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6 Ways Cell Phones Are Changing the World (Beyond the Ways You're Probably Thinking)

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In a world where more people have access to a cell phone than a toilet, we have to ask: what are all those phones doing? And are they really making a difference? Here are six ways cell phones really are making life better for billions of people.

1. Cell Phones Make Saving & Spending Money Easier

Banking is expensive, especially if you live in a town where there is no bank! In developing countries, large portions of the population don't have access to the financial services that we take for granted (for example, direct deposit, credit cards, or savings accounts). But cell phones allow for digital transactions that are both cheaper and safer than paying with cash, or saving cash under the proverbial mattress. Cell phone-based finance also makes credit available to the poor, so they can invest in building a home or starting a small business.

According to the UK government:

"Over a billion people own a mobile phone but do not have a bank account. DFID [Department for International Development] support for the Consultative Group to Assist Poor technology programme alongside the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation aims to use mobile phones and other technology to help 30 million people get better financial services.

"For example, M-PESA is a mobile banking platform introduced in Kenya with DFID support. In Pakistan, we are supporting the mobile banking service easypaisa. Within just 2 years easypaisa covers a larger area than all the banks in Pakistan combined and has processed over 10 million transactions."

Here's a short film explaining how M-PESA works:

2. Cell Phones Help Save Lives

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As cell phones have become commonplace in the developing world, the field of "mHealth" (mobile health) has emerged. mHealth programs connect remote communities with healthcare services and expertise, all conducted using cell phones.

Health workers in rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa use cell phones to contact medical specialists, who can help address critical health issues. That helps field workers determine what's treatable in the field, and identify patients who may need to be taken to a hospital.

Another key use of mobile phones is the SMS for Life program. It uses text messages to help deliver malaria medicines in remote communities. Using simple text messages, the program helps get malaria medicines to the people who need them, and checks on stock levels to avoid running out. Another innovative use of text messages is in HIV prevention, helping young people access information about the disease.

3. Cell Phones Connect the World

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According to the World Bank, three quarters of people on Earth have access to a mobile phone. There are now at least 6 billion mobile phone subscriptions active, up from 1 billion in the year 2000 -- and 5 billion of those are in developing countries. So a key way cell phones change the world is what they were designed for: communication.

In addition to person-to-person communication, cell phones are also connecting people with their local governments. Again, from that World Bank report:

In India, the state of Kerala's mGovernment program has deployed over 20 applications and facilitated more than 3 million interactions between the government and citizens since its launch in December 2010.

4. Cell Phones Help Farmers and Their Communities

Studies have demonstrated that access to cellular technology can have a dramatic effect on economic development in deprived areas. For instance, one study in the Journal of Economic Perspectives reported:

"The reduction in communication costs [as a result of the use of mobile phones] can increase the speed of information flows within the network, thereby allowing them to respond better to shocks [such as natural disasters, military conflicts, and epidemics]. Mobile phones also allow households to obtain information about potential shocks, allowing them to use such information to make planting and harvesting decisions, which can have important effects on yields (Rosenzweig and Binswanger, 1993)."

Long story short, the availability of cell phones to farmers helps them make more informed decisions about what to plant, when to harvest, and how much to sell crops for. These are all key factors for economic success in rural communities.

5. Cell Phones Create New Marketplaces

CellBazaar is a bit like Craigslist for the developing world. Deployed in Bangladesh, it's a way to place or respond to ads about all sorts of products and services. And, like Craigslist, it's free. Originally deployed using SMS in 2006, it recently switched to using a web interface (which is also commonly available on modern smartphones). For instance, here's a web view of the current Air Conditioning items for sale on CellBazaar in Bangladesh. According to the company's CEO, Arild Klokkerhaug:

"[CellBazaar] was launched as an SMS service back in 2006 and from this year we stopped it. SMS had a mission back then as few people had access to Internet. However, 160 characters are very limiting and not suitable for the quality ads that we strive to get. In the end it was not much used, especially when most people now can access internet also through regular mobile phones."

6. Cell Phones Help People Find Jobs

According to the World Bank, cell phones have helped people in Palestine find work. In a press release, they reported:

"In Palestine, Souktel's JobMatch service is helping young people find jobs. College graduates using the service reported a reduction in the time spent looking for employment from an average of twelve weeks to one week or less, and an increase in wages of up to 50 percent."

The service has been running since 2006, and has reportedly helped thousands find work; its success stories explain why it matters so much. Here's a video explaining how JobMatch work:

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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May 23, 2017
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