Device That Reads Books

Intel Reader (Credit: Intel)
Intel reminded us this week that we are, by 1960’s issues of Popular Mechanics standards, living in The Future. Check out the little device above…know what it does? It reads book…from photos. You snap a photo of a page of text, and this device reads the text to you out loud. That, my friend, is capital-s Science in action. See the Gizmodo article for additional photos and a demonstration video of the device in action.

Ray Kurzweil demonstrated similar technology three years ago at the Singularity Summit at Stanford. As I summarized his demo at the time:

Using the device, Ray took a picture of the page with the device and had it read the page aloud on his behalf. This is apparently a project that Ray started working on with the National Federation of the Blind about five years ago, but at the time the technology was not sufficiently advanced to enable the application. At the time of original investigation, digital cameras didn’t have enough resolution to enable good pattern recognition, and pattern recognition algorithms had not yet been designed to handle the difficult environment in which such a device would need to operate. All this changed in the intervening five years.

And it would appear that it has changed again in the intervening three years. Not only is it possible, the solution is relatively cheap ($1500) and readily available as a consumer product. Interestingly, it appears that this is not an updated version of the device Kurzweil demonstrated. Kurzweil is, in fact, working on a competing device called the KNFB Reader. Not only is the future here, it has competitors!

Response to the Georgia Straight

The Georgia StraightI find it intriguing that the Straight found it appropriate to print two responses disagreeing with my comment on the “Vancouver’s Homeless Demand Solutions” story, yet didn’t see fit to print my original comment itself. As I recall, quoting responses without context is poor journalistic form. Nevertheless, despite that oversight, I think it worthwhile to respond to these comments.

For the record, my original comment:

I think a bit of perspective is required here: Let’s assume that the number of homeless is 15K, as suggested above. BC’s population is an estimate 4.4M according to BC Stats, which means that the homeless comprise 1/3 of a percent of the population. Even if the number is doubled, it’s still only 2/3 of a percent.

Am I happy there’s people who are homeless? Of course not. But by the same token, I think it’s unrealistic to expect nobody to be homeless, much in the same way it’s unrealistic to expect 100% employment.

I don’t have a solution to this problem and, in all honesty, I’m not sure one exists. However, I don’t think giving people cheap housing is going to solve the problem – it’s a hand-out that doesn’t solve the fundamental underlying issues, and it insults the rest of the hard-working population in the interim.

First, let me be clear: I’m in favour of programs to reduce homelessness. However, I have a problem with programs that choose to throw money at symptoms rather than causes. If history is any guide, these programs will not provide the desired results (one only needs to look at the $1.4B invested in the Downtown Eastside with few results), which does a disservice to those working hard to pay their taxes to pay for these ill-conceived projects.

According to the original Straight article, there are between 12,000 and 15,000 homeless people (note that we’re talking about genuinely homeless people here, not those who are struggling with housing affordability – I’ll come to them in a moment). Contrary to popular belief, the problem for these individuals is not a lack of housing – that’s a symptom. For the majority, the root cause is untreated mental health issues and substance abuse. These factors limit employment options and create the conditions that lead to homelessness.

The real solution is not to throw money at cheap housing, the solution is to provide proper, comprehensive mental healthcare in BC. Proper mental heath treatment can reduce or eliminate the factors that limit these individuals’ ability to be fully functioning members of society. That is the real solution.

Unfortunately, even comprehensive mental heath services are not sufficient to cure homelessness. Although one commenter called it “disgusting” for me to state that it’s unrealistic to expect nobody to be homeless, I stand by this statement. Even when adequate mental heath services are available, there are some individuals that simply will not adhere to treatment regimens required to enable them remain functioning members of society. For example, some schizophrenics complain that they don’t feel themselves when they’re on their medications, and choose to stop taking their treatment. My mother, a psychiatric nurse for twenty years, can attest to this phenomenon.

Unless we discover a way to cure mental health issues instantaneously or choose to, as one commenter suggested, put individuals who aren’t capable of functioning in society under the care of the state, the root cause of homelessness will remain. And as long as there is one person without a home, there will be homelessness. It’s an unfortunate, horrible thing to say. But it’s also reality.

Of course, housing affordability is also a major problem. Proponents of social housing projects, such as Wendy Pedersen of the Carnegie Community Action Project, are quick to point out that money spent on the new convention center could have bought 4,250 deluxe inner-city homes. So let’s pretend that happened –what would be the result? Without the convention center project, we would have missed out on the benefits of the project:

  • 4500 direct and indirect jobs
  • $1.6B economic activity during the convention construction
  • 61 events between now and 2012 (which could not have been accommodated without the new facility)
  • $2 billion additional economic activity in the province between now and 2012

Not constructing the convention center would have eliminated a recurring source of jobs and economic stability. In other words, the very things that enable people to afford housing in the first place and that decrease the likelihood of people slipping into homelessness. The very result organizations such as the Carnegie Community Action Project would like to see.

The solution here is not simply to build some subsidized housing and pat ourselves on the back. It’s addressing the real problems, namely lack of proper mental healthcare. And the money required to provide that solution has to come from somewhere – namely income generated from new economic activity.

Given the dire economic straits we find ourselves in, I would argue that it’s more prudent for the government to focus on addressing the 7.6% unemployed British Columbians, rather than 1/3 of a percent homeless. After all, the money for all of these social programs has to come from somewhere, and lack of employment only increases the possibility of people becoming homeless in the first place.

These are not nice choices for a society to have to make. But in a world of constrained resources, you can’t have it all. You need to focus on the root problems, not symptoms, and try to generate the best result for the most people. To do otherwise is impractical.