Categories
News Technology

The Future for Smartguns

Smart phones are a way of life, but have you heard about smartguns? Here in the USA a debate is raging about the introduction of this type of technology, while in Germany it has already passed into law. But firstly, what is a smartgun and what type of technology does it involve?

The idea is that only the rightful owner of the weapon can fire it. There are different mechanisms on the market for ensuring this and I would like to introduce a few here.

Trigger Smart is an Irish company. They have a system that uses radio waves. The weapon has a receiver placed in the handle and the owner is given a tiny HF transponder (something similar to the device found in your car keys) that can be worn in a ring or a bracelet. The gun will only fire when the correct ID number is received from the ring or bracelet.

The manufacturers argue that this makes the gun safer, as it cannot be fired by the kids while you are out or by an intruder or attacker that takes the gun off you in a fight. In the event of a shooting the police can also jam the frequencies and make the gun useless. In some cases a chip can even be placed under the owner’s skin.

Way back in 1975 a magnetic version of the same idea was invented, and is generally believed to work very reliably, although it is not widely used. Another system uses biometrics, identifying the owner through their grip and characteristics of their hands, but even the developers argue that the system is only 90% effective.

One problem with biometrics is that the gun needs time to process all of this input, but a US Austrian company called Biomac have a system that uses optical sensors to measure data from below the skin. They hope to design a system that will be accurate and work within half a second of picking up the gun.

Smartguns
Possible smartgun biometrics?

The gun lobby argue however that these security systems make the gun potentially more dangerous as any intruder may be able to block the radio systems, the batteries or other electronic parts may fail, parents who like to shoot with their children would have to buy them a dedicated weapon, and what if the owner is not in the house and another family member needs to defend themselves using the gun?

Even pro gun control groups are not convinced as it might even make gun ownership seem safer, leading to more sales, so it are very difficult to find in the USA.

The extent to which the gun lobby influences politics here is difficult to appreciate from outside the country. There is an attempt at the moment to make it illegal to buy a gun for someone who has been declined permission to own one. At the moment if I buy a beer for someone under 21 or give watered down wine to my son (as we did in Italy) I risk going to prison, but if I buy a gun for my friend who has been declined a license on psychological grounds I do not. There is no guarantee that it will pass though, as any form of gun control is fought tooth and nail and with the advantage of high financial backing.

It is not a completely dark picture though. The state of New Jersey actually passed a law to say that smartgun technology must be fitted to new weapons as soon as it has been developed enough and shown to be reliable. In Germany a law was passed in 2009 that goes even further, in that the technology will have to be fitted to all weapons old and new once it is available and proven. Unfortunately proven etc might take many years.

What none of the above really does is to address one of the biggest problems of gun ownership here in the USA, suicide. There is a massive increase in suicide rates in states where gun ownership is high. Suicide rates using other means remain constant, but a gun is a no return tool. Extremely efficient and easy to manage, success is almost guaranteed, and none of the technology that is currently under development can address this problem.

This Harvard University link explains the relationship, but it is enough to say that suicide rates are double in states where gun ownership is high, although non firearm suicide rates are about the same. To give an idea there were almost 20 000 firearm suicides in 2009 out of 36 000 total deaths, while there were only 11 000 murders.

The debate will rage for many years to come, but what part will smartgun technology play?

Categories
Media Smartphones

Smarter Cities

Following on from my post last week about Apps and Christopher’s post about smart skies on Tuesday of this week I would like to introduce smart cities. Harvard University graduate School of Design run a course that they describe as Urban Cybernetics, called in fact Smart Cities. It is taught by Nashid Nabian, and the aim is to design urban projects that use technology to improve urban life.

The final projects are available to browse online through the course website, and many are very interesting. Cameras and sensors are some of the tools of the trade, used to measure pedestrian or cyclist use of the city, to improve traffic flow or better understand the mechanics of the city from a host of other points of view.

One of my favourite projects is called The Listening City and was written by Carolina Soto within the Real-time Cities course in autumn 2011 as part of the Responsive Environments and Artifacts Lab. Her project involves the use of QR codes that can be scanned using a smartphone. The codes are attached to street furniture, dustbins and all types of functional objects for the running of the city. If a passer by wants to report a problem with any of the objects, they just have to scan it with their smartphone.

 

An example of a QR code in use
A QR code on a traffic signal in Cambridge MA

Once scanned, the user is lead to a website where they complete a questionnaire related to the functionality of the object (in the case of a dustbin if it is full or empty etc, or for a pedestrian crossing light if it works or not).

As the position of each code is known the problem can then be signaled on an interactive map, with the data centrally collected so that it can be analyzed and patterns discovered that may help in improving services.

Take a further look and watch her slide presentation here.

Design and designers affect almost everything in our lives, and working towards improving city life through technology seems like a great idea to me. We are talking about real life improvement that can be seen and measured, information about which bins fill and overflow first is important, the city can be redesigned to confront the problems caused. It might also create solidarity within the residents, more participation in civic life and resolve some of the niggly issues that urban living throws up.

Categories
Business Science Technology

Home genetic testing, pros and cons

Recently I have been getting interested in home genetic testing. I have written a few articles about this matter, including a 3 part post on the Bassetti Foundation website about a conference that I attended a couple of weeks ago at Harvard University.

The speaker at the conference was Anne Wojcicki, CEO of the world’s largest commercial genetic company called 23andMe. They offer a kit that you spit into and send back, then they analyze 4 million variables and you check out the results online.

Recent technological advancements have brought the price down beyond belief. What cost $100 000 a few years ago and took months cost $1000 last year and now $300  and can be done while you wait.

What they call Next Generation Genetic Testing has meant that the analysis has become incredibly more intricate, where as a few years ago they analyzed a few thousand proteins, they can now do millions, so if you already had your genome sequenced a few years ago you might want to re-do it to gain ever more information.
A strand of genomeAs I said I went to this conference with the CEO from 23and Me. They are a relatively new company but have the majority of the market share in DNA genetic analysis. The CEO very much presented her organization in business terms, but continuously highlighted the research they conduct in looking for cures for new diseases. They have amassed an enormous database and can conduct statistical analysis on Gene mutations in a few hours that only a few years ago (or without them they argue) would take years.
So what do they actually provide you with for the money?

Results are viewed online, and consist in various types of analysis presented as bar charts, pie charts and statistics. So one line of interest is where your Genes come from, for example how much of you is from Africa, Asia, Europe or elsewhere. How much of you is Neanderthal.

Then we get into the interesting stuff about how your genes relate to your parents, who are you most like.

Carriers and sufferers of diseases learn about their mutations, so if you have or are carrying a genetic disorder this information is also presented.

Then we move onto risks for the future. What percentage rise in risk do you have in your genes for developing certain diseases? Maybe you have a 20% rise in risk of developing Alzheimer’s or getting breast cancer. Here we are moving out of the present and world of scientific analysis and into the world of risk.

A world of interesting information and probably very useful in many cases and just a bit of fun in others, but I would like to raise some issues about the above.

No doctors are involved in giving this information, an individual reads their results online, so one of my reservations is about interpretation. What does a 20% rise in risk of breast cancer mean? How does an individual react to such news? What can or will they do? Also in terms of a negative result what are the effects? I have reduced risk of contracting breast cancer so I skip my mammogram for a few years, after all I am at low risk.

And what if I discover that I have some kind of genetic disorder? Well should I tell my brothers? Maybe they have it too. Do I have the right to tell them? Or am I obliged to tell them? Do they have the right to know or indeed the right not to know?

And ancestry, what if I discover that my father is not the man my mother is married to?

Then as a concerned scientist I start thinking about the data, and discover in the contract I signed (without reading because it is 10 pages long) on the internet gives the company the rights to distribute my genetic information to other research organizations. OK all in a good cause but are they going to make the information non traceable? Is that even possible when such an amount of intricate information is involved? Probably not say the scientists at Harvard.

I am not saying that 23andMe are doing anything wrong at all, their database must be a great resource for science and particularly medicine, possible benefits should not be underestimated and I am sure that their hopes and aims are all pursued in good faith, but I wonder if such a database should not be independently regulated. At present these types of operations are practically unregulated in the US, and maybe this should not be the case. Technology is moving ahead at an incredible rate in this field and nobody can say what this material will reveal, to whom and for which purposes. I note on the video that Christopher linked on his post about Google that they are one of the company’s biggest investors, and as they are a corporation specialized in data collection that does not really surprise me.

Legislation has been passed in the US called GENA, whose aim is to protect individuals from unfair treatment from certain sectors on the grounds of genetic testing. It is not however definitive and as I say only covers specific areas of commerce such as health insurance and employment, but I am dubious about the power of the state to enact laws as quickly as needed. Lawmaking is a slow process in a fast moving world as the genetic testing debate has proved. Equally however we don’t want to slow down the pace of research due to regulation, as that too has serious consequences for individuals who might be looking for breakthroughs in certain treatments.

I fear though that if you pay for such a test and the results show a tendency towards getting a cancer of some sort, a health insurance company might accuse you of hiding or having access to information you should have disclosed, and make life difficult when it comes to paying for the health care you need or for your funeral (I don’t think life insurance is presently covered under the legislation).

Or that one day they might ask you to lick a stick when you go in to the broker to buy your holiday insurance or apply for a job. What do you think?