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Tapioca and the Nigerian Space Agency

Speaker289_largePopSci editor Nicole Dyer is currently blogging from the Pop!Tech 2007 conference, an annual powwow of “remarkable people, extraordinary conferences, powerful ideas and innovative projects that are changing the world” currently taking place in Camden, Maine.

Yesterday I had the opportunity to interview Robert Boroffice, head of the Nigerian space agency. Now I know what you're thinking: Nigeria has a space agency? It's a common question, one that Boroffice fields constantly. "When I was coming through customs, the guy asked me what I did," Boroffice told me. "He couldn't believe it. It's amazing how people perceive Nigeria."

Of course the reaction isn't all that surprising. Nigeria is one of the poorest nations in the world, and space is notoriously expensive: It costs about $4,000 to launch a single pound into space.

But Nigeria has some pretty practical goals. It isn't looking to land humans on asteroids nor does it want to hunt for water on Mars or take snapshots of Saturn's rings—all those missions are luxuries, Boroffice says. Nigeria's goal is to use space technology to address problems here on earth, and, yes, to make money off it. With the help of China, it recently launched its first communication satellite. The plan is to rent out some of the bandwidth to private telecommunications companies, though it's unclear whether anyone will offer cell service to Nigerians. More clear cut are the benefits of the nation's earth observation satellite (launched in 2003 with the help of British company Surrey Satellites). It's monitoring things like crop health and desert encroachment, which is in turn boosting the nation's food supply.  Boroffice told me that thanks to the earth-observation satellite Nigeria has had more success growing its staple crop, a root tuber that Nigerians use to make tapioca, among other things. (Nigeria, Boroffice boasted, is the world's largest producer of tapioca.)

Launching satellites also creates jobs: The Nigerian space agency employs 100 trained Nigerians. And there are more jobs to come, because Nigeria is about to begin building its own satellite manufacturing facility. It currently relies on China to build and launch its satellites, because China offers the lowest manufacturing costs and, unlike NASA, it's fully transparent about its satellite technology. "Most exporters put a lot of restrictions on the technology," Boroffice says. "With China we do not experience the same problem. We are not interested in buying a black box. We're interested in technology transfer. We're interested in learning how to make satellites on our own."—Nicole Dyer

Pop!Tech: Pleo Unleashed!

Pleofood We’ve been anxiously awaiting the debut of the Pleo—the super high-tech robo-dino loaded with sensors and artificial intelligence—since we first reported on it last year.  Here at Pop!Tech, I had a chance to chat with the Pleo’s inventor, Caleb Chung.

He brought along the latest prototype (it’s scheduled to go on sale this Christmas) which proceeded to graze, coo and whine adorably throughout the interview—Chung fed him my business card when he got hungry. I must say, the thing is really cute. And it's all in the little details: he sort of giggles when you chuck him under the chin, has big blue eyes that blink and get droopy when he gets tired, and so on. Chung says they're the most realistic-looking eyes ever placed in a toy and, looking at the Pleo, I believe him. 

The other really amazing thing about the Pleo physically is its uniquely soft, rubbery skin. You can sort of scrunch it up in your hand, like puppy scruff, which I proceeded to do immediately. Interestingly, the skin was one of the hardest parts of the Pleo to make, Chung told me, because it basically makes the toy a walking rubber bag. "How do you get sound out of a rubber bag? How do you dissipate heat?"

Much has been made of the pet's artificial intelligence capabilities, but the cooler feature, I think, is the Pleo's programmable open-source computing platform. Want him to speak with your voice? Sleep less? Eat more? He's your pet and you can train him as you please. Hacks are welcome, says Chung. You could even take advantage of Pleo’s more than 33 sensory inputs—object detectors, infrared sensors, capacitive touch sensors, and more—turning him into a smoke detector or a surveillance cam for your home (my ideas, not Chung's). Making the Pleo quite the multi-talented Dino. And did I mention it’s cute? —Nicole Dyer

Live From Pop!Tech 2007: Saving the World Via SMS

PopSci editor Nicole Dyer is currently blogging from the Pop!Tech 2007 conference, an annual powwow of “remarkable people, extraordinary conferences, powerful ideas and innovative projects that are changing the world” currently taking place in Camden, Maine.

On my first day here at Pop!Tech, I attended a session on cool new ways to use cell phones to enact social change, which is perfect for armchair activists like myself. My favorite is a simple service called FishPhone. Want to know whether the fish you’re about to order is endangered or toxic? Send a text message to 30644 with the word FISH and the name of the fish in question and The Blue Ocean Institute will text you back for free with the fish’s environmental status. The verdict on tuna? Bad: “(RED) significant env problems, HEALTH ADVISORY: high mercury.” Salmon is a little better: “Poll or troll (GREEN) few environmental concerns.” Check out more at fishphone.org.

Feature2 Another cool mobile app is called the SMS Blood Bank, which enables nurses in Kenya’s local hospitals to simply send a text message to the nation’s central blood repository to automatically schedule a fresh delivery when blood supplies are running low. Real-time blood levels for each local hospital are displayed on a web-based interface designed for administrators to monitor in real time.

While sending a text may not seem like the most logical way to go about solving the problem of blood shortages, consider this: There are more than 5.6 million cell phone subscribers in Kenya, despite the fact that only about 200,000 Kenyan households have electricity. Local hospitals are often entirely off-the-grid, making communications difficult.

SMS Blood Bank is the brainchild of Nathan Eagle of the MIT Media Lab—the same folks that brought us the One Laptop Per Child project. Nathan hit upon the idea of the SMS Blood Bank when he found himself donating blood two or three times a week in his hometown of Nairobi. Check out more on Nathan’s work at eprom.mit.edu/bloodbank —Nicole Dyer

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