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How Disruptive Technology Can Be Used For Good

Disruptive technologies, such as artificial intelligence and synthetic foods, are changing the world we live in. And although some of this tech is only just beginning to have an impact on our lives, we wanted to highlight the way in which it could be or is being used for good causes around the world.

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21 min read

Innovation

Disruptive Tech for Good

Disruptive technology either replaces/displaces already-established technologies and transforms the way entire industries operate. Through ground-breaking digital products that innovate the way the world typically does things.

In this post, we focus on ways that disruptive technology can change how industries function for the greater good. And now that we’ve covered the basics of what disruptive tech is, here are eight ground-breaking technologies that can (and will) change our lives for the better.

1. CRISPR - disrupting our DNA:

Genome-editing has been a common topic in science-fiction for decades, but recently we’ve brought this gene-editing technique to the real world, with China being the first country to use CRISPR on a human to fight lung cancer in 2016.

What is CRISPR?

Put simply, CRISPR is a tool for editing our genomic structure, meaning that our DNA sequences and gene functions can be edited. Its various potential applications include editing out genetic defects (such as hereditary conditions), preventing and treating diseases, as well as improving crops.

Discovered back in 2012, the technology is still in its early days and is yet to be made available to the public, but has already become an extremely controversial topic.

While its benefits to modern medicine are undeniable, such as the ability to edit out potential diseases or deformities in embryos, some are worried that the tech will be taken too far. Indeed, CRISPR could be used to enhance our bodies, potentially creating a sub-species of ‘super-humans’ who would, for example, have been edited to be superior at certain sports; making it unfair for them to compete against ‘unedited’ humans.

However, for now at least, the focus is on its potential for treatment rather than enhancement, and we hope that it stays that way!

Using CRISPR to eradicate malaria:

Gene editing isn’t limited to humans, and can be used across the whole spectrum of fauna living on earth, giving it almost unlimited potential to be used for our own health and wellbeing. Check out this Vox video about how CRISPR can be used to end malaria spreading through mosquitos:

2. Blockchain - revolutionising cryptocurrencies globally:

You’ve undoubtedly heard of the blockchain as the revolutionary platform to trade Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies on, but an aspect of the blockchain that is less talked about is the potential it has to remould the way that charities fundraise and operate.

What is blockchain technology?

The blockchain is a distributed ledger technology which allows the transactions of cryptocurrencies, like Bitcoin, to be recorded and shared amongst everyone in a network.

If you’re still a bit fuzzy on what this tech is, here’s a beginner’s guide to Blockchain Technology.

Firstly, a big issue that’s been plaguing the Third Sector is lack of transparency.

People are reluctant to donate because they don’t really know where the money is going, and although organisations have tried to tackle this problem with graphs and pie charts, those solutions don’t seem to have cut it.

By using blockchain technology to accept donations, all transactions would theoretically be visible to the public, including where the money goes once the charity has received it. Since the blockchain is a completely decentralised digital ledger managed by a peer-to-peer network rather than a single-party, it makes the data a lot more trustworthy.

Last but not least, a blockchain trend that’s worth noting is the implementation of  ‘smart contracts’, which are agreed-upon milestones set by charities and their donors, they can be used to automate donations once certain milestones have been accomplished.

The refugee camp that runs on blockchain technology:

WFP (The World Food Program) has introduced blockchain technology to a camp of refugees in Jordan, allowing them to pay for food using an iris scanner that deducts cryptocurrency from the buyer’s account. By scanning their irises, refugees confirm their identity on a United Nations database, and contribute their transaction data in the process. What this means is that when they move to another country or area, they will have a confirmed identity backed by the UN, as well as a financial record that could help them receive a loan.

World Food program using blockchain

This means is that when they move to another country or back to their homeland, they will have a confirmed identify backed by the UN, as well as a financial record that could help them get a loan.

This is invaluable as a lot of refugees find that their official identification forms have been destroyed as a result of violence and danger they’re trying to escape from. Without ID, it’s very hard for refugees to move to another country let alone integrate into society – without ID you can’t even set up a bank account, and without a bank account it’s hard to find a job in most countries.

These are the issues that WFP set out to solve with their ‘Building Blocks’ program.

3. Artificial Intelligence (AI) - teaching robots to think:

We’re still some time away from a fully functioning humanlike robot as seen in Ex Machina, but we’ve made some serious progress in terms of Artificial Intelligence nonetheless. While AI seems like a fairly recent concept, you may be surprised by some of the tech we use that already has AI built-in and has been around for years.

What is AI?

Intelligence demonstrated by machines, as opposed to the natural intelligence displayed by humans and other animals.

Some video games for instance, have bots who learn from a player’s behaviour and adapt their own ‘behaviour’ as a result. Or voice assistants such as Siri or Alexa, who continuously learn from the user to be able to come up with results that are tailored to said user’s needs.

We dabbled in AI a little while ago, turning our office mascot Pip into a multifunctional robot. There are, however, a lot more ways to use AI – as demonstrated by IBM with Watson.

You may know Watson as the Jeopardy! champion from a few years ago – the first computer to ever win a televised game show. However Watson has now reconverted to the healthcare sector, where it is used to make highly accurate recommendations in treatments for certain types of cancer. It has been deployed in several hospitals to date and has contributed to saving a number of lives.

Although AI has the potential to revolutionise all industries and professions (by stealing all our jobs and then taking over the world), AI in healthcare can be particularly valuable as it can reduce the human error factor, which is especially prevalent in stress-prone professions such as being a surgeon or doctor.

In the (not-too-distant) future, this could result in a huge decrease in the loss of lives due to human error. And although we haven’t quite reached that stage yet, we are getting tantalisingly close. Research also backs up this view, showing that AI already displays impressive healthcare abilities such as diagnosing Parkinson’s via audio recordings and cancer via molecules in our breath.

Saving a life with AI:

AI can be used in emergency situations to save time and walk panicking 911 callers through the correct procedures to deal with the situation they’re going through. Because AI can draw knowledge from a huge database it can provide additional information that human emergency responders wouldn’t necessarily know. This could be the difference between life and death. Check out the video below for an example:

4. Internet of Things (IoT)/Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) - connecting cities:

With the recent rise of smart speakers (more on that below), the IoT has become a huge market, bringing all of sci-fi’s futuristic city dreams to life.

What is IoT?

The IoT is the network of devices, vehicles, home appliances, and other electronic items embedded with electronics, software, sensors, actuators, and connectivity which enable these things to connect and exchange data, creating opportunities for integration of the physical world into computer-based systems, in order to increase efficiency and economic benefits, as well as reduce human exertion.

Encompassing everything from smart hoovers to smart doorbells to smart lights which you can control from your phone or smart speaker, this industry has huge implications for improved accessibility.

This means that people with limited mobility can massively benefit from this technology. Let’s say you’re in a wheelchair for example, and someone rings the doorbell. Rather than making all the effort to get to the door to see who it is, you could simply check your phone which is connected to your smart doorbell to not only see who’s at the entrance, but also to speak to them and even unlock the door remotely.

But that’s not where the possibilities end. Introducing IoT’s big brother: IIoT – the Industrial Internet of Things.

IIoT is basically IoT but on a much larger scale. So instead of having different parts of your home all communicating with each other, think of having a whole city with different components that can talk to each other. The goal of this is to transfer information in order to manage assets and resources more efficiently to reduce congestion, pollution, electricity, water consumption etc.

If you want to find out more about smart cities and how IIOT works, come to our Future Club – Inventing Tomorrow – The future of connected cities workshop on July 19th.

A brighter future for Chicago with IoT:

Chicago has introduced the Smart Lighting Project, an outdoor lighting initiative designed to enhance the quality and reliability of Chicago’s street lights. In addition to a large-scale conversion of the City’s existing inefficient High-Pressure Sodium lighting to energy-saving LED technology, the Project will include a lighting management system that uses IoT to enhance system reliability, providing the city with information about the state of the lights and whether maintenance is needed or not. This saves time, money, and improves the city’s responsiveness to broken lights by letting them know exactly what the issue that needs to be fixed is.

5. Geofencing/Chained Crowdsourcing - maximising our responsiveness to emergencies:

What is geofencing?

You know how Snapchat has different filters for different towns and cities? That’s what geofencing is – a virtual fence set around specific geographical locations that enables software to trigger a response (such as a filter) when a device enters or leaves a certain area.

Enter chained crowdsourcing.

In the event of a natural disaster, knowing exactly which zones have been affected is paramount. This allows emergency services to avoid wasting any resources in areas that do not require attention. The fastest way to do this is through chained crowdsourcing, where users can say whether they’ve been affected by the natural disaster or not. By declaring this, they’re essentially mapping out the exact area that’s been hit, creating a geofence around the zone that requires the most attention. This can help emergency services prioritise the right areas, meaning they save time, resources and more lives!

Preserving elephants with geofencing technology:

For the moment, geofencing has mainly been used for commercial purposes or convenience, but in some cases this tech is being used for good. The charitable organisation Save the Elephants fitted elephants with geo-trackers that would alert a team of people if they left the geo-fenced safe-zone set up by the organisation. This benefited the elephants as well as the people living in surrounding areas, whose crops were regularly getting raided before the geofencing system was put in place.  

Elephants geofencing

6. Symbiotic Tech - smart speakers and voice assistants:

Millions of households own at least one smart speaker, and use it to play music, get the news and order products, to name a few. But they have the potential to do so much more. Amazon has already introduced Alexa Donations, a painless way to donate to charity, which is a great step in the right direction.

What is symbiotic technology?

Symbiotic technology is a fancy term for describing tech that we interact with in a human way (think voice assistants like Alexa, Siri or Google Home). As this technology slowly becomes the norm, we will start turning to it for more than just the latest football scores and weather forecasts.

Voice assistants already listen to us constantly, and it won’t be long before they are able to learn from our emotions and respond accordingly, by suggesting to call a loved one if you’re feeling down for example. The fact that there are already Alexa skills out there that can compliment you shows that we are already steering towards a world where some will use voice assistants for companionship as well as convenience.

This is great news for people who suffer from mental health issues or live in isolation, as it would enable them to have company (even if it comes in the form of a smart speaker rather than a human). In case of an accident, smart speakers can also make it easy to alert the emergency services if you’re unable to reach the phone for some reason. 

Alexa in the healthcare industry:

Voice assistants such as Alexa can be invaluable in the healthcare industry, by reducing nurses’ workloads as well as improving a hospital patient’s experience. By assigning an Alexa to patients, it would give them the ability to accomplish certain tasks that they may not be able to complete without the need to call a nurse due to their condition. Check out the video below to see how some people have already started building the hospital assistant of the future:

7. AR/VR/MR - using fictional worlds to improve the real one:

AR (Augmented Reality) and VR (Virtual Reality) have been part of our lives for  years now, creating immersive experiences for users all around the world. Whether it be for apps, video games, movies, therapy or shopping, this technology has proven itself to be as versatile as it is valuable. 

What is AR and VR?

AR: a technology that superimposes a computer-generated image on a user’s view of the real world, providing a combined view of both real and simulated objects through the user’s device.

VR: the computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional image or environment that can be interacted with in a seemingly real or physical way by a person using special equipment, such as a VR headset or gloves fitted with sensors.

 

Some charities have realised the potential of VR, allowing them to create poignant campaigns around their cause to increase empathy and donations from the public. Speaking of which, a number of companies including Oculus (maker of the Oculus Rift) have a ‘VR for Good’ initiative, where they encourage people to leverage the power of VR to drive meaningful social change.

The healthcare industry has also latched onto VR, recognising it as a powerful tool for exposure therapy to treat patients’ phobias by immersing them into an environment they are afraid of without actually having to subject them to the real thing, making therapy a lot safer.

Overcoming phobias with VR:

Therapists in America have started using VR for therapy as it helps them not only save time and money by simulating environments rather than going there, but also is a more appealing therapy tool for patients as well. 

8. Synthetic Foods - engineering a new breed of nourishment:

There is heavy scepticism surrounding the concept of synthetic foods. According to a poll carried out by the Pew Research Center, only two out of ten Americans would be willing to try lab meat. 

What are synthetic foods?

Synthetic foods are meats and other edibles grown in a lab rather than on a field.

But why bother growing meat in a lab when we’ve already figured agriculture out? Clearly people aren’t very receptive to the idea anyway.

The huge problem with agriculture at the moment is its impact on the environment. To produce 1 kilo of beef, you would need over 15,000 litres of water, 6,5 kilos’ worth of crops, 330 square metres of ground and the process would emit over 16 kilos of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere (Greentravelife).

Not the most sustainable operation is it?

This is why it is imperative that we figure out a way to feed ourselves more sustainably – and the solution we’ve come up with is synthetic food. Not only would it allow us to consume the same foods minus the huge environmental impact, but it also offers unique opportunities to provide food and water to the communities who need it the most in the world.

Food grown in a lab would also be a lot cleaner, eliminating the need for feeding animals antibiotics and other medication to kill off any parasites or food-borne bacteria that would be detrimental to our own health.

Creating synthetic food allows us to customise the growing process of the products, giving us the ability to design tailored hybrid meats by combining bovine and fish tissue to produce precise fat-to-protein ratios for example. This means that getting the right amount of macro-nutrients might be a lot easier in the future, leading to a healthier population and reducing the financial strain on the public healthcare industry.

Growing meat in a lab - how it's done:

Whilst this technology is still in its early stages, with the first ever synthetic burger patty being unveiled in 2013, and costing over $300,000 to make (BBC), numerous companies have started their quest to growing affordable lab-grown meat at a large scale. From fish croquettes to steak, watch the video below to see how brands like Just and Finless Foods have gone about creating the food of the future.

It’s incredible how far we’ve progressed in the past few years; we’ve invented things that have the power to make the world a much better place to live in for billions of people. And we can’t wait to see all the new, groundbreaking disruptive technology that is yet to be invented!

Published on July 6, 2018, last updated on July 6, 2018

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