Google wants to use tech to do good

Molly Wood Jul 20, 2012

This week Google held a conference — not about the latest features in Google+, or better ways to use your Android phone, but about ways to stop really bad guys. Think drug cartels, organ harvesters, and arms dealers; bad, bad guys.

Matthew Levitt heads the counterterrorism program at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He says, “Where Google can be, or other companies like it can be, effective is in making it easier for the good guys to be able to communicate with their people. For example, imagine running a source who doesn’t have to expose him or herself to meeting in person, traveling, but can provide information in a safe electronic way that can’t simply be tapped or traced.”

Levitt says Google has another, non-technological, advantage. It has the power to get smart people together. “If you can put together the people in law enforcement who are looking at how, let’s say, drug networks are operating and put them together with someone who’s mapping out human smuggling networks in the same geographic area, you might be able to see if there are links between the two, if they’re using the same tunnels, if they’re using the same logistical networks. Similarly in illicit finance, are they using the same types of financial instruments, are they using the same financial institutions, are they active in one place or another.”

Levitt says this isn’t a law enforcement power-play by Google. The company is not considering an expansion into crime fighting or superheroness. But,he says, its technology could make our crime fighters more efficient.


Also on today’s show: another story of tech doing good. Researchers have developed an electronic glove that can teach you to play the piano.

Dr. Tanya Markow helped create the glove. She says, “Adults are busy people and they don’t necessarily have the time to learn new skills that they might want to learn. Perhaps you’ve always wanted to learn to play piano, but you just don’t have the time to put in for practice and effort. And so that was kind of the original motivation.”

The glove is called Mobile Music Touch.

Markow: It’s a lot like an athletic glove that you would use for perhaps lifting weights, and we have vibration motors built into each of the fingers of the glove, and they’re on the back of the hand of each finger.

Hill: Now explain this to me, how would it feel if I were wearing the glove?

Markow: The vibration is similar to what you’d feel if your cell phone were on vibrate mode, that kind of a sensation. You would feel it applied to the back, it’s just underneath the knuckle, and you’ll feel a slight vibration being applied to that area, and the way the system works is we have a piano keyboard we put in front of the person using the system, and the keys will light up to help learn to play a particular song, so one of the favorites we’ve used is Ode to Joy, and as the key lights up, the finger that you would use to press that particular key vibrates.

It turns out the glove is more than a good teacher. It also can help patients with spinal cord injuries. Says Markow, “I had one individual who said that they were able to feel texture in sheets or in clothing that they couldn’t feel prior to using the glove, and this is obviously post-injury. Some other comments that we’ve gotten is the ability to do daily tasks a little easier, buttoning buttons, typing, and those are the kinds of little quality of life increments that are pretty exciting when someone has suffered this type of injury.”

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