As Technology Review’s annual Emerging Technologies Conference drew to a close on Thursday afternoon, one of the most-discussed topics remained how to use technology for improving lives in developing nations.
Although technology in the developing world was not the stated theme of the conference, it seemed to percolate up in many talks and follow-up discussions, reflecting the "globalized" mood of many speakers and attendees.
After Wednesday’s conference-opening presentation on the $100 Laptop, a project spawned at the MIT Media Lab to build millions of laptops for children in poor countries, the day’s program segued into a talk with four prominent inventors and innovators, including Dean Kamen, most well known for his Segway Human Transporter.
Kamen said he had long been dogged by the knowledge that 1.1 billion people lack safe drinking water and 80 percent of the diseases that wrack developing countries are caused by water-borne pathogens. So his team at DEKA Research and Development in New Hampshire is building a simple, energy-efficient water purifier that converts water of any quality into a substance so pure it "would make Dasani look like toxic waste," Kamen said.
The device produces about 40 liters of water per hour, at a cost of about one cent per liter. Its potential benefits are so huge that it "makes all the other projects [at DEKA] pale," he said.
The problem with the water purifier has not been getting the technology to work, though, according to Kamen, but rather getting it to the people who need it. Kamen said he had demonstrated his device to the United Nations, the World Bank, and other organizations charged with international development – but had met only resistance.
Kamen now believes that getting the water purification technology to poor communities would mean bypassing international bureaucracies and setting up a system of microloans to local entrepreneurs, who would buy and operate the purifiers, selling water for a small profit.*
The next day, during a morning session on growth opportunities in computing and communications, Justin Rattner, director of Intel’s Corporate Technology Group, continued the theme of tailoring technology for emerging markets. He said the United States is a mature computer market, with almost 80 percent of households now owning a computer. In the emerging world, however, penetration is under five percent.
*This sentence was modified on Oct. 4 at 3:45 pm. The original sentence could be read to suggest that Kamen’s purifiers would cost $25, which is not the case. The purifiers should cost about $1,000.