Taking Matternet Into Their Own Hands

One billion people live beyond the reach of existing ports, roads, bridges and trains. An organization called Matternet is using exponential technology to "replace twentieth century centralized infrastructure" and accelerate economic growth for the 'rising billion.'

Singularity University has spawned a group of start-ups with the ambitious goal of impacting one billion people in ten years. Big Think contributor Michael Raymond del Castillo is writing profiles about this group of entrepreneurs who are looking to change the world through accelerating technology team projects. Each project is centered around a major issue like global health, poverty, energy, education, security, or space, and these are known collectively as the “10^9+ Projects."


Last week we looked at Space Debris Research, a project that was one of several tasked to improve the lives of a billion humans within the next ten years. This week we will see how another team, Matternet, is making plans to use a swarm of "grasshoppers" to deliver lifesaving supplies to a billion humans cut off from the rest of the world.

What's the Big Idea?

A billion humans live beyond the reach of existing ports, roads, bridges and trains. In these inaccessible regions food, water, medicine, and other supplies are hopelessly out of reach, and cutoff from the exchange economy. In contrast, the developed world has invested in its infrastructure for centuries, leaving the bottom billion literally centuries behind—and so far no nation, or group of nations, has made any meaningful progress toward closing that gap.

In a study from March of this year it was estimated that 5.2 billion phones were in circulation globally—representing approximately 75 percent of the population. Cell phones, like many other so-called exponentially growing, or accelerating technologies, have been improving at a predictable rate known as Moore’s Law. A side-effect of Moore’s Law is that not only does the technology improve, it gets cheaper.

Cheaper technology permeates even the poorest nations, until at last, something almost miraculous happens. Entire populations simply leapfrog over a traditional stage of development. In the case of cellular technology, villagers living on the other side of rivers with no bridges, or in deserts with no roads, can be seen chatting away carelessly on a cellphone, even though they never even had a land line—and they’ve probably never even seen a telephone poll.

One organization, Matternet, sees a clue in this ability of accelerating technology to leapfrog traditional stages of development. They see a way to solve the problem of villages cut of from supplies, and they have a developed a plan to do so.

Matternet's mission is to connect the entire planet to the exchange economy in much the same way that the cell phones and the Internet are connecting the world to information. 

“We want to use a network of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) connected by robotic ground stations and an AI driven software system. We want to do what the Internet did for information but do that for physical things,” project manager and self-proclaimed “harnesser of knowledge flows,” Justine Lam, recently told Big Think.

With Matternet, a villager in need of medicine simply picks up their cell phone and places a call to the neighboring city. The medicine is loaded onto the “grasshopper” and sent on its way. A landing pad at the destination transmits a beacon allowing the grasshopper to navigate precisely to the drop-off point.

Matternet's autonomous delivery system involves "Quadracopters," homing beacon landing pads, and solar recharging stations. (Photo credit: Cyber Technology (WA) Pty/Ltd.)

Lam and a team of nine other Singularity University students set out to improve the lives of a billion of their fellow humans, and in a matter of weeks came up with Matternet and its three phases.

Phase I: “Aircraft kits” including plug-in charges and a quadracopter drone, or “grasshopper,” capable of transporting 1-2 kilograms of cargo.

Phase II: Solar-powered stations recharge autonomous aircraft capable of transporting 50 - 100 kilograms of cargo.

Phase III: Networks of grasshoppers expand and overlap. This AI driven infrastructure will integrate city and village and be able to transport 500 – 1000 kilograms of cargo.

What's the Significance?

It is this in third phase that the exponential power of the technology takes shape in a new way, creating a web of connectivity unlike anything we’ve ever seen.

Ray Kurzweil, futurist, inventor, and co-founder of Singualrity University says, “[Matternet] combines all of the desirable attributes especially replacing twentieth century centralized infrastructure with decentralized distributed and self-organizing networked resources.” 'Self-organizing' is Kurweil-speak for what most people know as Artificial Intelligence. But we’re not there yet.

For the time being the Matternet team is focusing on undeveloped and underdeveloped regions. Not only is the demand more imminent, but airspace restrictions are less restrictive.
They have an informal agreement with the Dominican Republic, which hopes to use Matternet to help rebuild Haiti. They’ve spoken to airport officials in Nigeria, nonprofits in Nepal, and social enterprises in India. And they are currently holding discussions with venture capitalists interested in providing seed funding.

Matternet is thinking big, and seems to have the commitment to make their thoughts a reality.

Watch the video here:

Keep your eyes open next week as we explore another of Singularity University’s big ideas. Primerlife is an organization that will use Artificial Intelligence to interpret your personal genome and help you make wellness decisions. Just last week they were accepted into the Skolkovo Foundation's business incubator program in Moscow.

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Scientists study tattooed corpses, find pigment in lymph nodes

It turns out, that tattoo ink can travel throughout your body and settle in lymph nodes.

17th August 1973: An American tattoo artist working on a client's shoulder. (Photo by F. Roy Kemp/BIPs/Getty Images)
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In the slightly macabre experiment to find out where tattoo ink travels to in the body, French and German researchers recently used synchrotron X-ray fluorescence in four "inked" human cadavers — as well as one without. The results of their 2017 study? Some of the tattoo ink apparently settled in lymph nodes.


Image from the study.

As the authors explain in the study — they hail from Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, and the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment — it would have been unethical to test this on live animals since those creatures would not be able to give permission to be tattooed.

Because of the prevalence of tattoos these days, the researchers wanted to find out if the ink could be harmful in some way.

"The increasing prevalence of tattoos provoked safety concerns with respect to particle distribution and effects inside the human body," they write.

It works like this: Since lymph nodes filter lymph, which is the fluid that carries white blood cells throughout the body in an effort to fight infections that are encountered, that is where some of the ink particles collect.

Image by authors of the study.

Titanium dioxide appears to be the thing that travels. It's a white tattoo ink pigment that's mixed with other colors all the time to control shades.

The study's authors will keep working on this in the meantime.

“In future experiments we will also look into the pigment and heavy metal burden of other, more distant internal organs and tissues in order to track any possible bio-distribution of tattoo ink ingredients throughout the body. The outcome of these investigations not only will be helpful in the assessment of the health risks associated with tattooing but also in the judgment of other exposures such as, e.g., the entrance of TiO2 nanoparticles present in cosmetics at the site of damaged skin."

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
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