The Future is Now

“It’s going to be an interesting decade.”

So Kathryn Myronuk proclaimed to a contingent of UNICEF staff inside a classroom at Singularity University, in Mountain View, California. Part startup accelerator, part educational institution, part high-powered Silicon Valley salon, the University specializes in preparing the world for the interesting things new technology will bring. And within the decade, Singularity aims to help governments, businesses, NGOs and other institutions harness that technology to “positively impact billions of people.”

The university shares space on Moffett Field, a joint civil-military airbase, with NASA. This image is Hangar 1, one of the old, decommissioned hangars where the US Navy once stored its blimps. It’s one of the largest freestanding buildings in the world. And Google just bought it for robotics research. (c) UNICEF 2014/Fabian
The university shares space at Moffett Field, a joint civil-military airbase. This is Hangar 1, one of the decommissioned hangars where the US Navy once stored its blimps. It’s one of the largest freestanding buildings in the world, and Google just bought it for robotics research. (c) UNICEF 2014/Fabian

Which is where UNICEF comes in. This June, a new UNICEF Innovation Lab was officially launched at Singularity, where tech and development experts will be able to work together on global issues like health, transportation, and education. The relationship also allows UNICEF staff to visit Singularity’s campus during Global Grand Challenges week to educate its students about those global issues, and to learn how the newest technological trends could help their own programmes.

Myronuk was in the process of explaining the newest technological trends, which the University believes will enable them to better the lives of one billion people in the next decade. Their power lies in the projected exponential growth in computer power, and in how advances in fields like artificial intelligence, robotics, and nanotechnology are converging to combine new and more powerful tools.

These innovations, Myronuk explained, are about to revolutionize the world as we know it. She would know. She helped Ray Kurzweil, noted futurist, director of engineering at Google and one of the founders of Singularity University, conduct research for The Singularity is Near, a seminal book on the future of artificial intelligence. Her background spans the sciences and she lectures about converging technologies are empowering individuals to help tackle the world’s major problems.

The UNICEF group gets a demo of the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset, at the Singularity University Lab. © UNICEF 2014/Holmes
The UNICEF group gets a demo of the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset, at the Singularity University Lab.
© UNICEF 2014/Holmes

Before Myronuk’s talk, this newbie to the innovation world had difficulty discerning the connection between Singularity and UNICEF. A tour through Singularity’s Lab revealed a trove of expensive toys to delight the inner nerd. Some highlights included a tai-chi demonstration by a freestanding robot called Nao-Nao, and an adventure in Dante’s Inferno via Oculus Rift, a 3-D virtual reality headset. Meanwhile, some lab researchers tested unmanned aerial vehicles, others showed off their plastic neon chainmail created on a 3-D-pritner. Throughout campus, Google Glasses were not uncommon accessories, as were headbands that conduct a slight electrical current to improve its wearer’s focus. What, exactly, did this have to do with advancing children’s rights?

Dr. Landry Tsague, from UNICEF Zambia, presented to Singularity University students. © UNICEF 2014/Holmes
Dr. Landry Tsague, from UNICEF Zambia, presented to Singularity University students. © UNICEF 2014/Holmes

The answers came in Myronuk’s lecture, and in the presentations given by the UNICEF Innovations team. What these very expensive toys represent is the coalescing of decades of research across scientific disciplines, the cumulative work of thousands of scientists, and the investment of millions of dollars by governments and private enterprise. And what were once fancy toys for the few, like personal computers and cell phones, have gone on to become mass market consumer goods around the world. Consider that a smart phone today has the computing power of the world’s most advanced computer a little more than a decade ago, previously only owned by governments or large institutions.

However, “it’s not the technology, it’s what it enables,” Myronuk quickly emphasized. This was certainly true for the UNICEF Innovations team, whose projects were built largely on the back of exponential technologies. During Global Grand Challenges week, they presented these projects to Singularity students to educate them about the challenges children face in different contexts, and to learn how other technologies could enable their projects in new ways.

Pernille Ironside, from UNICEF Palestine, presented RapidFTR to Singularity University students. © UNICEF 2014/Holmes
Pernille Ironside, from UNICEF Palestine, presented RapidFTR to Singularity University students.
© UNICEF 2014/Holmes

Dr. Landry Tsague, from UNICEF Zambia, presented UReport, the peer-to-peer HIV counseling service conducted completely through SMS. While the programming that allows the SMS system to function is tech-enabled, Landry would argue that the key innovation involved putting young people themselves in the educator-counselor role.

His biggest challenge? Honouring the trust instilled in the UReport system by its users. When they ask for help and information on issues unrelated to HIV, Tsague wants the service to be able to answer them. “It’s one door, many windows,” he says, referring to how UReport began in order to focus on a single issue, but has since provided a view into the multifaceted needs of young people. Mobile phones have allowed him and UNICEF into the lives of young people who have so many questions but lack access to the answers they need in their day-to-day lives. His challenge to Singularity students: how can he provide more of those answers, and what would that service look like?

Pernille Ironside, Chief of Field Office in Gaza for UNICEF Palestine, presented during the Global Security program. She recounted how she and her team deployed RapidFTR, an SMS-based tool that helps reunite families in crisis situations, after Super Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. Singularity students were impressed by the ingenuity of the app, particularly in contrast to what had existed before it – suitcases of paperwork lugged around by child protection teams. They were also struck by the clever way volunteers hacked motorcycle batteries to charge phones in areas with no power. But Ironside stressed that a key to successful family reunifications after Haiyan was tapping into an existing network that knew the region well – the local law enforcement and social welfare forces – and training them to use RapidFTR and integrate it into their legal and social systems.

James Cranwell-Ward talked about the challenge of educating Syrian refugee children. © UNICEF 2014/Holmes
James Cranwell-Ward talked about the challenge of educating Syrian refugee children. © UNICEF 2014/Holmes

A question posed during the Global Education session: how can we reach the tens of thousands of children who are out of school because of the crisis in Syria? James Cranwell-Ward, from UNICEF Lebanon, has developed a promising answer to that question. Using Raspberry Pi, a cheap computer hard drive the size of a credit card, a low-cost screen, and e-learning modules made specifically for low- or no-internet environments, Cranwell-Ward has created what is essentially a classroom in a screen. While online education isn’t new, configuring all the different parts that enable online learning to happen in refugee camps is. He’ll be training teachers to use the devices, sourcing keyboards and mouses from local suppliers, and making computer literacy – learning how the computer works, and even basic coding skills – part of the curriculum. He’s running a pilot this summer in Lebanon.

This apparent tension between the high-tech and the lo-tech, the new-fangled gadgets on the precipice of the mass market, and the proven formula of finding the right partners for the right problems, is really no tension at all. If this decade will be as interesting as Myronuk says, each of us are obliged to keep up with the latest in technology, and how it winds its way across the globe. As it spreads, so will new ways of working to advance children’s rights.

Learn more about the UNICEF presentations at Singularity University here, here and here.

Watch some of the presentations at Singularity University here.

And here‘s a great article about exponential technology.

Lauren Holmes is part of UNICEF’s Digital Strategy section based in New York, and was part of a team of UNICEF staff who traveled to Singularity University in June.

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Comments:

  1. Thanks a lot Lauren for sharing your insights from SU. Yes, it is true the combination of hi-tech and lo-tech might seem like undoable, however often the lo-tech can be the catalyst.

    The D-Lab at MIT focuses on the lo-tech solutions to challenges at large scale – here the website: http://d-lab.mit.edu/

    PS.: #GSP14 is also covered in exponential manner through http://eventifier.com/event/GSP14/blogs