Live from Panel 1: Tackling Societal Grand Challenges with Mobile Computing.


From left to right, the moderator Lakshminarayanan Subramanian (NYU), Dina Katabi (MIT), Gaetano Borriello (University of Washington), Prabal Dutta (University of Michigan), Randy H. Katz (UC Berkeley), and Sanjit Biswas (Meraki/Cisco). – Photo by Riccardo Crepaldi

The first panel is composed of the moderator Lakshminarayanan SubramanianDina Katabi, Gaetano Borriello, Prabal Dutta, Randy H. Katz, and Sanjit Biswas.

The topic of the panel covers the role mobile computing plays in addressing the challenges that we face in society today. In this blog, I will cover some of the futuristic perspectives, i.e. the panelists individual views and discussion of what are the next big societal problems that MobiCom as a community should tackle.

I will start with the questions that were targeted to specific members of the panel.

Question to Gaetano Borriello: What worked with ODK (Open Data Kit)? What does it take to move from a prototype of the system, to deploying it at a large scale in developing countries?

Gaetano emphasizes that the success of this transition from prototype to deployment is dependent on the local capacity in the developing countries, and their ability to customize and appropriate the technology in a way that they want to use it. The success with ODK was exactly that, in that his work was able make the system easily configurable, and allowed the people in developing countries the ability to do decision support. For example, they allowed users to easily diagnose childhood illness using an intuitive interface, i.e. a nice graphical environment. The future direction that he wants to tackle in his research is to expand the capabilities of their platform through adding sensors, how do so, and what are the associated challenges.

Lakshminarayanan Subramanian adds: Lakshmi adds on to Gaetano’s discussion and refers to the Pakistan project. The Pakistan project leverages people’s mobile phones to collect useful information. One of the benefits of this project is that it has been found to predict dengue fever spread 40 days ahead. Though the Pakistan project has so far shown to be a success, he adds that the success rates is not always that predictable. He adds that in regions in Africa, the success rate is abysmal.

Question to Dina Katabi: Dina was asked about her research on cracking security and privacy in medical devices. Lakshmi asks how does her work, as well as future potential lines of her work, get to the point where you can get the medical industry to adopt them?

Dina first indicates that the medical industry is not only one industry but is in fact a diverse industry. Related to her line of work is the Implanted Medical Device Industry. She indicates that the first problem with the security in medial devices in fact precedes all her research work. The first problem is the basic availability of medical devices on public locations such as e-bay. Devices that are meant to be implanted into your body to continuously monitor your physical condition/s, should not be publicly available, making them vulnerable to be hacked into. As for the responsiveness of medical industry, she indicates that the industry likes to do things to solve the problem, but do not want to be exposed.

Dina then refers to future directions in medical and wearable devices, which is the transition towards less invasive and more specifically, research into the use of no-contact, wireless signals to diagnose human condition. One example application would monitor sleep conditions by using the reflection of wireless signals off the body to measure heart rate.

Question to Sanjit Biswas: Being a very successful entrepreneur, Lakshmi says that it is likely Sanjit will turn into an investor. Since Sanjit is passionate about healthcare, and healthcare is a very successful industry to invest in, how does Sanjit actually go about figuring out what is the best place to invest?

Sanjit says that healthcare is a hot industry, and that there are many successful and compelling directions within it that are emerging, such as no-touch monitoring that Dina Katabi referred to. He believes that preventative care is a compelling direction. Other directions include improvement in diagnostic, which he indicates is improving at a rate faster than Moore’s law. As for how to choose the best direction to invest in, he says that one has to make 10 investments where one of them works out. He adds that there are currently tons of information now available to us in a less costly and painful manner that are less invasive, and they are fueling compelling research directions.

Comment from Randy H. Katz: Randy then discusses works on home monitoring systems. He brings back a story of when he purchased a house, and to install home monitoring systems, holes had to be drilled in his house in order to run wires for various motion detectors and door and window monitors. Today, you can purchase (and he had purchased) a home security tool kit from the Internet that uses magnetic sensors. Both home monitoring systems he had were hard to set up, though at different scales. The future direction is zero-configuration home monitoring systems, that figure out how to set themselves up, without any configuration required by you, and have long operational life. He adds that such systems are here today, in terms of monitoring and actuating type applications.

Question to Prabal Dutta: As a graduate student, many good papers and research works end up not going anywhere whereas others do. How does he make the distinction?

A punch note from Adam’s response is that you should “Eat your own dog food and see the problems that actually matter!”

Randy H. Katz adds: Randy adds that making the distinction between the research that will go far and the research that will not is in fact not hard. He mentions that today’s universities are gardens of experimentation in some sense. Universities let researchers play in their buildings. This allows researchers to understand the methodology of human-based experimentation, and therefore the impact of their research on individuals.

Open question from Lakshminarayanan Subramanian to the panel: What are the problems with connectivity for the next billion, in terms of wearables, pervasive computing, etc. Where is that going?

Perspective from Sanjit Biswas: Sanjit says that on the connectivity front, one important condition we have today is the proliferation of cellphones, but we still have to figure out how to put cellphones in the hands of the last billion. Sanjit mentions the compelling situation we have where people in developing regions hold onto a cellphone, even when they do not have electricity, travel distances to get a sim card, just to have a phone. He indicates that there is something revolutionary happening there in developing areas, and how it has been outside of our vision as we are well-connected in the USA. People in developing regions go the distance in order to have the ability to make a phone call, just to connect with someone. We can do amazing things there.

Perspective from Gaetano Borriello: Gaetano builds further on Sanjit’s perspective and discusses an article he had read which shows three young Afghani farmers with phones, no electricity, around a fire, sharing music between each other. People in developing regions enjoy sharing music and trading content with friends. He indicates that as researchers, we have ignored the peer-to-peer transfer of information, in exchange for everything going through the cloud, i.e. a business that dominates in our modern world. We have done work in one direction, but should support more research in direction of peer-to-peer transfer for developing regions.

Perspective from Dina Katabi: Dina then discusses her research on network coding and mentions that people are increasingly going to use the physical layer to solve interference problems.

Perspective from Prabal Dutta: Prabal mentions that wearable devices are contingent on these devices being able to tether to our mobile phones. He says that we need to download an app for every wearable device we have, and this introduces a hurdle to the use of wearable devices. Prabal argues that we should provide more seamless connectivity to these devices, which he calls “true connectivity for every wearable device.” Such a system will allow us to get data wearables and sensors to higher services.

Perspective from Randy H. Katz: Randy says that as a teenager, he always wanted a wearable device, which he would dub orgasmatron. On a more serious note, he adds that there are a lot of things that can build a complete picture of your health, by being in close contact with your skin, and that there are a lot of tremendous opportunities there that it’s almost futuristic and science fiction sounding. He mentions that research has shown that high performing teams have their brains synchronized. Human beings have ways to synchronize their brains. Can we find ways to accelerate this synchrony using wearable devices? What if we had sensors that can cause signals to fire in someone’s brain to perceive or recognize input better? He says that further work into neuroscience will allow us to take communicating to other people to new heights. He adds that there are tremendous potentiality and opportunity there, and technologists can come in and accelerate this trend.

Perspective from Gaetano Borriello: Geotano brings up two trends, the first is that wearables will soon be implantable. The second trend is that monitoring need not be constant, and that we should also consider the occasional measurement of bodily functions, and that his research has shown that this can still capture important information. He has worked on ways of appropriating devices into cell phones to provide more physical measurement, for example by using the in-built microphone in a mobile phone to measure lung output and get frequent readings.

Question from audience: The panel was then posed with an excellent question from the Panel Chair, Thyaga Nandagopal, in the audience. Thyaga points out a condition we see in current society, and that is that our ability to automate most tasks is making people with capability and skills less needed or employable. He poses an open question to the panel, and asks how can we make those gainfully employed people, people who have the education to get by, how do we make them successful? Essentially, how do we use the trend of automating tasks to in fact supply new forms of jobs? To this avail, I would like to share a personal link I have enjoyed which is relevant to this topic: a 15-minute clip showing you how robots are going to replace you 🙂

Perspective from Gaetano Borriello: Now that everyone is connected with cell phones, we can look at ways of making use of the individual talents of each person. One example is crowd sourcing using reasonable prices. We are now connected to a lot of people with local expertise and specialized knowledge. We can look into ways of paying the appropriate wage to solve these large problems that we have in mobile computing using crowd sourcing.

Perspective from Sanjit Biswas: In SF, Sanjit has heard of people that drive around and collect information for companies, such as Google, at times that are convenient for them. He says that this concept is going to trickle down: a stateless, soft-state labor. There is no overhead to such a model. In fact, connectivity is going to make it easier to make late-mind decisions. Automation is changing the labor market, and the labor market need to go to a place where we make the world more efficient (through automation) but still create micro-jobs, and connectivity is a big ingredient to that.

Perspective from Randy H. Katz: Randy says that providing connectivity in developing worlds allows farmer’s to know demand for their crops, and this allows them to be empowered by information to make more money.

Perspective from Prabal Dutta: Prabal says that the problem that society faces is that knowledge gets increasingly more valuable and labor work less valuable. The challenge is how do you take the larger labor-force population and make them more knowledge-work-savy? The point is that we might be facing a generational shift, where we know favor the knowledge market. Jobs that might come back, after being taken away by automation, are different. Can we use mobile technology to create a labor force that educates themselves?

As a final note, we would like to thank the panel for their interesting discussion. As for the reader, please voice your comments or opinion of the panel discussion on this blog. We also encourage open discussion and Q&A here!


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