Cambridge chip designer Arm is working with the UN and Unicef in a bid to deploy a battery of smart technologies to combat medical, food, flooding and other life-threatening crises in tech-starved Malawi.
President and chief operating officer Graham Budd led an Arm team on a fact finding mission to the territory and believes the company can use a range of technologies – among them smartphones, drones, AI and wearables – to vastly improve living conditions for local people.
Arm has engaged with the country’s technology innovators to preach best practice but acknowledge that real progress will only be made over the long haul.
Budd points out that Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world, ranking 171st out of 189 countries in the UN’s Human Development Index. Many of the country’s 18 million inhabitants lack basic access to healthcare, water, sanitation and education.
These problems were compounded in early 2019 when devastating flooding from Intense Tropical Cyclone Idai resulted in widespread loss of livestock, homes and crops.
The spread of cholera and severe malnutrition that followed has had serious consequences for Malawi’s population, especially its women and children.
Budd writes on Arm’s website: “It was in one of the hardest-hit areas, Chikwawa District, that – alongside members of the Arm sustainability team – I found myself in November. We were invited by UNICEF Malawi, an organisation that has been providing humanitarian and developmental aid to children in Malawi since 1964.
“Having partnered with the United Nations agency in 2015, we were there to explore ways in which Arm might help to find technology solutions to problems faced by a nation with one of the lowest levels of technological adoption and Internet connectivity.
“In particular, we were interested to see how a shift towards intelligent, efficient compute at the endpoint – technology that Arm has long been at the forefront of such as smartphones, wearables, drones and other relatively lightweight, portable devices – might enable solutions that might previously have been rendered impossible by cost, power or connectivity requirements.”
Budd adds: “To those of us accustomed to visiting our local health facility whenever we’re under the weather it’s almost impossible to imagine how difficult the same thing would be in Malawi.
“With fewer than 0.1 doctors per 1,000 people, half of the population must travel up to an hour to reach the nearest community health centre and up to two-and-a-half hours to reach a hospital.
“Without regular check-ups, warning signs in a child’s mental or physical development go unnoticed or are recognised at far too late a stage. It is, tragically, no surprise that one in 15 Malawian children die before they reach the age of five.
“But wearable technology may provide a solution. Arm and UNICEF are conducting a longitudinal study of child development using Arm-powered wearable and sensor technologies to measure various biomarkers including temperature (to identify fever), facial expressions (to evaluate stress levels), EEG signals (to evaluate headaches), and EKG signals (to monitor heartbeats and proxies for infectious diseases).
“This pilot initiative aims to monitor children in 6,000 rural households over 18 years – collecting physical and mental health data once a week in order to build a rich data picture of child development in this highly challenging environment.”
The first phase of the pilot included wearables from four companies, including arm, chest, and head bands. Another company is exploring how artificial intelligence (AI) can be used to better track and predict health.
Crucially, these wearables are cheap and reliable, providing high-quality data and lots of it. It’s essential for the rational, evidence-based decision-making that’s required to help children thrive.
Budd writes: “The long-term goal is to examine all of the collected data in order to improve pre-emptive diagnosis of disease and better predict when and where outbreaks may occur, then use that information to design effective prevention programs.
“But we don’t have to wait for two decades to benefit from this project. Along the way, vital information on children’s mental and physiological development, as well as overall wellbeing, will allow parents, caregivers and community health workers to stay informed and, we hope, recognise warning signs while there’s still time.”
Flood modelling using drones and AI
In June 2017, the Government of Malawi, along with UNICEF, launched a 40km-radius air corridor at Kasungu Aerodrome in central Malawi. It’s the first in Africa, and one of the first globally, dedicated to testing the potential of drones for humanitarian and development use.
Budd says that drones offer a unique aerial perspective of the landscape that was once only possible if you owned a plane or helicopter.
“The second UNICEF study we’re funding aims to use Arm-powered drone technology to give Malawi a better understanding of how its landscape will be affected by flooding through aerial mapping, ground truthing and Geographic Information Systems,” he writes.
“This flood modelling technology aims to better inform emergency preparedness through early warning systems. Aerial images are captured and processed using AI image recognition software to predict and model future flooding. It can also identify different types of buildings in order to build a picture of human occupation of an area and how flooding may affect it.”
Budd says that drones are also being trialled as delivery vehicles for essential supplies and emergency items, traversing complex topography and harsh terrain that would prove too challenging for land-based logistics.
“During our visit to Kasungu Aerodrome we witnessed a successful field-test of a health delivery service, delivering a six-kilogram payload to a healthcare worker in a neighbouring village 37 kilometres away,” he says.
Budd says that the week Arm’s delegation spent in Malawi was a great demonstration of how globally sourced, locally implemented innovation partnerships could deliver social impact at scale, made possible by organisations like UNICEF who have the infrastructure and government relationships already in place to deliver programmes on the ground.
He adds: “Locally-driven initiatives such as the drone corridor are unique opportunities to partner to enable progress on humanitarian challenges, and we’re getting involved wherever we can – a speech-processing pilot for enhanced monitoring of the classroom environment is also in development.
“As well as exploring how we could play a part in other technology-focused UNICEF projects, we visited Daeyang University in Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital city.
“There, we ran a collaborative workshop with students – which included introducing them to some of the newer applications of Arm technology such as natural language processing and ‘TinyML’ AI processing for ultra-low-power systems.
“It’s these technologies that will enable Malawi’s innovators to develop low-cost, low-power solutions with a level of computational capability that only a few years ago would have been far too expensive or difficult to implement within a limited infrastructure.
“It was hugely exciting to be able to explore these concepts with passionate, highly skilled students in fields such as computer science and electrical engineering.
“These young people will be the ones tasked with improving their country technologically, socially and financially – and it’s our hope that Arm technology will help enable them to do so.”
Budd accepts that there will be challenges along the way: technical hurdles remain around connectivity, battery life and, in the case of drones, physical safety.
Budd says: “Perhaps the bigger battle will be in overcoming social hurdles such as communities’ reticence to adopt unknown technology.
‘Yet in meeting local community leaders in rural villages that have been heavily affected by flooding, their desire to be able to assume responsibility for solving these problems was abundantly clear.
“It’s my hope that the more prolific and capable this kind of technology becomes, the more it will be trusted, championed and seen as a force for good – enabling Malawi’s innovators to deliver real solutions that solve humanitarian challenges in a sustainable way.”
How Nehru’s Politics Hobbled Modern India’s Use of Technology for Development
Popular histories of technology are usually histories of successful inventors. Often, it involves a lone male maverick at work, far from the machinations of the world. This entrepreneurial streak in our narratives of technology is unsatisfactory because it elides what is most fascinating about such stories: the political life of technologies. Arun Mohan Sukumar‘s book Midnight’s Machines is unequivocal in its intent: it offers a lucid critique of India’s fraught relationship with machines. Significantly, it is a story marked by failures.
After 1947, a fledgling Indian state was grappling with the bloodbath of the partition, the post-war reconstruction of its economy and its newfound political autonomy. Technology, as Sukumar shows, was an integral part of the Nehruvian script for national development. Jawaharlal Nehru has been lionised by scientists and historians as a cultivator of ‘scientific temper’ and as an institution builder for science. Sukumar, while conceding as much, points to Nehru’s vision of modern technology as largely responsible for the lack of technological diffusion in India. He illustrates this through a close reading of Nehru’s own words and the failures of the government’s cherished schemes.
The Nehruvian years were characterised by limited foreign trade, with imports restricted to basic machinery. Nehru, in a bid to democratise modern machines in a predominantly agrarian economy, launched the Community Development Scheme (CDS) in 1952. Sukumar notes that this scheme, with its focus on rural infrastructure and food production, was also an exercise in familiarising people with the “higher techniques” (in Nehru’s words) of modern civilisation. By the government’s own estimation, this scheme of rural mobilisation was a failure. The nature of this scheme occupies historians even today, but Sukumar underscores Nehru’s outlook on technology as culpable in its demise. The Nehruvian state is portrayed as deeply skeptical of modern technology’s ability to liberate society, evidenced in the CDS’s lack of investment in crucial innovations like tractors and synthetic fertilisers.
”Nehru”, notes Sukumar, “wanted Indians to be arbiters of their material progress”, but the reality of a “control and command” economy meant that the state was the true arbiter in this process. The pressure of import substitution industrialisation was also felt by scientists at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), who were called upon to “nativise technology” aimed at domestic markets. As Sukumar recounts, Nehru was frustrated by the scientists’ inability to aid industry, a fact that sits uncomfortably with the many hagiographies of Indian scientists.
Nehru’s preference for capital goods over imported consumer goods leads Sukumar to conclude that the private sector was “kept at arm’s length”. There is a danger here of too reductive a reading of Nehruvian planning, one that obscures the role of industrialists in independent India’s technological narrative. While the Indian state underwrote the capitalist enterprise, private firms did partake in the technological project. The nature of this participation and the capital-caste nexus that undergirded the Nehruvian state goes unexamined in this book.
Sukumar excels in tracing the effects of geopolitical pressures on the state’s ability to industrialise. The insufficiency of the military infrastructure brought to bare by the 1962 war with China, the impact of the Cold War on non-aligned India and the political fallout of the 1965 war on US-India relations are all handled with exceptional clarity. This is equally true of Sukumar’s study of the Indira Gandhi government’s ‘appropriate technology’ movement, with its investment in low-cost and smaller scale technologies. He effectively brings out the duplicity of Gandhi’s scheme that enforced increased regulations on import technologies, while investing heavily in a nuclear programme that did not produce a single watt of electricity in the first two decades of its existence.
And if the Department of Atomic Energy did less with more, the Indian Space Research Organisation known for doing more with less is also suspect. The frugality of the space organisation, Sukumar notes, is built on its inability to pay its scientists anywhere near its global competitors and in the nature of the projects it pursues. As historians have argued, an accounting of ISRO’s success must consider its impact on proximate industries.
However, for a book about the political history of technology, there is precious little about people’s negotiations with it. People’s perspectives enter this book through surveys conducted by researchers, and in the cavalier claim that people are mired in a fog of disinformation due to the state’s reluctance to educate. As Amita Baviskar’s work shows, political opposition to state projects was often about an inequitable distribution of land and technologies, a skepticism borne out by the experience of marginalised communities. Political contentions over labour rights and trade unionism are likewise sidelined in this book.
The same holds true for Sukumar’s handling of institutes of technical education. While Nehru’s lament over the “brain drain” of IIT graduates to greener pastures is addressed, the structural bias towards an upper-caste and masculine rationality in these institutions receives scant attention.
There is a deeper point to be made here about the kind of technologies investigated in this book. Sukumar is concerned foremost with technological innovation, as seen in his choice of technologies: fertilisers, solar cookers, electronics, IT, automobiles, biological research, mass media, PCs and nuclear technology, to name a few. From the sectors left out – coal, iron and steel, mining, oil and gas, textiles, railways, construction, public works, shipping, medical infrastructure, and handicrafts – it is clear that technology has been associated with novelty, and with novel sectors.
The book’s organisation embraces a teleology identified with the gradual opening up of the country’s technological fate to the market (the book begins with the Nehruvian ‘Age of Innocence’, followed by the ‘Age of Doubt’ with Indira Gandhi at the helm, the pangs of partial liberalisation of Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure as the ‘Age of Struggle’, and the post-liberalisation years with the IT industry take-off as an ‘Age of Rediscovery’).
Framed this way, Sukumar can boldly claim that the 1980s was a period when “Indians were waking up to technology after decades of enforced slumber.” This identification of technology with innovation obscures the changing politics of technologies in use. Indeed, it renders invisible the distribution of these techniques due to structural inequalities of caste and class. This is not to suggest that stories of technological innovation are unimportant, but that our histories of innovation must address the tension between the ‘old’ and the new. Thus, Sukumar’s analysis of the Human Genome Project rests on the assumption that it would build Indian scientific capacity “in ancillary domains such as agriculture or animal husbandry”, even though he adduces no evidence to this claim.
An innovation-centric understanding of technology conditions not only our histories but our imagined futures. Sukumar’s characterisation of contemporary India is similarly based on the new. His study of Nandan Nilekani and the Aadhar project lacks the sharpness that characterise earlier chapters. The attention paid to Narendra Modi’s rhetoric on technology over the material outcomes of his government’s policies likewise renders his analysis thin. This is, after all, a government that is failing to straddle the technological chasm between the new and the old. For every Digital India, Smart Cities and bullet train project, we have the equally floundering Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, ‘Make in India’ and the LPG scheme.
Similarly, the apogee of ‘efficient governance’, Aadhaar, is up against an inadequate electricity grid resulting in starvation deaths. The NRC exercise in Assam and the proposed India-wide NRC rest on this same contradiction. To avail the services of an efficient technocratic state, citizens must navigate a cumbersome bureaucratic procedure, with their allegiance resting on their ability to produce one of the oldest technologies around: their papers. That this targets the most vulnerable groups amongst us is by design.
Books like Midnight’s Machines are important because they seek to make transparent the workings of an opaque state. Indira Gandhi’s surveillance state and the ‘appropriate technology’ policy that Sukumar illuminates are examples of what Lewis Mumford called authoritarian technics, a system of technological coercion that only furthers the interests of the ruling class. While this book effectively demonstrates that technologies serve powerful political ends, its very appeal is a reminder that the analysis of powerful techniques is never apolitical.
Shankar Sunil Nair is a postgraduate student on a PhD track in the Centre for History of Science, Technology and Medicine at King’s College London.
China’s Battle With a Deadly Coronavirus, in Photos
The spread of a deadly respiratory virus has prompted the authorities to limit travel in cities in central China, including Wuhan, where the disease was first found last month. It has since spread to at least four other countries.
The outbreak comes just before the start of the Lunar New Year holiday on Friday, as hundreds of millions of people travel across China. Epidemiologists fear that could make the virus harder to contain.
Here’s a look at the public health crisis in photos.
A railway station in Beijing. China expanded restrictions on travel that will apply to tens of millions of people.
A supermarket in Wuhan, where masks are now everyday clothing.
A mall in Wuhan. The provincial capital of Hubei is usually busy during the holiday season.
A security guard disinfecting a park in Wuhan.
Paramilitary police officers guarding an entrance to the closed Hankou Railroad Station in Wuhan. Public transit and outbound trains were to stop service at midnight.
A train from Shanghai to Wuhan. Services are usually packed as the Lunar New Year approaches.
Staff members checking the temperature of passengers after a train from Wuhan arrived in Hangzhou, in China’s eastern Zhejiang Province.
Arriving at the nearly deserted Wuhan station.
A hospital worker washing the entrance to the Wuhan Medical Treatment Center, which handled some coronavirus patients.
Officials screening arrivals in Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Travelers arriving at the Los Angeles International Airport from China.
Visitors at the Venetian casino hotel resort in Macau, after the region reported its first case of the coronavirus.
Medical staff members wearing protective suits at the Zhongnan Hospital in Wuhan.
Workers producing face masks at a factory in Handan in China’s northern Hebei Province.
Hankou Train Station in Wuhan.
The Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, above on Jan. 17, has been disinfected and closed after it was linked to the new coronavirus.
Things We Can Do: The Big Picture
Welcome to the Climate Fwd: newsletter. The New York Times climate team emails readers once a week with stories and insights about climate change. Sign up here to get it in your inbox. (And find the website version of this week’s letter here.)
We get a lot of mail from readers who want to know how they can shrink their environmental footprints. That’s why we started the One Thing You Can Do column.
Sometimes, though, other readers (we have a lot of them) write to say they’re worried that individual actions like the ones we talk about in the One Thing section aren’t enough to lower emissions to the level that scientists say is necessary to avoid the harshest effects of climate change.
Fair point. It’s a fact that we, as individuals, are embedded in systems that affect how much greenhouse gas we emit. And, changing those systems is tougher than changing our own behavior. It’s hard to ride a bike to work, for example, if your community doesn’t have bike lanes.
That raises a question: In addition to our individual actions, what levers can we use to shift these systems so they’re less carbon intensive?
Over the past few years, Ilona M. Otto, a resource economist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, and her colleagues have worked to understand those mechanisms. This week, they published a paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that identifies some possible levers, or social tipping interventions, that could put the planet on track to halve global emissions by 2030 and tip the scales to net zero emissions by 2050.
You can think of some of the interventions as variations on the theme “when you know better, you do better.” These include: Highlighting the moral implications of fossil fuels, strengthening climate education and engagement, and disclosing information on greenhouse gas emissions.
Dr. Otto points to movements like Fridays for Future as having put a spotlight on the morality of fossil fuels. “You have a new generation of young people and the majority of them have a completely different understanding of politics and of what has to be done,” she said.
An example of information disclosure could be product labels that show the greenhouse gasses associated with an item’s production and use.
The other interventions have to do with exposing the broader costs of fossil fuels and reducing their markets. For example, removing fossil fuel subsidies and encouraging decentralized energy (like microgrids, for instance); building carbon-neutral cities; and divesting from assets linked to fossil fuels.
One intervention missing from the list is a carbon tax. The researchers found that it would most likely lead to reductions that were too gradual. In the countries that have introduced a tax it has made an impact in some sectors, but, “in some, like in transportation, it just didn’t make any difference,” Dr. Otto said.
“If you commute by car, as many people do in the suburbs, you can increase the price by 5 percent, by 10 percent, if you have no choice you will pay more or save on other things.”
Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the annual World Economic Forum, opened this year’s conference Tuesday morning in Davos, Switzerland, with a warning to members of the global establishment.
“We do not want to reach the tipping point of irreversibility of climate change.”
But then, minutes later, he offered a hearty welcome to the world’s only head of state who has pulled his country out of the Paris climate accord and reversed a raft of climate policies in his own country: President Trump.
“We have arranged for you the best sunshine,” Mr. Schwab went on to say.
It captured the strange, whiplash-inducing mood of this year’s meeting.
Sustainability was the buzzword on everyone’s lips. Snacks at the conference venue were all vegetarian for one of the five days, and images of threatened turtles were projected on the walls. Along the main promenade in Davos, pop-up pavilions focused on reducing waste, even as luxury gas-guzzling black cars ferrying conference delegates clogged the narrow roads that wind through the Alpine village.
Greta Thunberg on Wednesday afternoon rebuked the titans of business and politics for doing too little to address a problem she said they had helped create.
Mr. Trump, who spoke an hour earlier to a separate audience, told reporters that he wished that she would focus on countries other than his.
“We have to do something about other continents, other countries,” he said at a news conference. “I think Greta ought to focus on those places. We have a beautiful ocean called the Pacific Ocean. So I think Greta has to start working on those other countries.”
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