We’re all looking for answers to our nation’s problems. While we don’t have any concrete solutions, we are quick to blame the government, our population and rampant corruption for our ills.
The only way we’re ever going to see a visible change is if we start building the technology innovations we need. And it has to be “us” who builds them. By us, we mean Indians, living in India, working on Indian problems. The reason we’re stressing on the Indianness of the solution providers is that we don’t think too many foreign companies or inventors care about or understand our problems—just as we aren’t really bothered with the problems in their countries.
Some of the solutions here might sound like sci-fi, but all technologies sound like that before they’re invented, and we’ve tried to keep ours as grounded in reality as possible.
For decades our biggest problem has been power—India just does not generate enough for its billion-plus population; and any technology needs power to run it.
Our solution: CaPP (cheap and portable power).
A cheap power source that can be used off the grid, or even to supply back to the grid.
How it could work
Sun, wind, water: Living in India has its advantages. The extreme summers can be put to use, providing we find cheaper ways of manufacturing photovoltaic cells (solar cells). A little less reliable than solar energy, wind power is still a viable source. Some innovations suggest that we could have gliders that ride the winds and collect energy as they do so, and then deliver it at base stations. The same applies to hydroelectric energy, which is again seasonal, but very usable during the monsoon, which is also when solar power is least reliable.
Sonoluminescence: This is a technique of using sound (sono) to heat up a bubble of air in a liquid to produce light (luminescence). It might not sound like much, but the methods being used could theoretically solve the cold fusion problem. In a nutshell, if you pass high-frequency sound waves (between 20 KHz and 40 KHz) through a liquid that has an air bubble, the sound waves cause the bubble to contract suddenly, and briefly produce temperatures hotter than the surface of the sun at the centre of the bubble. That’s hot enough to start a “fusion” reaction, and is contained in a relatively “cold” liquid surrounding. If you’re in the field, do the research, and remember us when you bag that Nobel prize.
Piezoelectricity: The one thing we do not have a shortage of is people. Now consider our large cities, where millions reside, sometimes in spaces where perhaps only a few thousand should. Japan is no different, but instead of sitting around complaining about the crowds, one Japanese scientist, Kohei Hayamizu, has taken advantage of this and started using piezoelectric crystals to harness the wasted energy. Hayamizu’s idea is simple—what if stairs, pavements, roads and anything else that objects or people move over could generate electricity? You climb a staircase, and the stairs move ever so slightly, absorbing some of your energy. Of course, the innovation doesn’t stop here. You could use piezoelectric cells to line anything that moves—your shirts, shoes, mobile phone keypad, etc.
Similarly there are a hundred other ideas—smarter grids, more efficient circuits, and even superconductors—and all we need is for just one of them to work.
Imagine villagers from a northern state trying to communicate with those from a southern or eastern state. The only real way to get India as a whole to move forward is to make people understand each other.
Phraselator: This device can translate and read out phrases.
Our solution: Babel babble.
A mobile-based, real-time, two-way translator that converts a spoken language to any other language. With a headphone jack as well as a speaker, so that you could listen to translations privately, and also allow the person in front of you to hear what you’re trying to tell them, the Babel babble would be our new best friend.
Phraselator: Developed by Voxtec for the US army, the Phraselator reads out predefined phrases in whatever output language you select. A start, and certainly better than stuttering your way through a language you don’t know.
How it could work
Speech-to-speech: Google’s tran-slations lab is said to be working on a speech-to-speech translation for the Android platform. In an interview with The Times (UK) earlier this year, Google’s head of all things translation, Franz Och, said he was confident of speech-to-speech technology working reasonably well within just a few years. The biggest challenge here, as expected, is natural language parsing. With thousands of languages, and hundreds of distinct accents for most languages, it’s no surprise that our always precise PCs have trouble understanding us imperfect humans.
Perhaps the biggest problem we have, the one which would require the largest investment yet, is the logistical challenges, which are nothing short of a nightmare.
Our solution: Pipe-o-dreams.
The pipe-o-dreams is an idea that may seem just ridiculous at first, but feels increasingly plausible the more you think about it. It could be a pipe, conveyor belt, or vacuum tube, with diameters ranging from a few inches to a few hundred feet—depending on what needs to be transported. This may sound like a solution only for liquids, such as crude oil and water—which is what most countries use such pipelines for—but we feel we’re only limited by imagination here.
How it could work
Water: Let’s assume we have a trans-India pipe-o-dreams that carries water across the country. This could be seawater from coastal areas that’s pumped to treatment plants in drought-affected areas in the interiors. Huge initial costs, sure, but we’d get salt, potable water, and it would increase the green cover in areas where this would not normally be possible. We’re never going to run short of seawater either. So it’s sustainable forever. We’d need CaPP (our cheap and portable power solution) to keep pumping water through the pipeline, and reduce the operational costs involved in maintaining and running a 1,000km (or more) pipeline.
Everything else: Now if we were to use this same pipeline to also transport goods normally sent by road or air, you’ve got a logistics solution on your hands. For instance, if a shipment of wheat needs to be sent from Mumbai to Jaipur. If we pack the wheat into specially made rubber balloons that could withstand the water pressure in our Mumbai-Jaipur arm of the pipe-o-dreams, we’d be able to pop them into the pipeline and let the water we’re already sending to Jaipur carry the wheat for us. This would probably be faster than road or rail, and cheaper, because we’re sending water there anyway. A few added precautions, and better packaging ideas, and we could send crude oil, or anything else, through the same pipeline.
Sci-fi: If we could invent an infallible extraction process, we could just create a slurry of foodgrain, water, oil, whatever and just pump that along the pipe. A separation plant at the other end would extract the different components of that slurry.
This is an excerpt from a larger article. You can read about all seven innovations in the August issue of Digit.
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