On my radar: Tech for the greater good

2014-10-31 13:45

Technology scares a lot of people. For the technophobes out there, it feels like someone has pressed the fast-forward button on the movie that is life and no one can locate the pause button. But rest assured, I’ve seen the future and there is a gentler side.

Last week I attended a three-day technology feast, My World of Tomorrow. The organisers didn’t want to call it a conference or an exhibition – although both elements were there – but rather “an experience”. And what an experience it was.

As expected, the futuristic technology that freaks out the Luddites was there in all its interconnected glory – from smart homes and appliances that talk to each other, to virtual reality gaming, which was an immediate draw card for all the schoolkids who were in attendance. (A hydraulic, motion- sensing, racing car simulator had a two-hour waiting list for the eager test drivers.)

But the fact that schools had bused in their pupils to see the futuristic exhibition was in itself forward thinking.

These pupils, all digital natives, looked as if they had stumbled into Aladdin’s digital cave.

They might have been immediately drawn to the gaming stands, but they were equally curious about the philanthropic possibilities that technology could enable.

I’ve been tracking the trend of “remote patient monitoring” – a trend that is poised to revolutionise the healthcare industry.

Cisco, a multinational technology corporation, presented its offering of a system where a satellite clinic in a remote area run by nursing staff is able to consult with a network of doctors for patients who have ailments they cannot treat, or who need further diagnosis.

Thanks to technology, a patient’s vital signs are uploaded into a cloud-based system, which the doctor accesses in real time and, via webcam, can see and speak to the patient and nurse.

There is advanced technology that will even allow a surgeon to operate on someone on the other side of the planet.

But even this more “basic” technology makes practical sense for a country like South Africa once you see it working right in front of your eyes.

Similar to Cisco’s remote patient monitoring innovation was the Samsung mobile clinic – a truck that has been converted into a clinic with three “departments”: an eye clinic, a dental clinic and a general clinic for blood tests and GP admissions.

The trucks are solar-powered and even have awnings that are wind sensitive and retract automatically if a storm arises.

Personally, seeing the use of technology for greater good was far more interesting than the technology used to control a high-tech smart home.

In terms of speakers, the one who most intrigued me was Jeremy Bailenson from Stanford University in the US. He spoke about altruism using virtual reality. The buzz around virtual reality is in the gaming industry.

Earlier this year, Facebook bought a start-up company called Oculus VR in a $2?billion (R21?billion) deal. Oculus has developed a headset called the Oculus Rift for video game developers. When you wear this headset, it makes you feel like you’re immersed in a virtual environment.

But while gaming companies are scrabbling to develop virtual reality games that will make full use of the Oculus Rift, Bailenson is embarking on some remarkable research: the possibility of changing antisocial behaviour using virtual reality.

Research has shown that if you play a violent virtual reality game for more than 10 hours a day, the likelihood of displaying violent behaviour in the real world increases. Bailenson is trying to reverse this with a “strategic filter” that can change actual behaviour into “transformed behaviour”.

In essence, his trials immerse volunteers in a virtual world that is so realistic, they feel as if they have experienced it.

In one test, the virtual world is a city that has been hit by an earthquake and the volunteer is tasked with finding a child who will go into diabetic shock if he/she is not given an insulin injection.

The Oculus Rift enables the volunteer to fly through the air – like a superhero – and find the child just in time. After the virtual experience, observers test to see if the volunteer displays more altruistic behaviour when faced with someone in need of help – and they do.

In other tests, they create a realistic avatar of the volunteer in a virtual reality where they can actually see themselves in a mirror. Then they change either the race, gender or age of the volunteer’s avatar and make them experience some form of discrimination or prejudice.

Bailenson calls this “body transferring” and these trials have led to changed perceptions and behaviour.

Imagine what this use of virtual reality technology could do for a racially divided South African society.

Perhaps the Native American saying, “Don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes” should be updated for a digital era and should read “Don’t judge a person until you have experienced life as his or her avatar.”

Chang is the founder of Flux Trends. For more trends, visit www.fluxtrends.com

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