PopTech Blog

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.


A PopTech collaboration: Sarah Fortune & Lukas Biewald

Last year, Sarah Fortune came to PopTech looking for a solution. The 2010 PopTech Science Fellow and researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health had hit a wall in her research on Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacterium that causes tuberculosis. She needed a way to analyze streams of images of the bacteria -- as quickly and cheaply as possible -- or one line of her research would stall.

“I thought maybe we could crowdsource it,” she recalled yesterday in front of a packed house at PopTech 2011. “So I asked onstage, ‘Is there an app for that?’ Unbelievably, someone in the audience called out and then made it happen.”

That someone was Josh Nesbit, a 2009 Social Innovation Fellow, who connected Fortune to Lukas Biewald, co-founder of CrowdFlower, an Internet-based crowdsourcing company. The rest, as they say, is history.


Social Innovation Fellow spotlight: Amy Sun

Fab Lab in action

Social Innovation Fellow Amy Sun's presentation as captured by Alphachimp illustrator Perrin Ireland. Read more about Sun's Fab Folk project here.

PopTech 2011 Interview: Shahidul Alam on photography for change

Shahidul Alam

Shahidul Alam walked on stage on Thursday wearing a marigold-colored salwar kameez, a camera over his left shoulder, and a beltpack slung around his hips. There was no mistaking his calling. The Bangladeshi photographer, activist and social entrepreneur has almost single-handedly rebalanced the world of photojournalism, long dominated by Western photographers and their worldview. He has shifted its lens eastward and southward by training legions of photographers in his homeland, creating an award-winning photo agency to sell their work and founding a prestigious international photography festival to showcase their talent. And this fall, he published a book, My Journey as a Witness, telling the story of Bangladeshi photography as an instrument of social justice. He serves as an ambassador of this movement, in the words of PopTech’s executive director, Andrew Zolli, “travelling the world leaving new cultures of art makers in his wake.” We sat down with Alam backstage in Camden, Maine.

PopTech: You founded Drik, a photo agency, and the Chobi Mela International Festival of Photography. Why did you feel it was important for Bangladeshi photographers, as well as their peers, to have these outlets for their work?
Shahidul Alam: Firstly, it was a question of addressing this very distorted perception people have of what I call the “majority world” countries. Our poverty is a reality, but that is not the only identity that we have. Secondly, I wanted to challenge a very unidirectional form of storytelling that has -- to a large extent -- been propagated by the West. The richness and diversity of human life gets lost in a very agenda-led information distribution system. So that was the beginning.

We also wanted to celebrate our own culture. It’s not that I am against white, Western photographers producing work in Bangladesh -- I think our ideas need to be challenged just as much. It’s the monopoly of dissemination that I was against. So we wanted to create a space for diversity -- for both Western work and our own work. That’s where the Chobi Mela festival came in -- to facilitate that cultural infusion.