One of the reasons that I am so excited about innovations in the mobile space is clearly illustrated by this video describing a new application for the Apple iPhone. It is a relatively simple application that measures your heart beat based on the sound of your beating pulse picked up by the microphone. The excitement is in the possible future applications. Today our medical system is completely reactive – it only shows up for work when there is problem. Imagine how ridiculous it would be if airplane mechanics only showed up for work when a plane fell out of the sky. Again and again you see that one of the greatest determinants of whether a disease is fatal or not is how soon it is detected. We need to have a pre-emptive health system that uses technology to monitor our well-being all the time. The mobile phones of today are, as is often said, more powerful than the computers of the last decade. There are 3 billion of these computers scattered around the world and 1 billion extra are added every year. These billions of cellphones represent billions of sensors that can be used to keep track of the vital life signs of billions of human beings. Its possible to design applications to receive all of this data and to separate it into normal and abnormal indicators. Those in the abnormal range can be emailed a message directing them to visit their doctor. The data excerpt that prompted the alert can be emailed to the doctor. I recently read of an application that uses the motion sensors in thousands of Apple laptops in California to detect earthquakes. The vision is to take this networked data and create alerts that will immediately instruct public transport vehicles to reduce speed and come to a halt. With sufficient sensors, joined together in a single network, the possibilities are fantastic – we can achieve early detection of pandemics, expose the illegal exercise of state power, provide tele-medicine services and in general apply the massive computational power of the cloud to any local issue.
For some reason I woke up this morning with a question on my mind; why have I become such an environmentalist in the last few years? I have always leaned that way but of late I have graduated from thinking it desirable to feeling that protecting the environment and securing alternative energy is vital, necessary, urgent. So far I have come up with 7 reasons:
- our technological ability has changed such that we no longer have to choose between a tree and staying warm, between clean air and economic growth -we can now have both
- September 11th and the failure of the Bush Administration and the entire political establishment to responsibly lead the United States and the world out of, as opposed to into, the minefield. When George Bush was elected to a second term, I felt that the political process had now become moribund and that it was up to the people to lead themselves through entrepreneurial initiatives aimed at finding a new source of energy.
- a greater appreciation for the beauty and mortality of life; most likely I will be dead in 60-70 years and some day the tectonic plates beneath the earth will stop moving – everything on the planet will at that point die; scarcity produces value, in the market and the soul.
- the rise of China specifically (a) the voraciousness of its appetite (it could just as easily be any other developing country) for energy and raw materials and (b) the need to prevent future resource wars by discovering a more plentiful supply of energy as soon as possible. Related to this idea is a greater appreciation of the herd mentality, captured rather efficiently in the phrase “more is different” – each individual can accept the need for environmental protection but as a crowd we behave like locusts (see Hillsborough disaster). Conservation is a 2% solution – alternative energy must be found.
- a feeling of responsibility that, as the supposedly most intelligent species, we have a custodial duty for the earth; I don’t know where this comes from, a remnant of some religious foundation, an emotional reaction engendered in childhood, a delusion of one’s own self-importance? I think this feeling may be related to my sense of justice which often makes me, and others, empathize with and seek to defend the underdog, the David versus the Goliath. The animals and plants of this world live now at our whim – knowing us, that makes me wish to protect them.
- a belief in civilization; I am willing to commit myself to the goal of greater human civilization which for me means (a) the eradication of violence, (b) the pursuit of science, art and education, (c) a government of the people, for the people and by the people, (d) economic growth, dignity and security for all and (e) social, economic and environmental justice. The discovery of renewable energy supports each of these goals by lowering the likelihood of future resource wars, encouraging human ingenuity and creativity, weakening the power of single-source energy producers on civil government and uncoupling economic, social and environmental growth from the price of oil and fossil fuels.
Here is a transcript of a “This American Life” radio program examining the origins and progress of the current global credit crisis. It examines the invention of the financial instrument that started the whole ball rolling and its subsequent unravelling. To listen to the report click here. For context, here is an excerpt from a September 17, 2008 interview with former head of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan.
Here is a video of a speech given by Clay Shirky, author of the book Here Comes Everybody, at this year’s Web 2.0 Conference in San Francisco. Shirky elaborates the idea that our society has enjoyed a bounty of leisure since the Second World War but that it has not known what to do with that “cognitive surplus” until now. As a result of our new found ability to contribute rather than merely consume media, we can now covert that cognitive suprlus into more productive uses ranging from Wikipedia to mailing lists etc. Shirky tries to estimate the size of this cognitive surplus and set it in context. He estimates that creating Wikipedia took about 100 million hours of human thought. By contrast, Americans spent 200 billion hours watching television every year (100 million hours every weekend watching ads), the equivalent of 2,000 Wikipedia projects per year. An increase in productivity of just a fraction of that surplus could have a profound impact on the way we live and the institutions we create. For example, the internet connected population currently watches one trillion hours of television per year. Just 1% of that time spent on say Wikipedia-like projects could produce as many as 10,000 Wikipedia projects per year.
Its an interesting idea but it assumes that an hour of thought is equal to an hour of thought which it clearly is not. An hour spent by a professor of anthropology on the extinction of the Maya civilization is more valuable than an hour spent by me on the same subject. We see this difference in the marketplace all the time; a lawyer can sell an hour of thought for a much higher value than a traffic warden. Nonetheless, I still find the idea of a cognitive surplus attractive, its utilization plausible and its potential exciting.