#160 The Good News About Drones: Mehdi Salehi

Do a Google search of drones, and scary headlines pop up instantly. "Dangerous Drones Invade Protected Airspace Daily," says one. While others talk about "spooky, scary" drones that invade privacy; get in the way of firefighters, or lead to new types of warfare.

These concerns are real, but there are also many constructive use for drones that save livesmake cities safer and boost the economy.

"Wherever there's a problem, I'm pretty sure you can find a use to overcome that problem utilizing drones," says our guest, Mehdi Salehi of the Parsons School of Design. His company, Drone Labs, specializes in drone design, R&D, data collection and analysis.

Mehdi draws on his own experience as a refugee "leaving Afghanistan, going to Europe and then coming to New York" to build on a lifelong fascination with flight. "I've always believed that you can utilize this technology for good," he tells us in this episode.

Drone technology is rapidly improving. Artificial Intelligence, or machine learning, will lead to many new breakthroughs in the near future. Among the civilian applications that we discuss: 

  • Using drones to help first responders in flood, fire and other natural disasters.
  •  Inspections of high-rise buildings and wind turbines.
  • Tracking refugees in flimsy boats and rafts, who are in danger of drowning before rescuers can get close.

#159 Blockchain: The Next Big Thing? Dan Patterson

Blockchain technology was created a decade ago as a new kind of database for the digital currency, Bitcoin. Within the next ten years, it may transform the internet. 

Today, the blockchain is emerging into a business of its own with many different potential applications. 

Information can be stored and transferred by networks of computers without a central system being in charge. No single large entity can abuse or lose control of the data. Industries, governments and other institutions are investing in blockchain technology to share unique digital records and transactions in a decentralized way that is really hard to hack.

"This code is truly novel. It is something the world had never seen before, because it strengthens itself over time," says our guest, Dan Patterson, a senior reporter for TechRepublic and CBS News. "The chain is strengthened by multiple computers, by tens of thousands or millions of computers, pointing their processing power back at the chain."

In this episode we look at how blockchain technology works and why it may revolutionize real estate transfers, healthcare records, financial transfers, and even the diamond industry. 

More useful links: This article by Nathaniel Popper covers more potential uses for blockchain technology. We also speak about Ethereum in our episode of "How Do We Fix It?"

#155 The Great Environmental Debate: Charles C. Mann

Far too often, politics and policy are portrayed as a battle between liberals and conservatives, or socialists vs. capitalists. 

But one of the most profound divides of modern times is between optimists and pessimists-- especially over how they view the environment.

This episode looks at the debate between environmental optimists (wizards), who believe we can invent our way to a better, healthier future, and pessimists (prophets), who say we must impose limits on pollution, over-crowding other impacts of humans on the planet.

Our guest, journalist, Charles C. Mann, author of new book, "The Wizard and The Prophet", is a correspondent for The Atlantic, Science and Wired. Two of his previous books, 1491 and 1493, were widely-acclaimed best sellers.


We consider the dueling visions of two remarkable scientists. Norman Borlaug's research led to the Green Revolution, which saved hundreds of millions of lives, and boosted agricultural production. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work. William Vogt, who saw the world as bound by immutable biological limits, was the founder of modern environmentalism, perhaps the most successful ideology of the past century. His book, "Road to Survival", which inspired generations of environmental activists.

Do apocalyptic environmentalists sometimes seem heartless about the lives of poor people? Are technological optimists are too optimistic about the future, with ideas that lead to global domination by massive, centralized corporations and economic systems? We unpack these and other challenging questions.