PopTech Blog

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.”


Bribes be gone. The Zero Rupee note combats corruption.

Corruption is rampant in India. It’s a day-to-day affair. Regardless of wealth or social status, a person in India can’t live without paying a bribe for a birth certificate, a passport, enrolling a student in public school, or any of the mundane but necessary activities others might take for granted. 99% of India’s population is impacted by these bribes. In fact, based on an index from Transparency International, India ranks 84th in the world when it comes to corruption.

Vijay Anand

But Vijay Anand believes it doesn’t have to be that way. Why do Indian citizens need to put up with this abuse of public trust for private gain? That’s why he started 5th Pillar, an organization dedicated to providing everyday citizens with tools to help them eliminate corruption throughout society, and more specifically, through the Zero Rupee note. Disseminated throughout India, these bills are “non-violent weapons of non-cooperation” that give people who may have been afraid to raise their voice, a convenient and simple mechanism to refuse bribery without fear or shame. While the bill looks like typical currency on one side, the other side provides training on how to use India’s Right of Information Act to demand government accountability.

The Zero Rupee Note

Thus far, 1.5 million Zero Rupee notes have been distributed in the past few years. While success stories of combating bribery throughout the country abound, there’s still a long way to go before this phenomenon creates a country-wide societal shift. Until then, Anand will continue to overhaul the cultural acceptance of bribery by focusing his efforts on educating students. His hope is that their parents, whose behaviors tend to be more ingrained, will listen to their children and flash the Zero Rupee note the next time someone tries to pull a fast one.

(Photo credit: Kris Krüg)

Catching up with Ushahidi co-founder Erik Hersman

We had a few moments to catch up with 2008 PopTech Fellow Erik Hersman, who let us know what’s been going on with his company, crisis mapping and communication platform, Ushahidi.

It’s been quite an amazing year, Erik. Best wishes to you and your team and safe travels back to Kenya!

Ben Goldacre: Bad Science

Ben Goldacre

Ben Goldacre is a fast talker. He has to be. He has so many examples of bad science to share.

Goldacre is a British physician and author of the weekly”Bad Science” column in the Guardian as well as of Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks. He takes on an impressive range of “enemies of reason,” a list that includes sloppy journalists, creationists, politicians that play fast and loose with the truth, pharmaceutical companies that design faulty drug trials, and a media that promotes pseudoscience. For example, suggesting that certain foods or objects can cause or cure diseases like cancer muddles the distinction between facts and beliefs. It can also be downright dangerous.

Goldacre shares the story of Matthias Rath, a German doctor who condemned anti-retroviral drugs used to treat HIV and AIDS and instead offered his own vitamins to a gullible South African public. Rath not only grew rich on his scheme, his efforts also helped validate claims by “HIV denialists” who suggest that the virus was not the cause of AIDS, says Goldacre. This view had critical support within the South African government, and paved the way for the country to refuse necessary drug treatment to citizens. According to Goldacre, this “dumb idea” cost more than 300,000 South Africans their lives between 2002-2005.

What Goldacre finds just as frustrating is how few people have stepped forward to denounce Rath and his activities. He notes that almost no one in the alternative therapy community has spoken out. That might have something to do with Rath’s willingness to defend himself in court. When Goldacre wrote about him in his Bad Science column, the vitamin salesmen sued Goldacre and the Guardian for libel. (Rath has since dropped his suit and ordered to pay damages.)

The HIV story has terrible consequences. It reveals how difficult it is to adequately explain the complexities of science to the general public. It also suggests how difficult it is for many people to accept scientific inquiry as the dominant way to understand the world, often choosing instead to rely on anecdotal evidence and untested claims. Bad science, says Goldacre, is something we do to ourselves.

Imogen Heap is musical in nature

Imogen Heap

The often ethereal and always charming Imogen Heap delighted the PopTech audience today with both an announcement and a song. Heap’s recent trip to Tanzania and a chance meeting with social entrepreneur Thomas Ermacora led them to co-create what they’re calling a “do tank” — a place to execute on crowd-sourced projects.

Imogen Heap singing @ PopTech 2010

Their inaugural collaboration is called Love the Earth, a site that houses video clips uploaded by fans from around the world. The clips showcase little moments in nature that have inspired them: a flower spotted on a morning walk; a cloud’s reflection in a puddle; a robin going about her daily business of worm-gathering. Within six weeks of launch, the site had over 1,000 clips from 100 users.

Heap is now planning to write a symphony based on a montage of the clips, which she will perform at the Royal Albert Hall on November 5th. To tide us over until then, she played a stripped-down version of what she says is her most popular song, “Hide & Seek” — a song that was created by accident one night when her computer died and she was forced to take a look at something in her own world (her instruments) in a new way.

(Photos: Kris Krüg)

A Bell for Every Minute with Stephen Vitiello

Stephen Vitiello is a sound artist looking to open his audience to the world of vibrations. His career has spanned from electronic music to scoring experimental videos to his most recent form of work — larger-scale public installations that make immersive soudscapes accessible to a wider audience.

Stephen Vitiello

He started his PopTech presentation off with a story of an encounter in Sydney, Australia, where he had installed “The Sound Of Red Earth” at the Sydney brickworks. Vitiello recalled how a young girl had pulled him aside to shyly ask him a question — “do you ever just lean down and put your ear to the table to listen to the sounds?” It seems that this sense of child-like wonder and curiosity is what he hopes to evoke with his work.

Vitiello also told of his experience as a resident artist in the World Trade Center in 1999. He spent six months working out of a studio on the 91st floor of Tower One, and used contact microphones to record the building’s internal sounds at all times of day. An excerpt from one recording during a severe storm revealed the internal creakings of the massive building under stress.

Stephen’s most recent public sound installation, called “A Bell for Every Minute,” is placed in Manhattan’s High Line Park. Vitiello sampled bell sounds from throughout New York City’s five boroughs, including the New York Stock Exchange, the United Nations Peace Bell, and the recently excavated Coney Island Dreamland bell. He finished his talk with a recording of the sound that plays at the High Line installation every hour — all of the 59 bells layered into one room-filling sound.

(Photo credit: Kris Krüg)

The world's largest workforce is ready, willing, and able

Nathan Eagle

Consider this: The ratio of mobile phone subscribers in the developing world to the developed world is 4:1. It’s a democratized platform since there’s no single demographic that owns a mobile phone. As Nathan Eagle, visiting assistant professor at MIT and research assistant professor at Northeastern University, explains, manual laborers in Africa, like the guys who dig ditches, are organizing and finding work through SMS. You need a phone to be part of the system.

Nathan Eagle

But with 3 billion mobile phone users and 1.5 billion unemployed people, is there a way to harness mobile technology to provide work for the un- or under-employed? Is there a way to crowdsource tasks, monetize idle time, and easily compensate workers at the same time?

Kicking off in Africa, Nathan Eagle created txteagle to enable people in developing countries to earn money or airtime by performing tasks via their mobile phone. Some of the work is outsourced, like video tagging, invoice processing, or audio transcribing, but Eagle hopes that the majority of the jobs will become those that depend on more knowledge, allowing people to be close to home.

Thus far, txteagle has been integrated into the billing systems of 220 mobile phone operators in Africa, reaching 2.1 billion phones. This means txteagle can compensate all of these 2.1 billion people, empowering the largest workforce on earth. Next up: txteagle is looking for more crowdsourced, locally-focused, projects to give this massive community the opportunity to improve its economic status.

(Top photo: Kris Krüg. Bottom: Thatcher Hullerman Cook)

Eli Pariser on Machine Curation and Paying Attention to the Things We Don't Know

Eli Pariser spent the last decade organizing people. Now, the former executive director of MoveOn.org, is organizing information.


Algorithms generally manage the enormous amounts of available data by giving you more of what you like with every click. The trouble, says Pariser, is that the vision of perfect machine categorization often fails to adequately represent the multiple ways that information can be grouped.

To underscore his point, Pariser tells the story about physicist Niels Bohr, who once proposed calculating the height of a building by using a barometer as a weight. Bohr’s failure to use the barometer as a measurement device meant he failed his high school physics exam but it also reveals a flexibility of thought that machine curation does not adequately capture.

For example, Netflix bases its categorization system on prediction, namely “if you like this, you’ll like that.” Once the Netflix model determines a user like romantic comedies, says Pariser, it will continue to suggest romantic comedies, effectively narrowing the types recommended. In other words, the Netflix algorithm doesn’t provide users with risky choices.

Pariser says that machine curation also risks reducing the “noise,” namely the randomness and unpredictably, of information to a point that it impedes the creative process. Here, Pariser points to Dean Simonton’s research on spontaneous creativity and the likelihood that similar creative ideas will pop up in a lot of different places the same time. “A perfectly relevant environment,” laments Pariser, “lacks the ability to recognize this kind of variation.”

Pariser suggests that this narrowing of information doesn’t need to be inevitable. “We need media systems to make us uncomfortable. We need media to help us pay attention to the things that we don’t know. We need systems that don’t block us.”

In the meantime, he’s starting to work on a site he’s going to call thingsyoullhate.com. It’s not up yet, but when it is, Pariser wants it to highlight ideas and things that people completely unlike you think are great.

(Photo credit: Kris Krüg)

Zehn Luftballons: Riley Crane and the power of social networking

Riley Crane found out about the DARPA network challenge (find ten balloons placed in ten different locations around the country) four days before it started. Four days, eight hours, and 52 minutes later his team, the MIT Red Balloon Challenge Team, had won it.

Riley Crane

How they did it is a testament to the power of crowdsourcing solutions and the ability of social networking to tackle seemingly impossible tasks. Crane’s approach was to set up a system in which every person who volunteered to help was given a unique URL that could be shared with that person’s social networks (primarily via Twitter and Facebook). The process was repeated over and over again. Everyone who signed on was guaranteed a part of the $40,000 prize purse if the team won.

This family tree approach gave Crane’s team access to the collective power of an extraordinary number of individual networks. Slashdot posted an open letter from the MIT team (best comment: "re: balloons – will there be a little boy trapped inside each one?”), which massively increased interest, and Crane’s team was able to access even more networks.


Biologist Amro Hamdoun on keeping out the bad guys

Clearly, PopTech Science and Public Leadership Fellow Amro Hamdoun’s communication training is paying off. Casting aside his data-dense, rather intimidating charts and graphs of how chemicals affect cell structure, he instead showed the laughing crowd a menacing photo of a muscle-bound man in black suit. “Your cells,” explained Hamdoun, “have bouncers.”

The impact of chemicals on cell structure, however, is no laughing matter. With over 85,000 chemicals produced in the last century, the average person now has between 300-500 of miscellaneous chemicals in their systems. It’s the “bouncers”, officially known as multi-drug transporters, that work to keep the bad guys out. The question is, why do some of the “bad” chemicals make it into the cells and how can we predict which ones will do so (with averse and often unknown consequences) as we develop even more chemicals?

Science and Public Leadership Fellows Amro Hamdoun (right) and Gidon Eshel (left)

Hamdoun, a cell biologist, focuses his research specifically on embryos using sea urchins for test subjects: one sea urchin can produce roughly a million eggs in ten minutes, which is comparable to the reproduction efforts of 5,000 mice. The goal of his research? To ensure cells can keep out the bad chemicals and thereby prevent birth defects and other anomalies of embryonic growth.

To learn more about his work, Hamdoun invites the PopTech community to check out hamdounlab.org.

(Photo: Science and Public Leadership Fellows Amro Hamdoun (right) and Gidon Eshel (left). Photo credit: John Santerre)