If you could invent an app for the iPhone, iPad, or any other mobile device, what would it do?

Tablet computers and smart phones are becoming ubiquitous, with apps for just about everything. Here, we asked four scientists to imagine the app of their dreams.

Miguel Godinho Ferreira

Gulbenkian Science Institute, Oeiras, Portugal

My all-time desirable app would have to be for teleportation. A true “Beam me up, Scotty.” Can you imagine? No more hustle of airports and cramped airplane seats … just think of a place, and you’re there! Unfortunately, this is not likely to happen during my lifetime. Then again, one should never stop hoping!

A more realistic idea would be a speech recognition app that actually works. This would finally take computers to the next level. No more fumbling with big fingers on little keyboards. You say it, and the machine writes it down. And no need to correct every word one by one. That’s what folks at Apple are aiming at with Siri, I am sure. But she is not there yet.

Dianne K. Newman

California Institute of Technology

I’d invent the “Email Liberator.” This app would handle everything—it would politely decline all uninteresting invitations and unessential administrative requests; accept only a limited number of things that it would automatically sync with my calendar and forward to my administrative assistant; and reply to all collegial, postdoctoral, and student inquiries. At the end of the day, it would give me the low-down on the things that I needed to know about and sign off with the happy salutation: “Free at last, free at last, thank the email liberator you are free at last!”

Tzumin Lee

Janelia Farm Research Campus

Oftentimes, the greatest obstacle I encounter in my career as a scientist is effectively communicating my ideas to the public with my accented English. I would therefore like to invent an app—let’s call it “DeAx”—which would essentially “deaccent” a non-native speaker’s lecture in English. DeAx wouldn’t take the speaker’s words and reiterate them in an artificially contrived voice. Instead, it would tweak the little accents and discrepancies in the speaker’s words, thus preserving the original tone and, most importantly, the speaker’s enthusiasm about science.

Michael B. Eisen

University of California, Berkeley

There are so many! One simple iPhone app would track the spread of viral infections. The app would record your movements. Then, any time you get sick, you would enter the details. Or, even better, you could use the phone to sense when you’re sick—I bet the accelerometer could tell when you sneeze, and a simple thermal sensor could detect a fever. If enough people used the app, you could then track back to when you came in contact with someone with similar symptoms and figure out how you likely got infected. It would bring much higher resolution to our study of disease transmission and might suggest ways to prevent it. It could even warn you when someone who has a nasty cold is getting too close!

Photos: Ferreira: Kevin Wolf / AP, © HHMI; Newman: Robert E. Klein / AP, © HHMI; Lee: Matt Staley; Eisen: Noah Berger / AP, © HHMI

Scientist Profile

California Institute of Technology
Janelia Group Leader
Janelia Research Campus
Developmental Biology, Neuroscience
University of California, Berkeley
Computational Biology, Evolutionary Biology