Home' Technology Review : November December 2012 Contents 11
MIT TECHNOLOGY REVIEW
Globally, people average about 60
minutes of travel each day, much of that
consumed by stops or slowdowns. Some
delays are regular and recurring, others
unexpected. They are all more than just
a personal inconvenience: human capi-
tal is underutilized, freight distribution
delayed, meetings missed, fuel wasted,
and nerves frayed.
Many important roadways regularly
operate near their breaking points, and
as populations and economies continue
to expand, travel demands will rise and
waits lengthen. Stressed transportation
systems become less resilient and create
cascades of real costs. As freight is slowed,
food prices rise, for example; and as travel
times exceed acceptable thresholds, cer-
tain destinations lose their attraction.
Thanks to new technologies we are
now able to observe these systems and
congestion’s effects in real time, across the
large, complex scales at which they oper-
ate. We are also able to intervene at the
same scale, not just locally, an approach
that raises the prospect of making conges-
tion a thing of the past.
Transportation system managers can
now turn to a combination of sensors, algo-
rithms, and system simulators to predict
traffic demands from minute to minute,
day to day, and year to year. In a highly
instrumented system like New York city’s,
signal times, tolls, and left-turn permis-
sions can be fine-tuned in real time.
Truly reducing, rather than just manag-
ing, congestion requires active intervention
to change travelers’ behavior and make the
most of scarce roadway real estate. Varying
tolls throughout the day in response to traf-
fic patterns, offering slot reservations for
space in some lanes, and compensating
those who turn to alternatives to their own
vehicle are one set of options. GPS-enabled
smartphones and other technologies make
such strategies much more realistic, since
drivers can receive and act on informa-
tion rapidly. The arrival of autonomous,
self-driving vehicles that can safely travel
close together should make it even easier
to enhance traffic flow (see “Self-Driving
cars,” p. 41).
With road space limited,
over the long term travelers
will need to shift to smaller
vehicles, public transit, and
nonmotorized modes of
transport. But by acknowl-
edging the true costs and
complexity of road congestion, we can mod-
erate it quite effectively now.
Kara Kockelman is a professor of trans-
portation engineering at the University of
We have fully eradicated only
one disease. Let’s do it again,
says Larry Brilliant.
In human history, few things
happen only once. over millennia,
even statistically rare events repeat.
Yet despite huge efforts to replicate the
feat, just once have we eradicated a human
disease: smallpox, responsible for over 500
million deaths in the 20th century alone.
eradicating smallpox was a techno-
logical and a human challenge, like many
of our toughest global problems (see “Why
We can’t Solve Big Problems,” p. 26).
Technology made it possible to develop
freeze-dried vaccine and the bifurcated
needle. Hundreds of thousands of humans
had to find every case of smallpox in the
world, village by village, house by house,
and vaccinate every single person exposed
to the virus. I was on the smallpox team
in India and Bangladesh in the 1970s,
and we made over one billion house calls.
Today, we’re close to finally repeating
that achievement: polio now circulates
in only three countries. But new diseases
keep surfacing. over the last two decades,
around 30 have crossed from animals to
humans, including SARS
and hantavirus. Modernity
has increased the risk of a
global pandemic. Growing
populations and econo-
mies lead to deforestation
and greater consumption
of meat, including bush
meat, which increase the likelihood of a
virus jumping from animals to humans.
Air travel gives viruses free transit across
oceans in hours.
Modernity is also the balm for this
ailment. Since 1996, the median time it
takes to detect a disease outbreak has
fallen from 30 days to 14 days. Digital
disease surveillance has greatly improved
our ability to find diseases early enough to
stop them from spreading.
The first systems to collect “cloud” data
on emerging diseases used e-mail, like
ProMed, or scoured the Web for evidence,
like GPHIN. We can now gather data
directly from people exposed to disease.
Google’s Flu Trends experiment proved
that analyzing how people search for infor-
mation about flu online beats centers for
Disease control reporting by up to two
weeks. At the Skoll Global Threats Fund
we are working on an initiative, Flu Near
You, that asks people to answer questions
about symptoms via Web or smartphone.
That kind of participatory surveillance on
mobile devices could help track and tackle
diseases around the world.
We now have so much more technol-
ogy than we did when smallpox was eradi-
cated. We can solve this problem without
making a billion house calls. All we need
is creativity, commitment, and public will.
Larry Brilliant is president of the Skoll
Global Threats Fund, a nonprofit identi-
fying and addressing large-scale risks to
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