3D rendering of human in VR headset on futuristic technology - Illustration
3D rendering of human in VR headset on futuristic technology - Illustration
Image: iStock

Augmented reality is in its silly phase. From Snapchat to Instagram, the world's most sophisticated research into how to overlay information on to real images is mostly being used to add puppy ears and tongues to selfies. 

I recently endured the flashing lights and thumping music that make tech conferences feel like try-hard nightclubs to hear Mark Zuckerberg speak at Facebook's annual F8 event. As the chief executive announced plans to become the first augmented-reality platform, he almost cringed at some of his cheesier lines: describing how users can fill up a 3D photo of an office with imaginary Skittles sweets "because the future is delicious", or how to make cartoon sharks swim around a photo of a cereal bowl. 

So far, augmented reality has been useless. The gawkiness of Google Glass is commonly blamed for its failure - but if people needed the high-tech glasses, someone would have beautified them. In cities such as San Jose, where the conference took place, most people can already access the information they need by pulling out their smartphones and retrieving it in a language they understand.

Google Glass demo in Austin, Texas
Google Glass demo in Austin, Texas
Image: Getty

But for millions of refugees across the world, reality seriously needs augmenting. They require instant information not easily available in their own languages to make life-changing decisions: whether to take a boat or cross a border and how to start again in a new country. 

At the conference, I met Atif Javed, a 24-year-old engineer who wants to help refugees struggling with such challenges. He and two other young Muslim-Americans from MIT started Tarjimly, a chat bot for Facebook Messenger that connects refugees with ordinary people who volunteer as translators from the other side of the world. 

Launched at the end of January, it saw more than 1,000 volunteers sign up in the first 24 hours. They do what technology cannot yet: popping up to act as guides to refugees in new environments, from helping patients explain symptoms to assisting parents in enrolling children at school. "Rather than flying in five or six translators," said Javed, "there's a couple of hundred on demand ready to volunteer." 

Tarjimly is part of a growing movement of "PeaceTech". Software engineers are beginning to create technologies that connect people and information for humanitarian causes. The scale of the Syrian crisis and the lack of a clear response from the west has shaken once apolitical developers into action. 

Many projects are side projects such as Tarjimly, run by people who want to contribute beyond their day jobs tweaking algorithms. Other initiatives are more professional, endowed with resources and expertise by governments and international development NGOs. 

The United States Institute of Peace, a non-partisan federal institution, has a PeaceTech lab in Washington DC. The lab includes 3D printers for prototyping new hardware and an "open situation room" to share information from local media with those on the ground in conflict zones, unlike the closed military rooms where national security decisions are taken. Stanford's Peace Innovation Lab is researching technology for disaster response and launching digital media campaigns such as the "Israel loves Iran" meme on Facebook in an attempt to win hearts and minds. 

PeaceTech could become a promising career path for engineers. Last year I went to a "Hacking for Diplomacy" class at Stanford. Students prepared presentations on what they had learnt from state department diplomats and NGOs. By trying to understand a reality so different from their own, they discovered what really needed augmenting. One team, charged with helping Syrian refugees, developed a chat bot to provide answers to common questions from a database compiled by non-profits on the ground. 

The technology behind these efforts is far less sophisticated than the augmented reality that powers the all-singing, all-dancing puppy emojis. But sometimes technology can have the most powerful impact by taking the tools we have and making them work better for the desperate needs of others. 

This article was originally published by the Financial Times.Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017.

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