Adjustable Glasses

Science, technology, and life.
Jan. 11 2009 10:22 AM

Adjustable Glasses

Last month, we talked about the transition from George W. Bush to Barack Obama and what it might signify for biotech policy: a shift from a conservative interest in technological frontiers to a progressive interest in distributive justice. Less debate, for instance, about things like future artificial wombs , and more attention to things like incubators made from car parts . The point of car-parts incubators was that nobody cares about the latest million-dollar American baby born at 21 weeks when you live in a country where preemies die at 35 weeks. What most of the world needs is an affordable incubator that works for most preemies and can be reliably maintained.

Here's another target for the progressive ethic: eyeglasses. The man leading the charge is Joshua Silver, a physicist at Oxford. In Saturday's Washington Post , Mary Jordan explains the situation:

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right. Follow him on Twitter.

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In the United States, Britain and other wealthy nations, 60 to 70 percent of people wear corrective glasses, Silver said. But in many developing countries, only about 5 percent have glasses because so many people, especially those in rural areas, have little or no access to eye-care professionals. Even if they could visit an eye doctor, the cost of glasses can be more than a month's wages. This means that many schoolchildren cannot see the blackboard, bus drivers can't see clearly and others can no longer fish, teach or do other jobs because of failing vision.

Silver's answer: Adjustable glasses.

[T]he more liquid pumped into a thin sac in the plastic lenses, the stronger the correction. Silver has attached plastic syringes filled with silicone oil on each bow of the glasses; the wearer adds or subtracts the clear liquid with a little dial on the pump until the focus is right. After that adjustment, the syringes are removed and the "adaptive glasses" are ready to go. Currently, Silver said, a pair costs about $19, but his hope is to cut that to a few dollars.

Silver has already distributed some 30,000 pairs, chiefly through the U.S. Department of Defense, which is giving away 20,000 (with U.S. public-relations inscriptions attached) in Africa and Eastern Europe. His next goal is to disseminate another million pairs in India. The ultimate target is 1 billion people who need glasses but don't have them.

Silver's glasses are ugly. They don't correct astigmatism or catch glaucoma. They're inferior to what the eye-care industry can sell you. But they're superior to what most people in need of vision correction can buy, which is nothing. I'm a congenital critic of utilitarianism (the idea of promoting the greatest welfare of the greatest number of people) when it threatens humanity . But when it serves us -- all of us -- I'm a big fan.

If you like Silver's vision, here's his Web site . Take a good look.