PopTech Blog

Cowboying up vs. geeking out with David Eagleman

When it comes to science, you walk to the edge of the pier of what we definitely know and you encounter everything we don’t know. “Every generation adds more slats to the pier,” David Eagleman, neuroscientist and best-selling author of Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, continued. But “what we know is so vastly outstripped by what we don’t know.”

David Eagleman

Scientists don’t have the capacity to gamble beyond available data. They can make up hypotheses and tolerate many of them at once, but “some questions are beyond the scientific toolbox and ambiguity is accepted as part of the relationship we have with mother nature.”

According to Eagleman, we know too little to commit to strict atheism, but we know too much to commit to a strict religious story. Holy books were written millennia before we knew about the big bang, computation, or mechanical landscapes. Moreover, there’s a sense that people are weary of the false certainty about what’s known to which many religions subscribe, a “false dichotomy of god or no god.”

Enter Possibilianism: an 18-month old philosophy fleshed out by Eagleman that rejects the idiosyncratic claims of traditional theism and the positions of certainty in atheism in favor of a middle, exploratory ground. Possibilians import the tools of science to embrace what we do know. And where that leaves off, Possibilians are open to the examination of new, unconsidered possibilities. With Possibilianism, it’s okay to embrace what we don’t know and not feel obligated to commit to any particular story.

When it comes to “cowboy-ing up,” or firmly committing to what we know about the universe around us, Eagleman says he’d rather “geek out than cowboy up,” deferring to science with an openness to uncertainty.

(Photos: Kris Krüg)

2010 Science Fellow Sarah Fortune

Sarah Fortune

2010 Science and Public Leadership Fellow Sarah Fortune, Assistant Professor of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at Harvard School of Public Health, Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, is trying to figure out why the turberculosis microbacteria is so resistant. Her team has been studying the disease and the way it responds to various eradication efforts. Despite its virtual eradication in the States, it remains a significant health risk for millions of people worldwide.

“What you see is that we can always kill almost all of the bacteria,” she told the PopTech audience Saturday. “Yet there are always a few that remain. Whenever we relieve the stress on them, they come back.” Fortune reached out to the tech savvy crowd for help in her fight. “I want to crowdsource this issue,” she said. “Reach out to your networks, tell people about what we’re doing, and get back to us. We need everyone’s help.”

(Photos: Kris Krüg)

Social Innovation Fellow Rajesh Panjabi rethinks healthcare in Liberia

When Rajesh Panjabi was nine years old, a war erupted in his home country of Liberia. When the war encroached on his hometown, his family had to leave. On the airport’s tarmac, Panjabi, his sister, and mother were separated on the tarmac from poorer Liberians. His family got on the plane and out of the country. The less fortunate did not. That memory stuck with him. Years later, as a trained medical professional, he returned to Liberia and saw the lasting mass destruction and utter lack of healthcare. This prompted him to co-found Tiyatien Health (TH).

Rajesh Panjabi

TH builds relationships between rural health centers and their surrounding communities, working towards greater equality in healthcare delivery. The organization leverages community health workers who accompany patients through their illness and beyond – providing the sick with home-based care, a designated caregiver to help them navigate the medical system, and links to social and economic support. TH hopes to scale the program to redefine how healthcare is provided throughout Liberia.

(Photo credit: Kris Krüg)

Pieter Hoff: Saving the World with Radical Roots and Water Batteries

Pieter Hoff

Pieter Hoff is renewing a tried-and-true environmentalist mission: saving the world by planting trees. But Hoff has the technology to go with it; he’s engineering new ways to nurture trees in some of the world’s driest, harshest climates.

He begins by identifying a problem: millions of people are already going hungry, and 10 billion more will be coming as the world’s population grows. He asks: “Is there a possibility that we can feed those people?” He then identifies another problem: an excess of CO² in the atmosphere and the resultant global warming.

His solution to both is the Groasis Waterboxx: a device that “drinks from the air” by collecting condensation and storing it, therefore becoming a sort of “water battery.” He says the biggest challenge for plants in arid climates is not the amount of rain, but the consistency: it’s the dry seasons that kill any chance of growth. The Waterboxx proposes to solve that by creating a continuous source of water from occasional rainfalls.

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Brian Elliot: Who's down with LGBT? Their community

Social Innovation Fellow Brian Elliot describes himself as being “professionally gay”. He confesses that it is not what he set out to do, but as someone who can be legally fired in 29 states, evicted in over 30 and denied over 1,000 federal rights just by the nature of whom he chooses to love, he felt he didn’t have a choice.

Brian Elliot

Elliot stated that over 77% of Americans have a friend who is gay or transgendered. Operating under the principle that friends tend to support their friends, he started the site Friendfactor after receiving an enormous show of support from over 19,000 friends (and strangers!) on his Facebook page when he posted about gay rights. Friendfactor allows gay and straight people who want to support changing discriminatory laws denying basic rights, to network, find information, and organize.

“We can change the way this chapter in history is being written,” said Elliot, “just by being a good friend.”

(Photos: Kris Krüg)

PopTech Fellows Justin Gallivan and Nina Dudnik

Justin Gallivan

2010 Science and Public Leadership Fellow Justin Gallivan is amazed by bacteria. You can get them to do almost anything. For instance, Gallivan, associate professor of chemistry at Emory University, told the PopTech crowd Saturday that he can program e. coli bacteria to eat atrazine, a widely used herbicide that can contaminate ground water. The key is to be able to turn the gene on and off. Using a molecule called Riboswitch allows him to do just that. “We want to be able to program the bacteria to send it after atrazine,” he said. “Turns out we can do that.”

2010 Social Innovation Fellow Nina Dudnik told the crowd that her company, Seeding Labs, is taking discarded lab equipment from the United States to needy labs in other countries. “Talent is everywhere,” she said. “We need to train more scientists to be better everywhere.” As part of that commitment, Dudnik said Seeding Labs has also launched a program to connect scientists from the U.S. with their counterparts in Africa and South America. “Just 48 hours ago, the first group of science ambassadors landed in Nairobi,” she said. “Putting scientists from different walks of life together makes everyone’s work better.”

(Photo credit: Kris Krüg)

Chris Chabris on Gorillas, Illusions, and the Things We Miss

Chris Chabris

Psychologist and neuroscientist Chris Chabris studies the numerous ways our intuitions fool us. Chabris is the co-creator of the famous “gorilla experiment” and author of The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us. He explores six “everyday illusions” that demonstrate the mistaken beliefs that we all hold about how our minds work.

For example, Chabris says that we often suffer from an “illusion of attention,” thinking that we see the world as it really is when in fact we are making all kinds of assumptions that shape how we perceive the real world. We also tend to have too much confidence in our own skills and abilities, and the least skilled tend to be the most overconfident. Another illusion that Chabris discusses is the illusion of cause: we tend to inaccurately connect cause and effect, when what really exists is accident or correlation.

You can also try a few of the experiments discussed in Chabris’ book.

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Project Masiluleke Continues to Transform Mobile Healthcare in South Africa

Project M

Speakers Robert Fabricant and Gustav Praekelt took to the PopTech stage to talk about the next chapter for Project Masiluleke, an innovative effort to leverage mobile technologies and a bold self-diagnosis campaign to combat South Africa’s crippling HIV/AIDS and TB epidemics.

In the two years since Project M launched, the initiative has proven itself to be a transformative intervention that allows public health initiatives to directly reach the public. It helped create a self-testing kit that allows people to learn their HIV status from the privacy of their homes, and despite the pronounced social stigma surrounding the disease. According to Praekelt, Project M has also delivered more than 800 million text messages, at no cost to users and while generating revenue for local phone operators. In addition, the project has also established a successful AIDS help line, which has received about 1.5 million calls to date.

Project M’s success demonstrates the real world impact of PopTech, says Fabricant. The idea for the project emerged in response to Zinny Thabethe’s appearance at the PopTech 2006 conference. HIV positive herself, Zinny has been fighting to reverse the course of HIV/AIDS in South Africa. Moved by her story, an interdisciplinary mix of partners that included Fabricant, of frog design, Praekelt, of the Praekelt Foundation, and representatives from iTeach.

The initiative also received critical support from PopTech’s Accelerator, a social innovation incubator that works to sustain the earliest stages of transformative initiatives. It’s tempting for designers to think they’ve solved something, says Fabricant, when there’s often a huge gap between bright ideas and actually achieving something worthwhile. The initial creative plan for Project M only took a few days, yet implementing the project and ensuring that it would be sustainable proved to be a far greater challenge. “Who is going to do all the messy, dirty things," asks Fabricant. "This is what PopTech did for two years, on every level imaginable.”

In May 2010, Project M won the prestigious 2010 Impumelelo Sustainability Award. Now that the initiatives has demonstrated its effectiveness within communities, the award grant will be used to build public awareness about the project itself.

Life during wartime: Laura Poitras on doc-making after 9/11

“I was with contractors in Kurdistan and one night, one of them told me he needed to use my room to do an arms deal.  As a documentary filmmaker, I said, ‘Of course, please come in and use my room for your arms deal.’”

Laura Poitras

Just your typical Laura Poitras story. The acclaimed director took time Saturday to share stories with the PopTech conference crowd about the making, and consequences, of her most recent films – My Country, My Country and The Oath, which form part of a trilogy she’s making about life after 9/11.

“With my work I’m trying to bridge the gap between what we actually know and what we actually feel,” she said. “I’m trying to make films that make you feel. And these films are about us. Even if they’re filmed over there, they still have to do with us.”

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Adrian Owen’s quest for consciousness

Imagine you were entirely conscious but unable to move — your eyes could be open, you might twitch, but the movements would be completely involuntary. In short, you would be just as conscious as you are right now but totally incapable of communication. What would you give for someone to figure out that you were, indeed, fully awake?

Adrian Owen

Neuroscientist Adrian Owen has dedicated his career to determining consciousness in vegetative patients. Since 1997, he has used brain-scanning techniques and, most recently, functional magnetic resonance imaging, to measure brain activity.

“We have a logical problem here,” he told the PopTech audience Saturday evening. “If a patient was conscious but incapable of generating responses, which is the hallmark of vegetative state, we would logically have no way of knowing if that person was conscious.”

Since command following is the most effective means of determining consciousness, Owen devised a rather simple experiment – he would have patients imagine performing physical activities upon command. “When you imagine things, the same areas of brain will activate as if you were actually doing that thing,” he said. “The point is to get this person to think about…initiating movement. When you ask someone to relax, the brain activity disappears.”

In 2006, Owen and his team had a rather improbable breakthrough. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, they were going to measure brain activity in a vegetative patient. “We had a young woman who had been in a road traffic accident and was entirely vegetative for five months,” he said. “She was the very first patient we tried this technique on. We asked her to imagine playing tennis. And she activated the same area of her brain as a healthy volunteer despite outwardly showing no signs of being conscious. When we asked her to relax, the activity disappeared.”

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