PopTech Blog

Science Fellow spotlight: Iain Couzin

Iain Couzin, Science Fellow

Science Fellow Iain Couzin is striving to understand how and why animals coordinate their behavior: why fish swim in schools, caribou migrate in herds, birds fly in flocks and insects tend to swarm. Today, standing against a backdrop of photos from Mauritania, where he has been studying the swarming behavior of desert locusts, Couzin explained that despite 50 years of research, fighting locusts is still more of an art than a science. This is partly because scientists haven’t sought to understand locusts' collective behavior, until now.

Juvenile locusts are wingless and march in bands. In Couzin's lab, they'll march in circles for hours a day, a highly coordinated behavior. By focusing on local interactions between the locusts, as well as another insect, the Mormon cricket, Couzin and his collaborators have discovered that they march together not out of cooperation but out of self-interest.  “Locusts and crickets are not cooperating. They run out of protein and they run out of salt. They move to avoid getting cannibalized," he said. "The outcome is forced motion."

Couzin hopes to use this new-found understanding of the insects’ mass movements to help predict outbreaks and control pests, especially in places like Mauritania where plagues can devastate local economies. But their collective dynamics may also help him understand animal migration, the spread of disease and even climate change.

Images: Kris Krug for PopTech (photo); Perrin Ireland, Alphachimp Studio (illustration)

Simon Hauger and The Workshop School

Simon Hauger, who presented at PopTech both last year and this year, began the Hybrid X Team at West Philadelphia High School 13 years ago to engage his students in math, science and engineering and help them apply the concepts they were learning in school. The students in this after-school program have won multiple national competitions with the hybrid vehicles they designed and built.

Hauger has now taken that experience and applied it to The Workshop School — a school for high school seniors that’s been established to challenge students to solve real-world problems.

Watch SImon Hauger talk with student Azeem Hill at PopTech 2010.

Bryan Doerries conducts the Theater of War

Bryan Doerries conducts the theater of war

Put war veterans, civilians, actors and a 2,000+ year-old play together in the same room and some powerful things happen. Bryan Doerries' Theater of War project does just that.

For an hour or so yesterday, PopTech attendees were transported to ancient Greece, where a wounded solidier is almost, but not quite, mortally injured in a cave where he has languished alone for nine years. For those unfamiliar with Sophocles' play Philoctetes -- the character of Philoctetes has been abandoned by his commander and fellow soldiers and left on the island to die. An unfortunate snake bite has him screaming in pain, fetid, rotting. His wound makes him difficult to be around and his leader sees him as a burden. In this shortened adaptation of the story, years later the commander orders a young soldier to return to the island and trick Philoctetes into relinquishing a bow that has been bestowed with special powers. Meeting Philoctetes, who is so grateful to see him after so much time alone and in pain, the young soldier is torn between his sense of duty and the bond he is forming with his new, albeit injured friend.   

a vet watches from the crowdThe play, written so long ago by Sophocles (who was himself a general) still resonates deeply today. After the performance, two young war veterans joined a VA psychologist on a panel to discuss their interpretation of the play and draw parallels to their own lives and work. The audience, which included invited local veterans and their family members, joined the conversation and collectively we explored the play's themes of isolation, pain and dignity.   

In the original version of the play, Philoctetes' primal screams go on for a full and uninterrupted twenty minutes. Our audience experienced a much shortener version of that re-enacted agony, but it still made a powerful point. In the same way the post-performance talk got us thinking, it was that scream that got us feeling.

From the play:

Poor man. I pity him:
 isolated and alone,
no one to nurse him,
he talks to himself,
sharing his body
with a brutal disease.
How does he do it?
The gods work well
when men suffer
endlessly and die.

Sophocles' Philoctetes
Translated by Bryan Doerries

Doerries refers to the isolation that many returning vets feel as "the wound that never heals". Both of the vets and the pyschologist on the panel spoke about dealing with this particular type of anguish. Only by feeling a connection with others does this pain begin to recede.

Doerries closed the session by reminding us that none of us are alone. We were brought together during the session through our shared conversation, and brought together across time through the immortal words of a soldier who has long since left the Earth.     

Images: Thatcher Cook for PopTech

Desney Tan & Scott Saponas: Your body is a wonder, man

Scott Saponas demos SkinputScott Saponas dazzled the crowd yesterday by playing Tetris with his arm. Correction: not with his arm, on his arm. "If you can play Tetris," joked Sapanas as he maneuvered the falling blocks simply by touching various parts of his arm, "You can pretty much do anything."

Saponas and his colleague Desney Tan both work at Microsoft Research. Their latest project, called Skinput, focuses on allowing richer, more natural ways of interacting with our ubiquitous technology devices. They envision a day when you can change your music, learn a language, even answer email using bioacoustics on the touch-sensitive surfaces of our bodies.

"The human body is an amazing playground of technology interface," says Tan. By interacting with computers in a more natural way, "you become the controller."

Video: Amy Cuddy's power poses

Social psychologist Amy Cuddy's pioneering research shows that subtle manipulations in posture can actually change our hormone levels and dramatically alter the way we feel and are perceived by the people around us. Just two minutes in one of Cuddy's power poses boosted testosterone and lowered cortisol levels, and actually changed the performance of research participants in stressful situations. She channeled these findings into empowerment training tips. Check out her PopTech presentation to find out how you can use your body language to win in the boardroom, your next job, interview or public performance.

PopTech 2011 in images: Friday highlights

Check out highlights from our third day of PopTech 2011. Stay tuned for more tomorrow!

Friday round-up: Highlights, snapshots & quotable moments

Today we heard from an Egyptian human rights activist who demonstrated in Tahrir Square, a strategic adviser to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a social psychologist who studies the power of body language and two researchers developing bioacoustic technologies.  

Here’s what showed up on Twitter and Flickr, caused a stir in the audience and had our staffers whispering backstage. Is your favorite moment missing? Add it to the mix!

Hayat Sindi: PopTech Science and Social Innovation Fellow announced the launch of a new NGO, the Institute for Imagination and Ingenuity, dedicated to engaging the hearts and minds of young people throughout the Middle East.  "I meet young people with great ideas, but without resources, encouragement, or access to realize their dreams. I want to inspire our youth to innovate and to bring their dreams to reality."

We've disconnected the right and left sides of our brain and we're not allowing innovation to drive the national forward.
-- Capt. Wayne Porter, former strategic adviser to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and co-author of the groundbreaking article “A National Strategic Narrative.”

Saman Arbibi and Kambiz Hosseini: Their Persian-language TV program, Parazit, on Voice of America started as a 10-minute pilot three years ago and has become an international phenomenon, drawing more than 700,000 followers in Iran. They transform material provided by people on the street, juxtaposing humor against the injustices unfolding in that country today. 

Expand without dominating or without complimenting.
-- Social psychologist Amy Cuddy on the body language that will help you land the job at your next interview.

Anne-Marie Slaughter: The first female director of Policy Planning for the United States Department of State discussed her “Lego Model” of foreign policy, in which coalitions are formed not by states but by various social actors -- government, industry and so on. " A networked world of social actors provides a model that is much more resilient when bad things happen." 

We're swimming in data. Ninety percent of the data that exists today was created in the past two years.
-- Robert Kirkpatrick, director, UN Global Pulse, on harnessing the power of open data.

Red Teaming: The Art of Challenging Assumptions: Ellyn Ogden, a coordinator of the fight against polio for USAID, described the motivating power of envisioning failure. She is harnessing the "Red Teaming" techniques developed by the US military to plan the subtler, more complex strategies she believes are necessary to eliminate every last, elusive case of the disease. “There are 444 cases of polio left in the world as of last week. We have room for hope that we are going to eradicate [the disease] quickly."

Image: Kris Krug

Interview: President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson on the strength and beauty of Iceland

From devastating financial collapse to the eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull, over the course of the past several years, Iceland has become synonymous with upheaval. Through it all, the enduring figure of President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson has remained constant. A staunch supporter of renewable energy and advocate for international cooperation on issues around climate change, President Grimsson has also been outspoken on finding lasting solutions to systemic economic inequality.

As PopTech heads to Iceland in 2012, it was important for us to sit down with him and hear his thoughts on a world rebalancing, building and maintaining resilience, and why we should all pack our bags for Reykjavik.

PopTech: PopTech’s theme this year is The World Rebalancing. What do you see as Iceland’s role in a rebalancing world?
Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson: When you live in a small country like Iceland, a country that is very active globally and economically in distribusting and acquiring innovation; but also a country that’s gone through a financial crisis of historic magnitude, you are almost in a laboratory situation, where you can observe and witness and feel the shift that is taking place, or the rebalancing if you want to call it that.

Are there a few examples that that you’ve seen of that realignment taking place in Iceland?
We are seeing a tectonic shift in the nature of our societies, transforming the balance between the market on one hand and democracy on the other. I have even concluded, which is a strange conclusion for me to make because I have spent most of my life within the traditional institutions of a democratic political system, that the democratic power of this movement that technology has enabled and brought about, is now so strong and so fast that the operations of the traditional institutions have almost become a sideshow.

You see it happening in my country in the last three years, you saw it happening in Cairo, you’ve seen it happen in Athens, and you’ve seen it last week, in over a thousand cities, where you’ve got coordinated demonstrations initiated by Occupy Wall Street. Before in history it would have been impossible to coordinate these demonstrations at a relatively short notice.

Secondly, we are seeing a shift from the predominance of the financial and the market institution, over to the reemergence of democracy, and what we have classically called the “public will”, to use a philosophical term. But we are in the middle of that shift; we don’t know where it will take us, or what will be the implications.

But the third shift, which is implied in all of this, is the shift in time. These changes are now so fast, helped by the social media, that they are of historic proportions. We have nothing comparable in world history as a guideline.


Talk of the day: Designer Thomas Thwaites on lessons from a toaster

Thomas Thwaites’ design odyssey took nine months and cost a little more than $1,000. It led him from the pits of a retired iron mine to the peak of a Scottish mountain, and from an e-waste depot to his mother’s microwave oven -- all in an effort to create a toaster from scratch, from raw materials. “It all began with the observation that most of what we rely on today began as rocks and sludge buried in the ground. I’m interested in how this insane and magical transformation takes place,” Thwaites told this morning’s audience at PopTech.

Over the next 20 minutes, he led us through his pursuit of a toaster’s core elements (steel, copper, nickel, mica and plastic), an adventure that came to be known as The Toaster Project, and has since evolved into an exhibit, book and television series.

Thwaites was driven by the fact that, like most of the consumer products we use, nothing about a toaster belies its provenance. “There’s a lot of effort, intelligence and history that goes into making even something like a toaster. On the one hand that's great…On the other hand, is it worth putting all this time, effort and energy into something that is a pretty marginal addition to our existence?”

Bhagwan Chowdhry's FAB idea: Give babies $100

Bhagwan Chowdhry

UCLA Anderson Finance professor Bhagwan Chowdhry has a big idea: give all babies $100 at birth, which they could claim when they turned 16 years old. This concept, called Financial Access at Birth (FAB), has two projected outcomes. First, it would give all people, regardless of where they're born, the chance to become "financial citizens". Second, it would allow for the assignment of a global identification number, giving voice and potentially providing social services and other assistance to some of the world's poorest people, who often slip through the cracks.  

PopTech had a chance to sit down with Chowdhry just after he presented at PopTech to find out a little more about the FAB project. 

PopTech: How would your project reach folks who are not literate, are not connected to the world in the ways that we’re used to getting our information?
Bhagwan Chowdhry: We think incentives work. I think the word will get around when people hear that every child will get a hundred dollar deposit. That’s a lot of money in some parts of the world. The fear that some people have of not wanting to connect is overcome by this incentive. That’s what we are hoping will happen.

Do you have a location in mind already for where the pilot will take place?
We do have a location but we haven’t made the announcement yet so I am not at liberty to say.

We have a lot of distrust around banking institutions in general right now, and promoting them as a way to solve for some of these issues seems to conflict with what we are hearing about banks.
I don’t think it is really an issue of who is going to serve it. There are other financial intermediaries who could step in. Some other socially-conscious banks might step in. We haven’t made a decision about who is going to do it. There has to be cooperation with other agencies such as government. For example, these deposits have to be safe. You cannot have fly-by-night banks. These intermediaries have to be called to invent some sort of regulatory agencies like the government and they will have to be part of the solution.