “the first trillionaires are going to be made in space.”
In the next 50 years, Mr. Diamandis said, “economic engines,” not political ones, will push the space frontier.
Dr. Logsdon is skeptical. “There are a variety of alluring prospects that have been around almost since the start of the last 50 years that are still there as alluring prospects,” he said. “And we are not further along in knowing whether they can be turned into reality or not.” The continued reliance on chemical rockets, for example, limits the weight that can be taken into space.
Yet much has changed in the last 50 years that could lay the foundation for the next 50. A new generation of ultrawealthy entrepreneurs who grew up with a space fascination are pouring personal fortunes into making space businesses real.
Paul G. Allen, a founder of Microsoft, paid for SpaceShipOne, the tiny craft that won the X Prize in 2004. Elon Musk, a founder of PayPal, is developing rockets through his company, Space Exploration Technologies, and has NASA financing that could lead to his spacecraft’s carrying people and supplies to the International Space Station.
Jeffrey P. Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, is developing rockets at a site he owns in western Texas.
Robert Bigelow, who made his fortune in hotels, is developing a space transportation system and a space station that could be used as an orbiting hotel or a research base.
The official charged with regulating commercial spaceflight, Patricia Grace Smith of the Federal Aviation Administration, said in an interview, “When I look out 50 years from now, I fully expect that we will have actual, operational spaceports” that are commercially operated and owned.
At the dusty, sprawling Mojave Air and Space Port in California, dreamers and pragmatists join in planning the future.
Jeff Greason, the founder of Xcor Aerospace, one of several rocket companies there, said his industry was ready to talk big again after years of having to shake off the pixie dust of science fiction. “We had to stop focusing on the grand and glorious future,” he said, “because otherwise, people weren’t going to take us seriously as a business. We very consciously turned the vision thing off.”
“We’re making progress on real businesses that turn profits,” he added.
Other companies are already in the game. Mr. Greason’s neighbor, Scaled Composites, is working on a successor vehicle to its SpaceShipOne.
Richard Branson’s company, Virgin Galactic, which will buy the vehicles, has a long list of potential space tourists.
Esther Dyson, a longtime technology guru who is encouraging investment in space, said the development of rocket businesses paralleled the early days of personal computing and the Internet. Early government financing created technologies whose use was largely limited to government and academia.
“So eventually these commercial types came in, and suddenly a whole lot of revenue came in,” she said. ”It benefited the research types, as well as the commercial types. And it created an infrastructure for the public.”
That led, in turn, to today’s Google, Netscape, Google Earth, “all these wonderful things we take for granted.”
Mr. Greason predicts that government will take the lead in long-range exploration, but that industry will take up the slack closer to home. Just as the military relies on private air carriers, he said, “the government efforts will become customers of the private efforts.”
NASA will meanwhile be trying to extend the reach of humanity. Mr. Griffin, its administrator, laid out a rough timetable for the goals that President Bush set in 2004.
He sees the mileposts clearly along the way, returning to the Moon by 2020, with a “small lunar outpost” a few years later, on the way to “towns on the Moon.” The first flights to Mars could occur in the next decade, he said, so that by the 100th anniversary of spaceflight in 2057, “we can be looking back at the 20th anniversary of the first human landing on Mars.”
If the United States wants to lead the way, he said, the clock is ticking.
“This is the last generation of Americans which is going to have the unquestioned opportunity to lead that enterprise,” Mr. Griffin said. “Because in the next generation we are going to find, at least, Russia, China, India and Europe fully as capable as we are. It will be a matter of interest and politics and societal will or desire. But it will not be a matter of capability.”
Whoever takes them on, the challenges will be greater than any that spacefaring nations have yet faced. They involve radiation levels that science does not yet know how to protect against and problems like reduced gravity and Moon dust, which is ultrafine-grained, chemically reactive and highly abrasive, all of which may mean serious health problems for astronauts.
At a conference in June on lunar settlements, Dr. James S. Logan, a former chief of medical operations at the Johnson Space Center and a founder of Space Medicine Associates, a medical consulting group, pointed out that the previous missions to the Moon involved just 600 total man-hours on the surface, a figure likely to be exceeded on the first return mission.
In his presentation, Dr. Logan pointed out that the earlier exposure times, “while significant,” did not provide strong evidence that long-duration exposure would be safe.
At a conference on space medicine this year at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, Peggy A. Whitson, an astronaut who is about to take her second stint aboard the International Space Station, said radiation would continue to be a concern.
“We have to just accept the fact that if we’re going to explore,” Dr. Whitson said, “we’re going to have to accept a higher level of radiation” than, say, OSHA permits for atomic workers.
Dr. Jonathan Clark, a former NASA flight surgeon on the panel with Dr. Whitson, said, “To me, an unacceptable level of risk would be a radiation exposure that would result in acute and substantial performance effects, either fatality or cognitive decline.”
If the effects are so debilitating that the mission fails, Dr. Clark said, “it’s pointless to go.”
There could be other problems with a Mars mission that scientists are just beginning to explore. At the Rice conference, Dr. Nick Kanas of the University of California, San Francisco, a psychiatrist who has studied astronauts, described what he called the “Earth out of view” phenomenon.
Dr. Kanas’s research has found that one of the most positive parts of going to space is seeing the Earth. But on a trip to Mars, the Earth would dwindle to a bluish speck.
“No one in the history of humans has ever studied what it’s like to see the Earth as a little dot,” he said.
In an interview, Dr. Kanas said losing the visual connection with the home planet could be a “unique stressor.”
Communications would slow markedly, with lags of more than 40 minutes, he said. Ready access to powerful telescopes and libraries of Earth images might help, but it would be important to fight those feelings of “extreme isolation and loneliness.”
Mr. Griffin acknowledged that problems like radiation presented grave challenges in each new environment, but added that he was confident that protections would be discovered, just as early sailors learned that sauerkraut and lemons could protect them from scurvy on long voyages.
And he predicted that the lessons learned about bone growth, cell biology, damage prevention and repair would help treat diseases on Earth.
Mr. Schmitt, the Apollo astronaut, agreed. Despite very real risks of living in space and on other planets, he said, “I don’t see any showstoppers.”
Stuart Witt, general manager of the Mojave Air and Space Port, takes an even longer view. In his office, with composite craft being designed in nearby buildings, Mr. Witt noted that five centuries ago, Magellan left Spain with five ships and 270 men. Two years later, one ship returned, with 18 men.
He quoted from memory a passage from Charles Van Doren’s book “A History of Knowledge: Past, Present, and Future” (1991), pointing out that after the surviving ship returned loaded with valuable spices, subsequent expeditions “never lacked for sailors to man them and for captains to lead them.”
“They knew that the spirit of exploration was far bigger than any individual,” Mr. Witt said.
The argument resonates with Mr. Griffin: “Every time that humans have invested in the past in breaking through new frontiers, it’s been to our profit.
“It may be tough on the individual explorers, but it’s been pretty beneficial for the human race — as we sit here,” he continued, waving his arms to take in his office, Washington and America, “in what once was the New World.”
“We’ll lose people,” he said flatly, and risks must be minimized. But exploring is “embedded in our DNA.”
The urge to go beyond might actually be ingrained in the helical curves of our genes as one of the many behavioral traits now being linked to genetic propensities, said Jeffrey M. Friedman, director of the Starr Center for Human Genetics at the Rockefeller University.
Indulging in a bit of speculation at a reporter’s request, Dr. Friedman said “it’s very plausible to suggest” that there might be a primal urge to explore and take risks.
“And you sort of have direct evidence of it in the history of human migrations,” he added.
In any population, there would be a spectrum of traits from stay-at-homes to explorers, with those at either end of the spectrum prospering in some circumstances and suffering in others.
The future holds promise and peril, as any visitor to Mojave can see. At Scaled Composites, an explosion last month killed three employees. The accident involved the nitrous oxide that Scaled Composites uses as a propellant, though there was no rocket test at the time. The accident is under investigation.
Meanwhile, the company continues to develop its next craft, and Virgin Galactic said no customers had canceled. When asked whether the accident gave him second thoughts, James Lovelock, the 88-year-old British scientist and author, said, “I have no qualms whatever.”
Experts fear death of privacy
Advances could lead to ongoing surveillance
CanWest News Service
Friday, September 28, 2007
Canadians are hurtling toward a "wholesale surveillance society" where no phone conversation, e-mail exchange or instant messaging dialogue will ever disappear, thanks to new technology combined with corporate and governmental interests, warn leading privacy experts at an international privacy conference.
"The notion that we could have conversations that disappear is, in fact, disappearing," said Bruce Schneier, author and chief technology officer of U.S.-based security firm BT Counterpane. "Everything we do today creates a transaction where it didn't before."
While it may seem that privacy already comes at a premium these days, experts are predicting that continued advances in technology will bring with them the inability of individuals to escape the watchful eye of surveillance cameras or computers that record our online habits.
Privacy commissioners and experts from around the world are gathered in Montreal this week to tackle emerging privacy issues and their potential impact on the way we live. Some of the technological advances that could have serious implications for privacy include:
- Machines that can read fingerprints at a distance or have the ability to recognize a person's facial features, which could be implemented at border crossings or at the entrance to work places.
- Telephones that have the ability to record conversations and be stored by the service provider for long periods of time.
- Radio chips attached to common consumer products that have the ability to track not only our individual shopping patterns, but also our movement through a particular store.
"Our data isn't owned by us anymore. These days, more and more of our data isn't stored by us," Schneier said. "My e-mail address is stored by that (Internet service provider)."
The majority of corporations and government agencies that collect and track personal information don't have bad intentions, Schneier said, adding the problem is that we don't yet have a clear enough understanding of the consequences of developing technology that can recognize us, tracks our movements and records our habits.
"All the entities that have access to the information have some reason to save it," Schneier said. "It's not necessarily malicious, but because the data is there, because we collect it so easily, uses are found for it."
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