How tech is helping millions of refugees

Truly new technology doesn’t change lives – at least at first.

Before it can affect people’s day-to-day goings-on, an innovation has to be adopted, ceasing to be a nice piece of theory, and becoming a useful, accessible, everyday boon.

Things like artificial intelligence and virtual reality aren’t there yet – but as they become more widespread, and cheaper, technologies like those will start to find everyday users. Some are almost there.

Virtual reality could boost your memory

I used to know a man called Ed Cooke, who at 23 won the title of Grand Master of Memory. To win that rank, a competitor has to be able to:

Memorise 1,000 random digits in an hour
Memorise the order of ten decks of cards in an hour
Memorise the order of one deck of cards in under two minutes.

Ed knows a thing or two about memory – and he thinks anyone can achieve these feats. He uses a technique known as spatial learning, or a “mind palace”. This involves structuring boring data in an imagined physical space, making it easier to remember. You can find dozens of videos of him demonstrating those techniques.

Mind palaces work wonderfully well for those who have the imaginative power to build them. But not everyone is capable of doing so. Now, a virtual reality company is making the concept of a mind palace available to those who find building their own too tricky.

Macunx VR, a system created by linguistics and memory expert Aaron Ralby, allows users to construct virtual worlds, placing whatever they need to remember in specific places. The association between place and data makes long-term retention easier.

“You might put nouns in a house and verbs in a park” said Ralby. “Adjectives could go in a garden and articles in a shed. You assign each part of a language to a physical space.”

“With VR, we can actually show people how memory palaces work in great detail. With a software platform we can also guide users through the process of creating memory palaces for large and complex subjects.”

The idea of associating images and memories isn’t new, but using virtual reality to help certainly is. Ralby hopes the power of the platform will change the way people learn, allowing everyone to learn subjects more rigorously, rather than retaining only basic details.

If it works, the platform will represent one of the most patently valuable uses of VR to date.

How tech is helping millions of refugees

Mind palaces are a wonderful tool for those with the leisure to use them – but millions of people don’t have the time or even basic security to do so. New technology is helping them in a very different way.

A partnership between Californian think tank Singularity University (SU) and various international charities (Amnesty International, Unicef and Doctors Without Borders) has led to the creation of the Refugee First Response Centre, a pop-up camp that aids refugees affected by the Syrian crisis. Uniquely, the centre uses AI to lower the cost of providing refugees with essential services.

X2AI, an artificial intelligence company founded by Eugene Bann and Michiel Rauws, has installed a system that can communicate with refugees in a number of languages, providing emotional support via a chatbot called Karim. The bot allows mental health provision at a much lower cost, and with far greater durability and ease than an equivalent group of human counsellors.

Singularity University has partnered with a number of organisations looking at cutting-edge solutions to the multitude of problems facing refugees. One project – drone delivery startup Matternet – began as a side-project for one of SU’s executives. Now, it provides diagnostic tools and medical supplies to hard-to-reach areas across the world. Matternet is currently operational in Haiti and Bhutan, but its technology could be used anywhere too dangerous or expensive for humans to traverse.

Collaborations between rich, innovative, young companies and international NGOs will become an integral part of humanitarian efforts. Unhampered by red tape and unbeholden to governments, these entities can provide the urgent help refugees need without undue delay.

There has seldom been more money available for startup ventures than there is today. Let’s hope the companies getting the money start putting it to the best possible use.

Category: Technology

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