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Internet of Things

Robot doctors: could science fiction become science fact?

31 Oct, 14 | by BMJ

Earlier this month, The Guardian released a video that has given certain sectors of society the heebie jeebies.

The overriding message, that “new technology can destroy jobs”, is not particularly new but previously the jobs at risk were ‘unskilled’. It seems that technology is now so advanced that traditional middle class professions are starting to worry. But are robot doctors, online lawyers and automated architects really becoming a reality?

In 2013, the Associated Press tried to ascertain exactly which professions were being hit hardest by new technology. Through a combination of employment data analysis and expert interviews, they discovered that almost all the jobs that had disappeared in the past few years were not the low-skilled, low-paid roles one might expect, but fairly well-paid positions in traditionally middle-class careers.

In 2012, Silicon Valley investor Vinod Khosla predicted that algorithms and machines would replace 80% of what doctors do within a generation. He argued that much of their current workload (checkups, testing, diagnosis, prescription, etc.) could be done better by sensors, passive and active data collection, and analytics. Expert radiologists are already routinely outperformed by pattern-recognition software, he argues, and diagnosticians by simple computer questionnaires.

XPRIZE, a self-proclaimed “innovation engine”, offers $10m prizes to those inventors who manage to solve some of technology’s most troublesome challenges. One such award will be given to the first team to produce a working “tricorder” – a handheld device capable of diagnosing a set of 15 diseases without the presence of a medical professional. If you think this sounds like something straight out of science fiction, you’d be right. The Tricorder is the multifunction hand-held device used for sensor scanning, data analysis, and recording data by the medical officers in Star Trek. However, it may soon be science fact: the CEO of XPRIZE, Dr Pete Diamandis, expects someone to succeed in the next five years.

He asserts that following this breakthrough, it’ll only be a matter of time before diagnosis is within the primary remit of machines. “It’s a matter of providing the computer with the data. Once it has the data, it’s able to consider thousands or millions of times more parameters than a human can hold in their head.” We will still need medical professionals to guide us and provide the human touch – but doctors will have to accept that computers are better at parts of the job than they are.

It’s not just software and diagnosis, either: surgeons will have to make way for smarter machines. He cites the work of Silicon Valley firm Intuitive Surgical, which has created a “surgical system” named Da Vinci, which an expert surgeon can control online from anywhere in the world.

This technology is already being put to good use in certain areas of the world. For example, Liu Chunming almost died after a car crash in July in Taihe, a remote county in China’s southeast Jiangxi province, but survived serious abdominal injuries thanks to specialist doctors who led his treatment from 1,000 kms (621 miles) away. From a central “operations room” in the eastern city of Hangzhou, doctors diagnosed and directed treatment for the 48-year-old using live video feeds and software that shares patient scans and files to aid consultation.

“Eventually, where this is going,” says Diamandis, “is that the robot will end up doing the surgeries on its own. I can imagine a day in the future where the patient walks into the hospital and the patient needs, say, cardiac surgery, and the conversation goes something like this: ‘No, no, no, I do not want that human touching me. I want the robot that’s done it 1,000 times perfectly.'”

However, many argue that there are some things that may never be codified or driven into algorithms. Davis Liu, a US-based GP and author, sums this up nicely: “Call it a doctor’s experience, intuition, and therapeutic touch and listening. If start-ups can clear the obstacles and restore the timeless doctor-patient relationship and human connection, then perhaps the future of healthcare is bright after all… I know healthcare can’t simply be solved by smart people in Silicon Valley alone. To solve healthcare we need everyone to collaborate.”

Can mobile technology improve mental health?

18 Aug, 14 | by BMJ

Mental health, specifically depression, is in the spotlight due to the untimely death of Robin Williams last week. It has sparked much discussion of how mental healthcare could be improved to reduce the likelihood of such tragedies. One area that has the potential to make significant and cost-effective contributions to mental healthcare is technology.

There are already individual cases of technology being put to good use for this specific purpose. Research from Oxford University has shown that text messaging and voice calls can be used to assess mental health status, provide talking therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy and encourage behavioural change.  More advanced devices such as smartphones and tablets deliver similar functionality but in more user-friendly ways. Kindly, for example, is a mobile app that promises to connect users with “a mobile network of compassionate and helpful listeners,” all of whom are anonymous. Users can share or receive short conversation prompts in categories like “addiction/recovery,” “marriage/divorce,” “work/business” and “creativity/inspiration.” The app then makes use of an algorithm to try and match the person who put out the prompt with another who may be a good listener.

The app is still in its early days so it should come as little surprise that it has a relatively small community. To help bolster the number and quality of “listeners” in the app, a number of psychology students have been recruited from the University of Southern California, Vassar College and New York University.

Kindly is certainly not the first or only service trying to provide a space for people who need to talk things out anonymously. 7 Cups of Tea connects users with anonymous “active listeners” online and social networks like Whisper aims to let users share secrets online and engage in private messaging. Whisper has even launched YourVoice, which includes videos from those who have overcome difficulties, and resources for anxiety, bullying, stress, sexual abuse and more. Those who want to share their experiences can submit their own videos for consideration.

Another advantage of multimedia apps is that they can draw on a wide range of sensors and capabilities to produce richer data and more intelligent interventions – e.g. accelerometers, GPS and camera. The Mobilyze! system developed in Chicago uses 38 smartphone sensor values alongside user input to predict psychological status and deliver tailored therapeutic interventions for unipolar depression.

What next?

Mobile mental health already has the capacity to transform the way mental illness is evaluated, monitored and treated, especially in poorer countries where mental health workforces barely exist. It is believed that smartphones will soon be able to deduce our emotional status from our social interactions and tone of voice, while wearable sensors will collect data on a range of factors relevant to mental health, including sleep quality, cardiovascular status and galvanic skin response. Fragmented monitoring and highly-personalised ‘smart’ treatments seem to be the future of mental healthcare; a future made possible by mobile technology.


Is the ‘Internet of Things’ becoming a reality?

19 Jun, 14 | by BMJ

You might not be aware but we are currently approaching the end of Internet of Things Week 2014. For those who aren’t familiar with the concept, the Internet of Things (or IoT, or M2M, or machine to machine) refers to an expanding network of interconnected internet-enabled devices.

It’s currently a very hot topic over in Silicon Valley, where they describe it as “a global, immersive, invisible, ambient networked computing environment built through the continued proliferation of smart sensors, cameras, software, databases and massive data centres in a world-spanning information fabric”.

So what does that actually mean and what is being done to realise this vision?

Translated into layman’s terms, IoT is billions of gadgets, each one of them connected to the internet and communicating with one another without much in the way of human intervention. John Naughton sums it up nicely: “So your fridge can talk to your smartphone to tell it that you’re running out of milk, while your bathroom scales messages your GP’s computer to let it know that you’re not sticking to your diet plan, and the webcam in your living room sends you a text to tell you that the cat has been sick on the sofa, and cool stuff like that”.

Technology giants are already on the case, viewing IoT as a logical progression from the personal computer and smartphone races of previous years. At its Worldwide Developers conference (WWDC) , Apple introduced Homekit, an Internet of Things platform that will bring together various third-party home automation accessories, enabling users to unlock doors or turn on lights via an iPhone.

Google, too, demonstrated its enthusiasm by paying £1.9bn earlier this year to buy Nest Labs, a home automation company co-founded by the creator of the iPod. Already recognised for its connected thermostats and smoke detectors, the company is currently exploring a range of other applications related to the home – everything from health tracking to security systems.

Household brands EE, John Lewis and Unilever have pledged their support this week for a £1m Launchpad competition which will provide support for early and growth stage businesses working in the Internet of Things space.

Launched Monday at London Technology Week, the competition is the result of a collaboration between Tech City UK, the Technology Strategy Board and Cambridge Wireless and will provide business and marketing support, mentorship, routes to market and grant funding to successful applicants who are developing ideas, prototypes, or have an existing business, and want to accelerate their development.

They are looking for projects that:

  • may be too risky for companies to take forward without support
  • may take companies into new innovative areas
  • the majority of activities are carried out in Cambridge and/or London.

More information on applying is available here.

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