THE BLOG

Technology to Improve Our Lives

01/04/2016 01:56 pm ET | Updated Jan 04, 2016
  • Rabbi Jason Miller Entrepreneur, Educator, Writer and Technologist - "Rabbi Without Borders"

As we look around the technology landscape at the beginning of 2016, I think it's fair to say that the pace of innovation is quite impressive. Driverless cars, drones, connected homes and 3-D virtual reality have arrived and today's youth don't even know of a time without social media or mobile apps.

We are certainly living in exciting times thanks to tech innovation. However, I like to consider that there are three separate categories of innovation. We can and should be excited about all three categories because the technology is impressive in each. One category consists of technology that ranges from the fun to the mindless. This includes technology without a higher purpose -- think gaming mobile apps like Angry Birds. Sure, it helps preoccupy your kids by handing them the iPad while in the doctor's waiting room, but it doesn't advance society. The second category includes technology that improves our lives, but doesn't solve our most pressing issues. Here, I would include such innovations as drones, Uber/Lyft transportation, socialized TV viewing and advanced GPS technology. They have made our lives easier, but we could also continue living without them.

The third category is the most critical. I argue that this is the technology about which we should really be passionate and enthusiastic. Not only does this technology have a utility, but it is revolutionary. This is the technology that will solve the greatest ills of the 21st century.

Beacon of Hope

Sex slavery is the fastest growing crime in the world and less than 1% of the victims (half of whom are under 12-years-old) are identified. That problem has led 25-year-old twin sisters America and Penelope Lopez to develop Beacon of Hope. Last year, the sisters won a top prize at the AT&T Developer Summit and Hackathon in Las Vegas for their "Body Camera Hack," a prototype camera with face-tracking technology that can be worn by law enforcement officers to record their actions in the field. This year, the Lopez sisters returned to the AT&T Developer Summit to spend the 36 straight hours of the Hackathon creating their potential solution to the sex slavery problem.

What is Beacon of Hope? Together with a couple other developers, the dynamic sisters have used Gimbal's iBeacon technology to alert law enforcement when a woman is being taken as a sex slave. The small beacons are hidden in tampons and sanitary napkins that will be available in women's restrooms at such places as gas stations, highway rest stops, stadiums and casinos because survivors report the only place they were ever alone was in a public restroom. A woman will be able to easily hide the beacon in her purse or pocket to be tracked by local law enforcement. The beacon immediately sends a signal to the police so they can trace her location. The sisters have taken advantage of AT&T's Smart Cities technology to ensure the tracking beacon is monitored as it travels as sex slavery victims are often moved from city to city against their will. It also utilizes the technologies of IBM Watson, Intel Edison and AT&T Flow Designer. The next version of Beacon of Hope will allow a victim to simply make a hand gesture in front of the beacon dispensary to alert law enforcement.

America and Penelope Lopez of Beacon of Hope

Medisafe

I've become a big fan of  Medisafe over the past year. It is the leading cloud-synced mHealth platform helping patients stay on top of their many medications. As the Baby Boomer generation turns 70, their children need to become aware of their parents medication. There are several new mobile apps available to monitor and maintain daily medication schedules for dependents, but Medisafe is the easiest to use. It makes it simple to adhere to the most complicated medication schedules, enables care collaboration between a patient, their loved ones and physicians, and delivers content and services personalized to specific conditions and situations.

Since launching, Medisafe now has almost 2.5 million users who have recorded over 250 million successful medication doses on their iOS and Android smartphones and tablets. Additionally, it recently began offering the Medfriend social support feature on medication adherence. A study showed that 40% of previously non-adherent users (taking their medications less than 80% of the time) became adherent (taking their medications at least 80% of the time) after adding a Medfriend. The results underscore the vital role of family and friends (non-professional caregivers). When a Medisafe user adds and connects with a Medfriend, the designated caregiver receives alerts about missed medication doses and can view the user's history and schedule. This makes the patient more accountable, encourages positive behavioral changes and helps prevent serious health events that could arise from a missed dose. The Medfriend feature was integral within Medisafe from the beginning, since a double dose of insulin threatened the health of founders Omri and Rotem Shor's father.

TeamGHS's Robby the Robot

Brandon Dorris is the director of development for Sphero, the toy maker responsible for bb8, the cute droid in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. When he arrived at AT&T's Developer Summit, however, he had more serious ambitions. Teaming up with Finger Food Studios of Vancouver, Dorris put together TeamGHS (Global Human Sustainability) and set out to create a way for families to incentivize their recycling initiatives. Dorris explains that over 65% of American households do not recycle and that is not sustainable. The hacking team created Robby the Robot on their re:gen platform. The robot's eyes appear on a tablet that sits on top of a garbage can. Its sensors determine how much of the intended product was recycled and gives credit to the family member who disposed of it. Residents of the home can compete with each other to see who recycles the most in any time period, but one of the great features of TeamGHS's project is that households can compete with other families within their neighborhood too.

Users gain credits for recycling in their home or around their neighborhood at connected recycle containers that use Robby the Robot. After you dump a few newspapers into the receptacle in your neighborhood's park, you might get a text message letting you know your neighborhood is close to achieving its reward for the month. This socialized recycle program takes advantage of AT&T's data rewards and sponsored data, giving out free mobile data for those who recycle the most. As you recycle you're rewarded with free mobile data leading to entire neighborhoods focusing on consumption reduction. This is just one example of how gamification can lead to improving the environment through sustainability.

Companion

A common practice among worried parents of college-aged young women before they walk back to their dorm room or off-campus apartment alone at night is to ask them to "Text me when you get home." Of course that only means the parents will remain anxious until they receive that text message alerting them their daughter made the dark trek from the library back home safely. Certainly there must be a solution to curb parents' trepidation. A new free mobile app called Companion and created by a group of five students at the University of Michigan seeks to do just that. Companion launched this past fall and the response has been remarkable with over half a million new users of the Android and iOS versions.

The app allows loved ones to track the user's journey. The application isn't just for college co-eds either. If you're walking through a dark parking garage, through downtown late at night, or in a dangerous area, you can give permission to a friend or relative to track you. The companion receives an SMS text request to be a companion with a link. This pulls up a map and you can track the voyage through GPS. The app uses the phone's built-in sensors to detect changes in the user's movement -- sudden running or if the headphones come out of the phone's jack. That sudden change will cause the app to ask for confirmation that the user is OK. If they don't respond within 15 seconds, the app notifies the companion who has the option to call the police. At the same time, the app will also go into alert mode for the walker, emitting siren-like noises and displaying a button to also call the police. Nathan Pilcowitz, one of the app's co-founders, said his development team eventually will add more features including touch-ID technology so that only the phone's owner can hit the "I'm OK" button preventing a third-party from falsely registering that you are safe when you're not.

Autism and Beyond

What if a mobile app could screen for symptoms of autism by reading children's facial expressions for emotional cues. Autism and Beyond, developed by a team of scientists at Duke University and its medical center, believe they have such a tool. The app offers a series of questionnaires to children and has them watch short videos designed to make them smile, laugh and be surprised. Parents use a smartphone's user-facing "selfie" camera to record their children's facial movements for evaluation by doctors, researchers and software.

A complex mathematical algorithm that automatically maps key landmarks on children's faces and assesses emotional responses based on movements of facial muscles is the key innovation of Autism and Beyond. This inexpensive form of diagnosis isn't ready to take the place of more in-depth identification of autism, but it's moving in that direction. Lack of emotion and social sharing are possible characteristics of childhood autism so the app tracks the child's response to stimuli including funny videos. Future uses of this important technology include diagnosing the conditions suffered by war-fighters, including PTSD and depression.

Our world isn't just getting more connected through technology, it is improving our lives. While there are innovative new technologies focused on keeping us entertained, what is most impactful are the technologies focused on improving our lives and keeping us healthy. I'm eager to see how these technologies advance this year and beyond. Undoubtedly, the best is yet to come.

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