Improving connectivity in poor nations.
In Pakistan, the bandwidth of an average landline is about 32 kilobits per second (as of 2011, the average broadband speed in the United States was 5.3 megabits per second). It can take more than 20 minutes to download a five-megabyte file—assuming the connection doesn’t drop during that time, as it frequently does. To help relieve the frustration, Umar Saif developed BitMate. The software lets different users in the same area pool the bandwidth of their connections to reduce download times, typically by half. Released in February, the software has already been downloaded more than 30,000 times by people in 173 countries.
Saif previously created a service that linked mobile phones into groups so that mass SMS messages could be sent. Since its launch in 2008, it has been used to send nearly four billion texts to about 2.4 million users in Pakistan, and the service, now called SMSall, has been used to coördinate protests, find missing persons, and organize blood drives. This summer Saif began expanding SMSall beyond Pakistan to Nigeria, Iraq, Bangladesh, and the Philippines. “SMS is the door to the world for many people,” he says.
Smarter wireless networks.
By creating smarter wireless networks that can handle mobile devices and interference more efficiently than today’s Wi-Fi and cellular networks, Bhaskar Krishnamachari aims to ease the increasing digital congestion of the airwaves and open the door to new applications for wireless communications.
For example, Krishnamachari is working with General Motors on a vehicle-to-vehicle network that lets cars in motion swap information about traffic flow and road conditions. His design can reliably route data within a shifting network of cars and other vehicles across freeways and city streets without having to tax the congested cellular network. One key to his approach is that data is not directed to specific addresses, as is standard in many computer networks. Instead, packets of data are labeled with tags that describe things such as the packet’s contents, the geographic area the information is relevant to, and the time when the data should be considered out of date. Data is passed along the fleeting connections as needed and soon discarded. “This is opening up additional, almost free, bandwidth,” he says.
Affordable speech synthesizers.
Some four million people in India suffer from cerebral palsy and other disabilities that make it difficult or impossible for them to speak. Giving them a voice is the job of Ajit Narayanan’s low-cost tablet-based system, Avaz. Even someone with only limited movement control can use Avaz to construct phrases that are spoken out loud by an artificial voice.
Speech synthesizers have long been used in the West (perhaps most famously by Stephen Hawking), but they are prohibitively expensive to all but the richest in India. Narayanan’s Invention Labs, based in Chennai, designed Avaz to be not only cheap but also capable of supporting multiple languages. “The average young person in India speaks and uses three different languages every day,” Narayanan points out. By working directly with Asian hardware manufacturers, he has been able to bring the cost of an Avaz down to around $800, compared with $5,000 to $10,000 for a single-language device in the United States.
Just over 100 of the devices have been sold so far, mainly to specialist schools, and they are in use by around 500 children. “I’ve seen parents weep when Avaz allows them to talk with their [child] for the first time,” says Narayanan. He is currently working with the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, to improve the quality of the speech synthesis, and he also plans to use mobile app stores to distribute a version of his software with about 90 percent of the full Avaz system’s functionality.