Reuters: Making cars safer: have the driver do less

A piece I wrote for Reuters. BBC version here

Making cars safer: have the driver do less

By Jeremy Wagstaff

SINGAPORE Tue Nov 11, 2014 4:00pm EST

Nov 12 (Reuters) – As millions of cars are under recall for potentially lethal air bags, designers are trying to reduce the need for the device – using sensors, radar, cameras and lasers to prevent collisions in the first place.

With driver error blamed for over 90 percent of road accidents, the thinking is it would be better to have them do less of the driving. The U.S.-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that forward-collision warning systems cut vehicle-to-vehicle crashes by 7 percent – not a quantum leap, but a potential life saver. Nearly 31,000 people died in car accidents in 2012 in the United States alone.

“Passive safety features will stay important, and we need them. The next level is now visible. Autonomous driving for us is clearly a strategy to realise our vision for accident-free driving,” said Thomas Weber, global R&D head at Mercedes-Benz .

While giving a computer full control of a car is some way off, there’s a lot it can do in the meantime.

For now, in some cars you can take your foot off the pedal and hands off the wheel in slow-moving traffic, and the car will keep pace with the vehicle in front; it can jolt you awake if it senses you’re nodding off; alert you if you’re crossing into another lane; and brake automatically if you don’t react to warnings of a hazard ahead.

How close this all comes to leaving the driver out of the equation was illustrated by an experiment at Daimler last year: adding just a few off-the-shelf components to an S-class Mercedes, a team went on a 100 km (62 mile) ride in Germany without human intervention. “The project was about showing how far you can go, not just with fancy lasers, but with stuff you can buy off the shelf,” said David Pfeiffer, one of the team.

Such features, however, require solving thorny problems, including how to avoid pedestrians.

While in-car cameras are good at identifying and classifying objects, they don’t work so well in fog or at night. Radar, on the other hand, can calculate the speed, distance and direction of objects, and works well in limited light, but can’t tell between a pedestrian and a pole. While traffic signs are stationary and similar in shape, people are often neither.

For a better fix on direction there’s LiDAR – a combination of light and radar – which creates a picture of objects using lasers. Velodyne’s sensors on Google’s autonomous car, for example, use up to 64 laser beams spinning 20 times per second to create a 360-degree, 3D view of up to several hundred metres around the car.

Mercedes’ ‘Stop-and-Go Pilot’ feature matches the speed of the car in front in slow traffic and adjusts steering to stay in lane using two ultrasonic detectors, five cameras and six radar sensors. “This technology is a first major step,” said R&D chief Weber. “(However distracted the driver is), the system mitigates any accident risk in front.”

HOLY GRAIL

The next stage, experts say, is a road network which talks to cars, and where cars talk to other cars. General Motors has said its 2017 Cadillac CTS will transmit and receive location, direction and speed data with oncoming vehicles via a version of Wi-Fi.

Other approaches include using cameras to monitor the driver. Abdelaziz Khiat, at Nissan Motor’s research centre in Japan, uses cameras to track the driver’s face to detect yawns, a drooping head suggesting drowsiness, or frowns that may indicate the onset of road rage.

These advanced safety features are fine – if you can afford them. The Insurance Institute survey found that the forward collision warning systems were available in fewer than one in every 20 registered vehicles in 2012.

In key markets across emerging Asia, says Klaus Landhaeusser, regional head of government relations at Bosch , many first-time car buyers don’t want to spend more than $2,500. For that, he said, “you won’t be able to introduce any safety features.”

Road conditions are also key. “It will be a long time before we have software and algorithms that can see everything happening” on the roads in emerging markets, said Henrik Kaar, at auto safety equipment market leader Autoliv Inc.

And not everyone welcomes this progress. Some drivers complain the technology is intrusive, or is inconsistent. “If a safety feature is seen as intrusive or bothersome, a driver may try to circumvent or disable it,” said Chris Hayes, a vice president at insurer Travelers.

The key appears to be ensuring that while humans remain in charge of the vehicle, they have good information and features that correct the errors they make.

“For a long time, people thought it was an all-or-nothing jump between humans in charge and fully autonomous vehicles,” said Michael James, senior research scientist at Toyota Motor’s U.S. technical centre. “I don’t think that’s the case anymore. People see it as a more gradual transition.”

 

(Additional reporting by Norihiko Shirouzu; Editing by Ian Geoghegan)

BBC: World Without Wires

This is a version of my (and Noel’s) Reuters piece on wireless charging, recorded for the BBC World Service. 

Without question, in a few years’ time our children will look back at pictures of this era and ask us what those little pieces of string are snaking across our desktops, bedside tables, mantelpieces and car dashboards. 

“They’re cables, son. We used them to charge our devices.” 

“Charge them with what, Dad? What had they done wrong?”

You get the picture. In the future, and in some lucky places even now, you don’t need to connect your phone, your tablet or even your car to a charger or wall socket because of something magical called wireless charging. Or to give it its technical term, not having to think about how much juice you’ve got left in your device because you can just lay it on the table in Starbucks, or in the car, or on your friend’s sideboard, and let magnetic induction, magnetic resonance, ultrasound, radio frequencies or whatever technology prevails do its work. 

And there’s the problem. For while this is pretty much a no-brainer for anyone who hears about it — what’s not to like about wireless charging? – the reality is that only a handful of devices so far have this capability, and the chances are they won’t play nice with other devices or chargers. So, while we have the technology ready, the people who matter aren’t, by a long chalk. 

In fact there are three competing alliances, all with their own fancy websites and hundreds, literally, of members signed up, and that’s not including the two or three other technologies that don’t have alliances but claim to have a better idea. 

This is not new of course. We’ve been here before. With video tapes, DVDs, and the first phase of the wireless revolution: when we no longer had to fiddle with telephone wires or ethernet cables and could just yell out: Whats the wifi password? 

Companies think they have the edge, the better technologies, more patents, or they just can’t bear relinquishing a bit of control for the greater good, and so we all have to wait while they wear each other down or die trying. 

Yes, it’s true that wireless charging might seem like a rich world problem. How hard is it, really, to plug a phone into a charger? Well that’s true. And sometimes what is called wireless charging — like the Apple Watch, where you don’t actually plug the charger into your phone, but only because it connects magnetically, surface to surface — isn’t really. 

But the truth is wireless charging could be an even bigger boon to the billions of phone users in the developing world. Think of the Filipinos who traipse to the local mall to charge their devices after a typhoon takes out the power, and sit around waiting for a charger socket to be freed up? Imagine if they could just put their device on a big table, piled on other devices if there’s no space? 

Or the commuter in Nairobi who could drop their phone in a bin when they get on and retrieve it when they get off, a precious few extra percentage points of charge better off? 

Wireless charging isn’t just about cutesy lifestyles any more than wifi and mobile data has just been about empowering lounging hipsters. Wireless charging will eventually untether people from the tyranny of bad battery technology. It will create new businesses and boost productivity — especially from late afternoon to early evening, when surveys show many people run out of battery and the networks go quiet. 

It won’t happen overnight, but it won’t happen at all until the Wireless Power Consortium, the Power Matters Alliance and the Alliance for Wireless Power get their act together and agree on a standard. So write to them, because you don’t want your grandchildren asking what you did to help usher in the wireless revolution. 

BBC: Consumers’ Caped Curmudgeonly Crusader

This is a piece I wrote and recorded for the BBC World Service. It’s not Reuters content

Until my spoilsport wife told me to stop, I had a brief career battling for the little guy against big corporations and lousy service. I called myself the Consumer’s Caped Crusader.

My theory is this: that as companies and institutions become increasingly digital, so they sacrifice their relationship with the customer on the alter of efficiency. It’s not a particularly new or striking theory. But while most people shrug their shoulders and move on, I don’t. I fight back. Which means that while domestic harmony is not well-served, I do get to see a part of big organisations that others might not. 

And it’s not pretty. 

In a burst of caped canaverals I took on a public transport company, a shoe manufacturer, an e-payments company, a major tourist attraction and social network. Only one ended with me coming away impressed. 

What usually happens is this: I find the service or product less than impressive. I pen an email to the contact I can find on the website of the organisation in question — not always easy — and then wait. And, usually wait. 

If they do get back to me, it’s with some bland response that doesn’t really suggest I’m dealing with a human. In the case of the payments company, I submitted a long explanation of my problem through an online form, and in time received an email that I took to be an acknowledgement, and that someone would get back to me. 

But it wasn’t. It was a list of possible answers to my questions — all of them of help only to someone only had recently been introduced to computing. Worse: at the bottom of the email I was told that if I still wanted to pursue the matter, I should resend my request to someone else. Given that the company hadn’t sent me a copy of the essay I’d submitted in the first place I was not amused. 

Other interactions are more complex. A company whose shoes I’ve worn for 15 years sold me a dud pair, where the inside heel wore out in days. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t just fobbed off with another duff pair, and I wanted to alert the company to the fact they might have a design flaw or a bad batch. Only after I dug up the email addresses of three directors was I able to get a receptive ear — and to their credit, an apology for the time I’d spent trying to get their attention. (‘Thank my wife,’ I told them.) 

The problem is that this all becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. A caped crusader can become a caped curmudgeon in the face of all this obstruction, angry and suspicious. When I wrote to complain to a transportation company that one of their drivers had mistaken the road for a race track two days in a row, forcing passengers to hang on for dear life, I was asked to hand over the number on my stored value travel pass.

I wasn’t convinced that the company needed that data and I was concerned the driver might be able to identify me when I used that card again and turn vigilante on the caped curmudgeon. 

The transportation company was resolute. The data was needed to confirm my story. “There have been many occasions where information given by commuters (detailed as it may be) was not accurate,” the company said.   

Maybe they’re right. But I’m not taking that risk. The lesson, sadly, seems to me a simple one: only the stubborn folk of this world fight their way through the digital barbed wire which organisations hide behind. The result: organisations treat such people as breaches of security, to be at best ignored, at worst palmed off with dead end email chains and treated as nincompoops incapable of knowing what bus they’re risking their life on. 

I have no solution to this, so I’ll quote my wife: Try to go out as little as possible because you always get upset at something. It’s an idea that’s increasingly appealing.  But it’s not quite the wall-less communications we dreamed of when the Internet came along.

BBC: Future connectivity

This is a version of my Reuters piece on connectivity (Reuters.com version: From balloons to shrimp-filled shallows, the future is wireless) which I recently recorded for the BBC World Service’s Business Daily. 

The Internet may feel like it’s everywhere, but large pockets of sky, swathes of land and most of the oceans are still beyond a signal’s reach. This of course, may be something you are actually quite pleased about, given that airplanes, boats and the occasional peak seem to be some of the few places left where you can get some peace. 

But not everyone looks at it like that. Three decades after the first cellphone went on sale half the world remains unconnected. For some it costs too much, but some 1.4 billion people, live without even basic network infrastructure. 

And then there are the places that for now don’t seem important, but will be: like the oceans. We may not spend much time below the seas that cover more than two-thirds of the planet but increasingly we realise we need to: climate recording, pollution control, predicting natural disasters like tsunami, monitoring oil and gas fields, protecting harbours. And if China gets its way quite a few of us will live down there if only to stake territorial claims to the seas above or the riches below. 

So, these all present interesting technological challenges. Not least because most of the people presently unconnected are too poor for the big telcos to worry about. Surprisingly, perhaps, it’s the Facebooks and Googles of this world who are interested, partly because of philanthropic goals but mostly because they’re the last bunch of people who don’t have Gmail and Facebook accounts. 

So Google are launch balloons. And Facebook are considering drones. These, though are experimental, leaving an opportunity for niche players like Kacific, which is aiming to build a satellite network it says will provide cheap communications to some 40 million people from eastern Indonesia to the Pacific islands. 

Others are finding cracks in the existing technologies and spectrum to forge their own mini telcos. Like Endaga, a Berkeley startup which has used part of the GSM spectrum to build a village level network in a Papuan village. 

Some say there’s no need of a network at all. Using a technique called mesh, they string together devices — handphones, or laptops or whatever — which become both nodes and transmitters, meaning they not only do what a device would normally do on a network, but they also help pass on signals to others. 

That removes the need for lots of fancy infrastructure like towers, base stations and dishes. Activists in Nigeria have used mesh for lobbying against the demolition of slums, and the technology is being tested by the New Zealand Red Cross. Mesh networks aren’t necessarily small, rural and poor: Athens, Berlin and Vienna have them, too.

Then there’s underwater. Soon our internet will be as much a network of devices as of people with devices. The so-called internet of things, or machine to machine, or whatever you want to call it. Cisco reckons there will be 2 billion such connections by 2018. Connecting these things above ground by wireless is fine but underwater is another thing.

Using the same overground wireless methods for underwater communications isn’t possible, because light travels badly in water. Although technologies have improved greatly in recent years, underwater modems still rely on acoustic technologies that limit speeds to a fraction of what we’re now used to. 

This is gradually getting solved, but slowly. Noisy things like pistol shrimps, whose oversized claw snaps a bubble of hot air at its prey, confuse underwater modems.

The oceans and the deserts and mountains and jungles will all eventually get their wireless signals. And we’ll be the better for it. But because of money, and technology, and pesky things like shrimps, it’s not about to happen any time soon. One day we’ll look back and wonder why it took us so long. 

Autopsy as a Service

This is a piece I’ve recorded for the BBC 

Is it possible to disrupt a business that is, well, dying? 

Malaysian entrepreneur Matt Chandran thinks so. He wants to revive the post-mortem by replacing the scalpel with a scanner and the autopsy slab with a touchscreen computer.

He believes his so-called digital autopsy could largely displace the centuries-old traditional knife-bound one, speeding up investigations, reducing the stress on grieving families and placating religious sensibilities. And, he hopes, change the way not only pathologists but also doctors work. 

He is confident there’s money in what he calls his Autopsy as a Service — basically conducting a post mortem via a scanner and some pretty advanced 3d imaging software.  The first of his company’s digital autopsy facilities will open in the British town of Bradford on November 1. 

Here’s his logic: Around 70 million people die each year and around a tenth of those deaths are legal cases that require an autopsy. Right now these are done the old-fashioned way, expensively. Grab a slice of that, so to speak, and you’re in business. 

There are obstacles. First off, post mortems are dying out. While humans have been cutting each other open for at least 3,000 years to learn more about death,  the autopsy these days is rarely embraced outside TV crime dramas.

Chandran sees his offering as way to make the autopsy palatable again. Plug his software into any standard medical CT or MRI scanner, train an expert into how to use it and you remove layers of cloth, skin and bone with a mouse or by gestures on a tabletop touchscreen.

Much easier, he says, and less destructive of evidence. And not new — the idea has been around for a couple of decades. Chandran is the first to believe he can see money in it. He pays for and builds the scanning facilities and then makes money from those families who prefer to have their loved ones scanned rather than autopsied if a post mortem is deemed necessary.

Families, officials, hospitals would pay, he reckons, because it would make everything simpler, faster, cleaner — and offer a permanent record. 

For Chandran, this is just the beginning: eventually he hopes, these facilities would not only help us better understand the dead but also scan the living, providing a global library of scans for doctors to better diagnose patients. Instead of using a blood samples and urine tests to figure out what’s wrong with us a GP would take a scan and peer inside us via his computer as we sit patiently by. 

Not everyone is happy of course, from pathologists who say their skills aren’t just in looking, but feeling, smelling and sensing a cadaver, to pioneers in the imaging field who say the technology isn’t ready for primetime.

And then there are those who wonder about Chandran’s business model. For it to work he not only has to convince a few local councils to let him in: he needs to change our whole way of thinking about the role autopsies play. 

Right now we treat autopsies much as we treat death — the less discussed the better. That deprives us, Chandran believes, of insights into the body, disease and death that we could benefit from.  

Google’s Design Gridlock

Screen Shot 2013 09 13 at 9 25 14 AM

Another hamfisted design effort from Google, I’m afraid: this time, they’ve compressed the links at the bottom of the Gmail page to Google-related services to a grid, which you have to click on to find the service you want to access. 

This is what it used to look like: 

Screen Shot 2013 09 13 at 9 34 18 AM

This is what it now looks like: 

Screen Shot 2013 09 13 at 9 29 02 AM

Not only does this add a step to the process, but it also requires a significant move of the mouse to the services at the bottom (and don’t get me started on why you’d want to go to Gmail when you’re already in Gmail.) 

And there’s no way I can see of being able to go back to the old set of links at the top. 

This was a design experiment dating back to March, according to TNW. Back then Emil Protalinski commented that this seemed to borrow from Chrome OS and be an attempt to align with its mobile interface: 

We can understand Google replacing the navigation bar with a menu button: it saves horizontal space and works well with the goal of keeping things minimal. That being said, it adds a click to every action.

In the scheme of things this is probably no biggie, but it does seem to suggest that the wrong people are running design at Google, or they’ve run out of ideas, or they’re so intent on getting Google+ buttons everywhere that everything becomes secondary. Whatever, every incremental step that reduces the experience of Gmail adds to the likelihood it will start losing users.

Asha to Ashes: Microsoft’s Emerging Markets Conundrum

A piece I wrote with Devi in Delhi, and the help of a couple of other colleagues. 

Asha to Ashes: Microsoft’s emerging market conundrum

By Jeremy Wagstaff and Devidutta Tripathy

SINGAPORE/NEW DELHI | Thu Sep 5, 2013 9:22pm EDT

(Reuters) – Microsoft Corp’s acquisition of Nokia’s handset business gives the software behemoth control of its main Windows smartphone partner, but leaves a question mark over the bigger business it has bought: Nokia’s cheap and basic phones that still dominate emerging markets like India.

Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer has said he sees such phones – of which Nokia shipped more than 50 million last quarter – as an entree to more expensive fare.

“We look at that as an excellent feeder system into the smartphone world and a way to touch people with our services even on much lower-end devices in many parts of the world,” he said in a conference call to analysts on Tuesday.

But analysts warn that’s easier said than done.

The problem, said Jayanth Kolla, partner at Convergence Catalyst, an India-based telecom research and advisory firm, is that Microsoft simply lacks Nokia’s retail and supply chain experience in the Finnish company’s most important markets.

“The devices business, especially the non-smartphones business in emerging markets, is a completely different dynamic,” he said.

Kolla pointed to the need to manage tight supply chains, distribution, and building brands through word-of-mouth. “Microsoft doesn’t have it in its DNA to run operations at this level,” he said.

India is a case in point. Nokia has been there since the mid 1990s and the country accounted for 7 percent of its 2012 revenue while the United States generated just 6 percent, according to Thomson Reuters data. Its India roots run deep: it has a presence in 200,000 outlets, 70,000 of which sell only its devices. One of its biggest plants in the world is in the southern city of Chennai.

For sure, Nokia has slipped in India as elsewhere: After nearly two decades as the market leader it was unseated by Samsung Electronics Co Ltd in overall sales last quarter.

But it still sold more of its more basic feature phones.

As recently as last October, market research company Nielsen ranked it the top handset brand. The Economic Times ranked it the country’s third most trusted brand.

LOYALTY RUNS DEEP

In a land of frequent power cuts and rugged roads, the sturdiness and longer battery life of Nokia’s phones have won it a loyal fan base – some of whom have stayed loyal when trading up.

Take Sunil Sachdeva, a Delhi-based executive, who has stuck with Nokia since his first phone. He has just bought his fifth: an upgrade to the Nokia Lumia smartphone running Microsoft’s mobile operating system.

“Technology-wise they are still the best,” he said of Nokia.

But Microsoft can’t take such loyalty for granted. Challenging it and Samsung are local players such as Karbonn and Micromax, which are churning out smartphones running Google Inc’s Android operating system for as little as $50.

Such players are also denting Nokia’s efforts to build its Asha brand, touchscreen devices perched somewhere between a feature phone and a smartphone.

Nokia shipped 4.3 million Asha phones globally in the second quarter of this year, down from 5.0 million the previous quarter.

“The sales performance of the Asha line has been quite poor,” said Sameer Singh, Hyderabad-based analyst at BitChemy Ventures, an investor in local startups. “With increasing competition from the low-end smartphone vendors, I’m unsure how long that business will last.”

That leaves the cheap seats. Singh estimates that the Asia Pacific, Middle East and Africa accounted for two-thirds of Nokia’s feature phone volumes in the last quarter, at an average selling price of between 25 to 30 euros ($32.99 to $39.59).

“I don’t see how Microsoft can really leverage this volume,” he said. “The market is extremely price sensitive and margins are racing into negative territory.”

TOO BIG TO IGNORE

The quandary for Microsoft is that while the basic phone market may be declining, it may simply be too big to ignore.

“If you look at markets like India and Indonesia, more than 70 percent of the volume comes from the feature phone business,” Anshul Gupta, principal research analyst at Gartner said. “It’s still a significant part of the overall market.”

That means that if Microsoft wants to herd this market up the value chain to its Windows phones, it needs to keep the Nokia and Asha brands afloat – while also narrowing the price gap between its smartphones and the feature phones and cheap smartphones.

Microsoft has hinted that lowering prices of smartphones would be a priority. The Windows Phone series includes the top-end Lumia 1020, which comes with a 41-megapixel camera, while it also sells simpler models such as the Lumia 610 and 620 aimed at first-time smartphone buyers.

“The lower price phone is a strategic initiative for the next Windows Phone release,” Terry Myerson, vice president of operating systems said on the same conference call, while declining to provide details.

An option for Microsoft, analysts said, would be to shoe-horn services like Bing search, Outlook webmail and Skype, the Internet telephony and messaging application, into the lower-end phones as a way to drive traffic to those services and make the devices more appealing.

“So you can bundle services with these low-end products and that way you can reach a wider audience,” said Finland-based Nordea Markets analyst Sami Sarkamies.

But in the meantime Microsoft needs to brace for assault on all fronts as emerging market rivals see an opportunity to eat further into Nokia’s market share. In India, said Convergent Catalyst’s Kolla, cheap local Android brands have been held back by Nokia’s strong promotion of its mid-tier Asha brand.

“Now, I expect them to pounce,” he said. ($1 = 0.7577 euros)

(Reporting By Jeremy Wagstaff in Singapore, Devidutta Tripathy in New Delhi, Bill Rigby in Seattle, Ritsuko Ando in Helsinki; Editing by Emily Kaiser)

[Reuters] Sliced and diced, digitally: autopsy as a service

A piece I wrote for Reuters. 

Sliced and diced, digitally: autopsy as a service

SINGAPORE | Tue Aug 20, 2013 4:57pm EDT

Aug 21 (Reuters) – Malaysian entrepreneur Matt Chandran wants to revive the moribund post-mortem by replacing the scalpel with a scanner and the autopsy slab with a touchscreen computer.

He believes his so-called digital autopsy could largely displace the centuries-old traditional knife-bound one, speeding up investigations, reducing the stress on grieving families and placating religious sensibilities.

He is confident there’s money in what he calls his Autopsy as a Service, and hopes to launch the first of at least 18 digital autopsy facilities in Britain in October, working closely with local authorities.

Around 70 million people die each year, says Chandran, and around a tenth of those deaths are medico-legal cases that require an autopsy. “That’s a huge number, so we’re of the view that this is a major line of services that is shaping up around the world,” he said in an interview.

The poor common perception of autopsies has undermined their commercial appeal. “Unfortunately, because the process of the post-mortem is seen as gruesome, one tends to ignore that,” says Chandran.

Humans have been cutting each other open for at least 3,000 years to learn more about death, but the autopsy has never been widely embraced outside TV crime dramas. Surgeons in 18th century Britain, for example, robbed graves for corpses to dissect, some even commissioning murders when supplies dried up.

By the 1950s, the autopsy was at its zenith, with pathologists performing post-mortems on more than 60 percent of those who died in the United States and Europe – helping uncover more than 80 major, and perhaps thousands of minor, medical conditions.

But the number of autopsies has fallen steadily: Today, fewer than 20 percent of deaths in Britain are followed by autopsy, and most of these are ordered by coroners in cases where the cause of death is unclear or disputed.

The fall has been blamed on a growing distaste for a procedure regarded by some as crude and outdated – a feeling fanned by the public discovery in Britain in 1999 that medical institutions had been retaining organs and tissue after post-mortems for decades.

DIGITAL MAKEOVER

Chandran, 45, wants to change all this by simply connecting his company iGene’s 3D imaging software to any standard medical CT or MRI scanner. An expert can then inspect the virtual cadaver in 3D, removing layers of cloth, skin and bone with a mouse or by gestures on a tabletop touchscreen.

The advantages, Chandran says, are considerable.

The digital evidence remains intact and can be reviewed; experts can more easily spot and identify fracture, foreign objects such as bullets, and the tips of knife wounds; and grieving families can swiftly learn how their loved ones died and without having to cut open the body.

iGene isn’t the first to run a scanner over a corpse. Radiology has been used on skulls for 30 years, and Israel first introduced the concept of a virtual autopsy in 1994. The U.S. military started conducting CT scans of all soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2004 in addition to traditional autopsies.

The results have been encouraging. Researchers from University College London concluded that in fetuses and individuals aged 16 and younger, a minimally invasive autopsy incorporating an MRI scan identified the same cause of death as 90 percent of traditional autopsies.

COMMERCIALISE

But iGene is, Chandran says, the first to package the process and offer it commercially as a suite of services that stretches from the moment of death to the delivery of a post-mortem report.

His company provides a software suite that uses existing medical scanners from the likes of Siemens, General Electric, Toshiba and Philips. These form the heart of iGene’s digital autopsy facilities which the company plans to build close to UK mortuaries. The first will open in October in the northern English city of Sheffield.

A spokesperson for Sheffield City Council confirmed it was working with iGene on such a centre, but declined to give details.

Chandran says his company will spend around $77 million to build and run the facilities and will make its money from those cases where a coroner demands a post-mortem. About 200,000 deaths require autopsies each year in Britain, he said.

Next of kin will be given the option of a classical autopsy, paid for by the state, or a digital autopsy, costing about 500 pounds ($780) and paid for by the family.

SKEPTICS

Not everyone believes the digital autopsy is ready for prime time. Some question whether it can spot some diseases. And even a pioneer like Guy Rutty, chief forensic pathologist at the University of Leicester and the first to use CT images as evidence in a criminal trial, says that while demand may be growing there are limits to what a digital autopsy can do – particularly determining where and in some cases when a patient died.

“There are centres providing such services, but others have been more cautious and are still at a research stage,” he said in an email interview.

Chandran and his team are undeterred. They say the digital autopsy facility combines with other non-invasive diagnostic tools such as angiography and toxicology.

Pramod Bagali, chief operations officer of iGene’s parent company InfoValley, says the system is “a complementary method, not a complete replacement” to traditional autopsies, but could handle 70 percent of routine cases. The others could be done digitally to start with and then a decision could be made about whether to open up the body. “It’s not replacing one flawed system with another,” he says.

Crucially, iGene offers a business model that overcomes concerns that scanning corpses is expensive, says Chandran. He estimates his UK operation will be profitable within three years. But that, he says, is just the start. By then, he says, he hopes to have built at least 10 more facilities in his native Malaysia, with interest also from the Middle East, Latin America and elsewhere in Asia.

“The potential for this is global,” said Mark Rozario, CEO of Agensi Inovasi Malaysia, a government body which this year bought a 20 percent stake in iGene for $21.5 million.

SUPPORTERS

Chandran and his supporters see this as the beginning of his innovation, not the end of it. The digital autopsy facilities are nodes in a broader ecosystem Chandran likens to Apple Inc’s iTunes.

Michael Thali, a Swiss academic who has been promoting a “virtual autopsy” for more than a decade, said he tried and failed to get the scanner makers interested in developing such services. Now an adviser to iGene, Thali says this leaves open the field to other companies to deliver improvements in the chain of examination.

“The future will be for smaller companies who are bringing a service for this niche,” he says. “The most important thing is that you have a real chain based on IT.”

This is some way off – and may never happen.

Milos Todorovic, lead analyst at Lux Research and a specialist in medical innovation, says that while iGene’s approach is intriguing, it faces hurdles – not least the fact that the company is starting from scratch in an expensive business. “A lot of things would have to fall into place for them to be able to succeed with something like this,” he said.

That isn’t stopping Chandran from dreaming big – including the idea of scanning the living as part of any regular medical checkup.

“Just like a birth certificate starts with the birth of a baby, the end of a person’s life will end with a report in which the 3D body of a person is captured,” he said. “In that way we can archive every person born on this planet.”

How Big is Google+?

I’m not convinced, based on anecdotal evidence but nothing more, by stories like these that Google+ is gaining on Facebook and overtaking twitter: 

But how to measure it? It’s not easy. 

One way, I figured, was to look at the most popular pages/profiles on the three services and compare them. This wouldn’t be perfect, but I thought would be as good an indicator as any at how mainstream Google+ had gotten, both in terms of followers of the main kinds of people, things and products popular on other services, but also indicative of how those brands/people felt about Google+. It might also reveal whether Google+ is attracting a different kind of person/product/brand/interest. 

Of course, it also doesn’t say a lot of things, Maybe the tail is a different shape on Google+. Maybe the layout of Google+ doesn’t so easily lend itself to following/liking/adding to circling/+ing pages. But it kind of does: in fact, Google+ is baked into so much other Google stuff these days that it’s hard not to like, as it were, pages, comments, stuff. I’d argue that it’s easier to do that. 

So I went ahead, selecting the top 20 pages on each according to SocialBakers. Most were celebrities, of course, and most overlapped — meaning they featured on more than one service. If they only featured on one, I dumped them (eg ‘Facebook for every phone’ is massive, 274 million Likes, but not really relevant to this exercise.) 

My conclusion in short: Google+ is way behind both Facebook and Twitter. No way is it getting close, at least based on this metric. (And only this metric, so far.) 

My longer conclusion: 

  • of the 48 profiles measured, only 8 were more popular on Google+ than on Facebook. 
  • of the 48 profiles measured, only 9 were more popular on Google+ than on Twitter. 
  • These includes photographer Thomas Hawk, Google’s Vic Gundotra and Larry Page, Richard Branson and, Hugh Jackson. A motley group. 
  • Most mainstream celebs had way more followers on Twitter than Google+: 
    • Britney Spears (4x)
    • Bruno Mars (9x)
    • Cristiano Ronaldo (7x)
    • Justin Timberlake (34x)
  • Most mainstream celebs had way more followers on Facebook than Google+: 
    • Barack Obama (12x) 
    • Beyonce (1,774x) 
    • Britney Spears (4x) 
    • Bruno Mars (20x) 
    • Cristiano Ronaldo (22)
    • Kim Kardashian (7x)
    • Lady Gaga (8x) 
    • Usher (8x) 
  • Quite a few celebrities don’t seem to have bothered with Google+ at all, as far as I can see. 
    • Eminem
    • AKON
    • Beyonce
    • Jennifer Lopez
    • Justin Bieber
    • Katy Perry
    • Linkin Park
    • Nicki Minaj
    • P!nk
  • Even those who score big on Google+ score bigger on other services. Here’s Google+’s Top 4 :
    1. Lady Gaga – 8x as many fans on Facebook, 5x on Twitter
    2. Britney Spears – 4x on Facebook and Twitter
    3. David Beckham – 5x on Facebook, but negligible on Twitter (unless you count his wife) 
    4. Snoop Dogg – 5x on Facebook, 2x on Twitter
  • Although it may not mean much, adding together all the likes/followers etc for the 48 profiles counted, the totals convey, I suspect, a pretty good idea of the difference in popularity: 
    • Facebook: 1.6 billion
    • Twitter: 612 million
    • Google+: 130 million
  • The number of likes (well, pluses/circles) that would get you top spot on Google+ — 7.3 million — would only rank you about 600th on Facebook (Oasis, say, or Cuddling.) 
  • Another thing to do might be to measure the activity on these pages — when last uploaded, likes/retweets etc — but that’s for another day. 

This is just a personal project, and not affiliated with my employer. I’d welcome thoughts and insights which help hone this approach, or ditch it in favour of a better one. 

Malaysiakini’s office

An unprepossessing corner building near Bangsar station, wedged between a body shop and a long-distance bus pickup. There’s usually a guy fast asleep in the doorway. There’s a sticker on the door saying “Please press button marked Button” or somesuch.