technology

I can't draw

OK, I'll bite. The SketchAR app provides a framework in which you can "learn" to draw - or at least trace a sketched-out version of one of your photos using a VR interface. It's a great idea, and I'm going to try it, as soon as I figure out how to hold the phone and the paper and the charcoal at the same time, while looking both at the phone and the paper. 

Using technology to fight malaria

I wonder what percentage of technological investment goes into products that do nothing to improve health and lifespan. New filters for your smartphone camera are cool, and you might even make the case that they improve your ability to express yourself. We're allowed to have fun, after all - we don't have to devote every spare moment and dollar to the fate of the human race*. I still feel we don't have the balance right between fun and responsibility. 

Here's some technology that doesn't merely exist for its own sake. UCSF is developing a mapping platform that can be used to predict where malaria is most likely to spread, so countries with limited health resources can most effectively invest in prevention efforts. Malaria, almost unknown in the US, kills nearly half a million people a year. When I tell people in the US I've had malaria, they're often surprised. Everyone I knew in West Africa had had malaria at some point, and everyone knew someone who had died of it. Everyone

What I didn't know until I started writing this was that malaria prevention efforts have been gaining meaningful ground over the last fifteen years - a 37% reduction in incidence and a 60% reduction in mortality. Imagine what could have been done if there was a profit to be made.

* Actually, this is merely a cultural assumption. Maybe we do have such an obligation, and its moral imperative has been too easy to ignore. 

Do you see what

Neuroware proposes mating consumer grade brainwave-detection devices with other appliances, starting with your smart phone. This concept video demonstrates a headset that automatically records when it detects an emotional reaction to what the user is perceiving. 

Honestly, what intrigued me most about this wasn't the EEG capacity of the headset, it was the rather bizarre design decision to place the phone on the side of the person's head, where passersby can see it, but the user can't. It suggests that the user's emotions are part of the aesthetic of the device itself. In contrast to Google glass, which was perceived as a creepy overreach of privacy boundaries, this device exposes the user, displaying their internal state for all to see. 

How to brick your civilization

If you've ever played Civilization or similar society-simulation games (or if you've actually studied human development in a non-gamified form), you've seen how technological advancement requires achieving basic discoveries that serve as necessary building blocks for all future developments. When I read The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Civilization in the Aftermath of a Cataclysm, it became clear how precarious the journey to civilization is. If you want to make it out very far of the stone age, you're going to have to learn the extraction of refinement of myriad resources. If you have any chance of reaching an industrial revolution, you're going to need fuel. Lots of fuel. 

Charcoal, now the stuff of sweaty barbecues, was once the key to our advancement as a species. It stores concentrated energy, but it paled in comparison with the ready supply of fossil fuels that were waiting for us, once we figured out how to extract and burn them efficiently. 

Unfortunately, all the accessible supplies of fossil fuels have long since been extracted. We used ever more advanced means to reach what's left, which is handy if you have the fossil fuels and machines needed to get more. 

What this means is that if we fuck up and break civilization, there may be no getting it back. We simply won't have access to needed fuel supplies to jump-start ourselves back into a world that has mechanized travel, telecommunications, antibiotics, or metals more complex than iron. Basically, if you have a job that ends in "-ist" you might find yourself in a world with little regard for your skill set.*

Had we blown ourselves up or ruined our environment earlier after the Industrial Revolution, we might have had a shot at a reboot. But with each passing year, the chances increase that even a slight interruption in the juggernaut of our development might be an insurmountable break in the chain of survival. 

This article [Out of the Ashes] explores some big ideas with wide-ranging implications, not only for our survival as a species but for the potential for advanced civilizations to develop under different conditions, elsewhere in the universe:

Is the emergence of a technologically advanced civilisation necessarily contingent on the easy availability of ancient energy? Is it possible to build an industrialised civilisation without fossil fuels?

* I have not tested this statement for all values of words that end in "-ist", but it sounded good.

Cover the earth

LightningMaps displays near real-time lighting strikes around the world, compiling data gathered from a network of volunteers using low-cost detectors. Fire it up when a storm's coming, and observe the fireworks from above. If you zoom in far enough, the map will show the expanding sound wave from each strike, like ripples in a pond.   

There are places online that have begun to feel like collaborative demonstration projects in the tragedy of the commons, but this is an example of technology enabling a massive, distributed project that wouldn't have been possible only a few years earlier.