TIME Foreign Policy

USAID Using Technology to Fight Poverty

The USAID has plans to end extreme poverty by 2030, and it wants to use technology and science to make it happen

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) will announce Thursday a new high-tech program to fight poverty across the globe.

The program, called the U.S. Global Development Lab, is a partnership between USAID and 31 universities, corporations and foundations that will support and develop solutions to global problems using science and technology. Its goal is to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030.

For USAID administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah, the project has been a long time coming. Since taking the helm at USAID—and before, when he served as undersecretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture—Shah has worked to develop solutions to solve the world’s problems through science, often alongside Clinton.

Shah was at the USDA finding ways to improve agriculture through science while Secretary Clinton was constructing a global food initiative. Shah says he proposed marrying the efforts to take a meaningful jab at ending world hunger.

“I said, look, if we could get and invent new seeds, new mobile technology and open new data centers to help farmers connect their crop prices and understand weather variability we can do something transformational against hunger,” says Shah. “And not just reach a small percentage of the people that are hungry with food.”

By using a strategy based in science and technology to approach the myriad issues faced by poor communities across the globe, Shah says America can lead the effort to end poverty. Any change, however, won’t happen overnight. The USAID has spent the past four years cutting programs and reallocating funds so the Lab would have the resources necessary to launch. In 2008, the USAID spent only $127 million on scientific developments. In 2013, they spent closer to $800 million. They’re expecting as much as $30 billion in individual investment over the course of the project with the help of their partners, including The University of California at Berkeley, Coca-Cola, and the Gates Foundation.

Those partners are developing products that marry cost-effective strategies with science and technology, often creating simple strategies to tackle problems ranging from hunger to disease to literacy in the process. A group of Stanford University graduates are shopping a low-cost, environmentally friendly home lighting product that set out to reach 22 million people in Africa who currently rely on kerosene lamps to light their homes at night. USAID partners at Berkeley created a mobile application that can detect water borne diseases using an iPhone camera and parts built from a 3-D printer. And by working together, USAID hopes the solutions will reach a higher number of people at a faster pace.

“We see this as a transformation in how you do development,” said Lona Stoll of USAID. “By tapping into things that really make America what it is, which is our entrepreneurial spirit, our scientific expertise, and our real commitment to help people, you have a real ability to accelerate our impact.”

TIME Innovation

FCC Vote Clears the Way for Faster Wi-Fi

The Federal Communications Commission voted unanimously this week to allow Wi-Fi networks greater access to the public airwaves, officially clearing the way for faster Wi-Fi data connections.

Currently, Wi-Fi networks are allowed to communicate using two different public frequency bands: 2.4GHz and 5GHz. The new FCC rule expands the amount of the 5GHz band dedicated for use in Wi-Fi communications by 100MHz, opening up the possibility of ultra-high-speed Gigabit Wi-Fi in our homes.

“This is a big win for consumers who will be able to enjoy faster connections and less congestion, as more spectrum will be available to handle Wi-Fi traffic,” explains FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. “It will make it easier to get online wirelessly in public places like airports and convention centers, as well as in your living room.”

It’s not yet known how long it will take for router companies to release products that take advantage of the extra bandwidth.

This article was written by Fox Van Allen and originally appeared on Techlicious.

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TIME Innovation

Raph Koster on Facebook-Oculus: You’re Just Another Avatar in Someone Else’s MMO

A gamer uses an Oculus virtual reality headset at the Eurogamer Expo 2013 in London.
A gamer uses an Oculus virtual reality headset at the Eurogamer Expo 2013 in London, September 26, 2013. Leon Neal—AFP/Getty Images

The Facebook-Oculus deal, for all the good it might do, requires that we all start paying much closer attention to ownership and control of virtual spaces.

Former Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies lead Raph Koster has the most insightful and incisive piece I’ve yet seen on the Facebook/Oculus VR deal. Instead of worrying about Mark Zuckerberg’s gaming cred or the integrity of Oculus’ Kickstarter or whether Google should have swooped in first or what $2 billion means relative to anyone else’s VR war chest, Koster zooms out to offer a perceptive overview of the underlying currents defining near and future computing trends, and the problematic artifacts that accompany those trends.

In Koster’s view, computing’s near-future is essentially “wearable” versus “annotated.” You’re either plugging stuff into your person to augment (or simulate) your reality, or carrying stuff around that places interpretive brackets around it. The difference between the two notions is academic, of course, and Koster says both camps — currently shaped by competing commercial visions that have as much to do with molding consumer interest as tapping it — can’t escape the black hole tug that’ll eventually draw them together.

About this, Koster says:

One is the mouth, the other the ears. One is the poke, the other the skin. And then we’re in a cyberpunk dream of ads that float next to us as we walk, getting between us and the other people, our every movement mined for Big Data.

What does it mean when companies as vast as Facebook or Google or Apple have this level of access to and control over the way we interface with anything, conventional notions of reality or otherwise? It means…well, trouble, because it’s already causing trouble via the pre-VR, pre-”presence” social network-driven personal desire assimilation engines that live in our cars, houses, workspaces and pockets.

I’m not a libertarian privacy-at-all-costs wingnut committed to a wildly idealistic impossibility. I see the philosophical cracks in some of these very old, culturally bound presumptions about what privacy ought to be, as if humans were self-sustaining islands in some mythic state of equilibrium capable of inhabiting this planet without imposition of any sort on another (ultimate privacy is, in fact, another way of describing a form of sociopathy). Mark Zuckerberg isn’t wrong when he’s said that privacy as we know it (or ideally expect it) has to change, and that that’s symptomatic of a technology-fueled (which is to say fundamentally us-driven) paradigm shift.

But the most important question in this barrier-cracking worldview, where we inject all that we are into someone’s calculating server farm, is this: Who has ultimate ownership of that technology?

In an ideal world, virtual reality would probably be open source, broadly distributed, and all this looming virtual turf would be owned (or data-mined, or suffused with overt or subliminal ads) by no one. But suggest as much and you’re basically ringing a bell for arguments about the so-called risk-takers and venture capitalists and entrepreneurial geniuses necessary to make all that looming virtu-topia possible, because true or no, that narrative’s drawn from as old and deeply embedded a cultural playbook as exists.

That question’s at the crux of the issue Koster’s getting at when he says the Facebook/Oculus deal isn’t about rendering (that is, geeky cool visual stuff) so much as it is about “placeness.” It’s about ownership, specifically ownership of cloud-space.

Virtual reality in that sense is going to be as boundless as a processor farm’s prowess and a design team’s imagination. It’s perhaps most poignantly the vision Tad Williams shares in his Otherland series, but it’s also there in Neal Stephenson and William Gibson and Bruce Sterling and all the countless others, in particular post-1980s-VR artists and thinkers, who’ve grappled with the question in one form or another. It’s a vision of the future in which extremely powerful, functionally opaque institutions compete for our attention in unfathomably vast virtual emporiums that, yes, may well start with something as innocuous-sounding as mountain climbing and concert-going (say in Facebook’s case). But how quickly does that move on to wish fulfillment (which is where it risks becoming narcotic), where it’s simultaneously mining our hopes, dreams, desires and eventually every measurable detail of our lives?

“It’s about who owns the servers,” says Koster. “The servers that store your metrics. The servers that shout the ads. The servers that transmit your chat. The servers that geofence your every movement.”

And then:

It’s time to wake up to the fact that you’re just another avatar in someone else’s MMO. Worse. From where they stand, all-powerful Big Data analysts that they are, you look an awful lot like a bot.

Paranoia about what companies are doing with your data today may be overstated, in that I’m pretty sure no one cares what I say on the phone or send through email in the here-and-now. But healthy paranoia, if such a thing exists, involves educated hypothesizing (that is, extrapolating based on historical precedent). There’s certainly precedent for virtual reality, since the latter’s still going to be constrained by our imaginations. In this 21st century pre-singularity moment, we’re still as human as we’ve ever been. The problems we’ll have to deal with when we strap things on our faces and start to reify what we’re already capable of doing when we close our eyes and dream are going to be the same problems we’ve been dealing with for millennia, however amplified or fetishized or distorted.

Grappling with something as far flung (and yet simultaneously present) as global warming isn’t about solving those problems today, it’s about considering a tomorrow many of us won’t see. It’s about understanding the scale involved with addressing those problems, about thinking longterm instead of excusing inaction based on human ephemeralness. The kinds of things Koster worries about won’t happen overnight, but gradually — so gradually that the shifts can be imperceptible. The dystopian futures that seem so reprehensible in the best speculative fiction don’t arrive like fleets of hostile aliens, galvanizing us to action, and Koster’s future in which we’re an avatar in someone else’s MMO is already partly here. In a 2007 interview about his book Spook Country, William Gibson said “it’s hard to write science fiction anymore when reality is so unbelievable.”

I’m excited about Oculus VR’s tech. I can’t wait for my devkit to arrive this summer. But as Koster puts it, “I’m a lot more worried about whose EULA is going to govern my life.”

Me too.

TIME Innovation

Researchers Create a Disposable Battery That Melts Inside You

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have created a powerful, tiny battery capable of safely being absorbed into the human body, the journal Nature is reporting.

The battery is made of magnesium foil, saline solution, biodegradable polymers and other non-toxic materials. Scientists say it’s designed to power tiny biodegradable electronic sensors that could be implanted deep inside tissue or under bone. These sensors can wirelessly relay data about temperature or mechanical strain for about a day before being safely absorbed into the body.

The University of Illinois researchers were not the first to design a biodegradable battery, but they may be the first to design a truly useful one. That’s because it has an unusually high power density – an incredibly tiny battery with a surface area of 0.25 cm2 and a thickness of 1 micrometer could power a wireless sensor for up to a day.

“This is a really major advance,” noted biomedical engineer Jeffrey Borenstein told Nature. “Until recently, there has not been a lot of progress in this area.”

This article was written by Fox Van Allen and originally appeared on Techlicious.

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TIME Innovation

LG Unveils a ‘Smart’ Light Bulb You Control with Your Phone

LG

The bulbs can be controlled from an Android device running version 4.3 or higher as well as iOS devices running iOS 6.0 or above.

It looks like South Korea-based electronics conglomerate LG is getting into the “smart” bulb game, announcing on its Korean site what it calls an “LG Smart Lamp”: a light bulb that has both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth built in, and that you can control with an iPhone or Android device.

Whether it’s smart or not is debatable — “smart” to me implies intrinsic automation of some sort — but giving you the option to interface with an otherwise dumb light source, no strings attached, opens up a range of smarter usage possibilities. LG says the bulbs will run 35,000 won, or about $32.

Imagine using an app like this to control when your lights turn on or off, regulating brightness settings to conserve energy (LG claims the bulbs are 80% more efficient than incandescents and should last for 10 years if used five hours a day), or being able to keep tabs on precisely how many watts you’re expending over a given amount of time. And since LG supports it on the Android version of its app, imagine using the technology as a party adjunct: it can flash to the beat of music (rhythmically reliable dance music, that is — throw some Ornette Coleman at it and all bets are off).

Now imagine — and I’m thinking outside of LG’s box here — the app interfacing with a meteorological one capable of adjusting when the lights turn on or off and how they cycle up, luminosity-wise, according to seasonal metrics like when sunset or sunrise occur. Imagine the bulbs taking their cues from local data, whether from light sensors or local weather stations, reacting to a gloomy day in a home with few windows by keeping lights in designated areas on.

We’ve been able to do some of that for decades using hardware-based timers, but they’re comparably crude: they have to be manually set using cheap, plasticky dials, you need separate ones for each outlet and your lights are either on or off — workable if you want to set up a light source to dissuade burglars or automate a holiday decoration, but that’s about it.

Wireless light bulbs aren’t unheard of: a company called LIFX (it launched last year) offers a Wi-Fi-enabled LED bulb that also supports smartphone controls, including the option to change the bulb’s color on demand. LG’s entry is significant because of the manufacturer’s international market presence, thought it’s not clear when we’ll see the bulbs stateside: at this point, they’re only available in South Korea.

TIME Innovation

Aros Smart Window Air Conditioner Is Controlled by Your Smartphone

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You don’t need to own your own home or be an expert electrician to enjoy the benefits of a smart thermostat this summer: Quirky and appliance giant GE have teamed up to introduce the Aros Smart Window Air Conditioner, the first smartphone-controlled window AC unit designed to keep electric bills under control.

Once installed, the 8,000 BTU in-window Aros works similarly to an AC unit tied to a Nest or Honeywell Wi-Fi Smart Thermostat. Once you complete the setup, you can control settings on the window unit using the free WINK smartphone app. As you adjust temperature higher or lower on sweltering summer days, Aros learns about you and your preferences in order to build an automatic schedule.

While the remote functionality and learning features are great, what I like about the Aros is its “Smart Budget” feature. Using local weather reports, past usage data, and current electricity prices, Aros can reliably predict how much you’ll spend each month on cooling. You can even set a cooling budget to receive warning notifications when you’re approaching your limit.

The Quirky + GE Aros Smart Window Air Conditioner retails for $300 and will ship in early May. You’ll be able to find the device at retailers like Home Depot, Walmart, Target and online at Amazon.com.

For more connected home solutions like the Aros, check out our 2014 roundup of affordable smart home tech.

This article was written by Fox Van Allen and originally appeared on Techlicious.

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TIME Innovation

Self-Inflating Tires Have Been Around for Awhile

AperiaTechnologies/YouTube

The wrinkle in Aperia's Halo appears to be its rotational energy-capture system.

Self-inflating tires aren’t new, though if you didn’t know better, you might think they were. So I’m not clear why Aperia Technologies’ Halo Tire Inflator is generating buzz, when for all intents and purposes it does what similar-sounding commercial- and military-grade self-inflation systems already can: detect when pressure in a tire is low, then automatically aid air to keep things grooving.

Newsworthy (to me, anyway) would be if such technology had found its way into the sort of car I drive, which, without revealing or favoring a manufacturer, I can say is at the low end of the automotive spectrum. But at this point, Aperia’s Halo sounds like another entry in the list of systems available for commercial vehicles like tractors and trailers.

Perhaps Aperia’s technology is less expensive than existing self-inflation systems, or easier to install, or more efficient, or longer-lasting. It’s not clear in the company’s overview, though it may be the mechanism for air generation that’s novel here: The Halo is essentially a five-pound self-sustaining pump that’s able to generate pressure by channeling energy generated from tire rotation — Aperia says it’s fully mechanical, so there’s no external power source. The company compares it to a self-winding watch: in this case, a pendulum-like object oscillates as the tire moves, generating energy that’s then translated into pumping power. There’s no minimum speed to generate power, the system doesn’t interfere with external inflation sources and Aperia says its regulation system is designed to ensure it’ll never over-inflate the tire.

In its sales pitch, the company makes expected points about proper tire inflation, like that it saves you gas money (your fuel efficiency drops when your tires are under-inflated, and that’s big money if you’re a commercial driver), that it’ll increase the life of your tires and that it helps prevent blowouts and reduces emissions. The company claims it takes “5 to 10 minutes” to bolt the system onto a tire, and that it’s maintenance free thereafter.

While the Halo doesn’t include a system for transmitting tire pressure information to the cab, wirelessly or otherwise, I assume it works with existing PSI-monitoring tools, if your commercial vehicle has them. Given how innocuous-looking it is, you’d think this sort of thing might be a shoe-in for consumer use. I might pay extra not to have to worry about inflating my tires when the temperature shifts dramatically, if it were offered on mainstream (and not just luxury) vehicles.

If you want to read more about self-inflating tire systems, HowStuffWorks has an excellent overview here, including mention of self-sustaining systems like Aperia’s Halo, where air’s either generated by the rotation of the tire, or drawn in from the atmosphere itself.

TIME Innovation

IBM’s Supercomputer Watson Is Now a Chef With His Own Food Truck

Testing the creative capabilities of computers

First, Jeopardy! champions Ken Jennings and Ben Rutter got served by Watson, the IBM supercomputer. Now, Watson is serving up dishes from a food truck as part of a new partnership with the Institute of Culinary Education in New York, NPR reports.

The supercomputer made its debut as a chef at a Las Vegas tech conference last week, and so far has produced gourmet, fusion fare like a Swiss-Thai asparagus quiche, an Austrian chocolate burrito, and a pork belly moussaka.

Named after IBM founder Thomas J. Watson, the supercomputer comes up with creative meals based on a series of algorithms, according to the company’s website:

“The system begins by capturing and analyzing tens of thousands of existing recipes to understand ingredient pairings and dish composition, and which it rearranges and redesigns into new recipes. It then cross references these with data on the flavor compounds found in ingredients, and the psychology of people’s likes and dislikes…to model how the human palate might respond to different combinations of flavors.”

(MORE: Watson’s path to profits is anything but elementary)

IBM hopes Watson will become a lucrative revenue stream, TIME recently reported, after the company’s sales fell for seven straight quarters and its stock price dropped — arguably due to changes within the technology industry and the larger shift from PCs and printers toward software and services. “Cloud computing” is now a formidable competitor, and IBM executives have “projected” that Watson, which operates in the cloud, will generate $1 billion in revenue by 2018, the Wall Street Journal reports.

However, three years after its Jeopardy! debut, the supercomputer has only produced $100 million, according to the newspaper. So at the beginning of 2014, “IBM announced that it will invest more than $1 billion into the Watson Group, including $100 million for venture investments to support start-ups and businesses that are building a new class of applications powered by Watson,” TIME reported.

The food truck will be at SXSW, the music and tech festival in Austin, Texas, from March 7 to 11.

TIME Innovation

Pizza Hut Eyes Fancy Touchscreen Pizza-Ordering Tables

Side note: The couple in this video don't seem all that happy to be together. Maybe it's time to take a break, Ross and Rachel style.

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For starters, the couple in the above video don’t seem all that happy to be together. Maybe it’s time to take a break, Ross and Rachel style.

Second, this giant Microsoft PixelSense-style touchscreen table looks like a fun way to order a custom-made pizza. We’ll have to overlook that the table appears to treat the iPhone as an NFC-enabled device (it is not), and my dream since I’ve been old enough to dream has been a button that would summon the server to the table for a refill. I drink ‘em faster than they pour ‘em. I wouldn’t object to just having a pop (it’s pop — not soda) fountain built right into the booth itself.

So when will you see such a fancy table in your local Pizza Hut? When will you actually go and sit down to eat at your local Pizza Hut? I can’t answer the second question, and even the first question has something of a murky response: Pizza Hut’s YouTube page simply implies that this “could be the future of the Pizza Hut dine-in ordering experience.”

Pizza Hut + Chaotic Moon Studios Interactive Concept Table [YouTube via Kotaku]

TIME Gadgets

Business Card Plays Tetris, Might Be for Sale Soon

TAKE MY MONEY!

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The above video showcases a credit card-sized whatsit with a built-in screen, control pad and two buttons. It plays Tetris! If you’re not convinced by now that we’re either at or very near the pinnacle of human ingenuity, I’m not sure I’d ever be able to convince you otherwise and I’m not sure it’s worth your time to keep reading this. We should amicably go our separate ways.

For the rest of you, this project is called Arduboy. It’s about a millimeter and a half thick and apparently packs north of nine hours of battery life. Its creator, Kevin Bates, created the proof-of-concept you see in the above video and has plans to roll out a Kickstarter campaign to sell these things, complete with a website where people can share other types of software and games they create for Arduboy.

Bates writes on his site that he wants to use Kickstarter to raise $820 to cover licensing costs. I write here that he’ll probably be able to raise that amount faster than he can clear the first level of Tetris. He’ll also probably have to sell the cards without a game loaded onto them to avoid legal issues, though.

No word on how much a final version would cost, but you can visit Bates’ website to read more about how the project came together, complete with photos of the Qdoba and REI gift cards he used to test some of the early builds.

My business card plays Tetris [YouTube via The Next Web]

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