Category Archives: Medical

Texting or chatting while walking, the new phone addiction you need to stop

James Wanzala , Reporter for the Standard Group (StandardMedia, StandardDigital News)
20th Jan 2019 00:00:00 GMT +0300

You might have been hit by a person busy chatting or texting as he or she walked along the street. Or, you might have seen someone hitting a pole, a transparent window or falling into a pool of water while using the phone while walking. This is the new smartphone addiction that experts are warning is costing people their lives or leaving them with injuries. Experts now say distracted walking is a growing problem around the globe, as people of all ages become more dependent on electronic devices for social and professional engagements. The advent of smartphones that comes with social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram has accelerated this problem. Multitasking is common, and can be dangerous if one is not careful. “The phone distracts you from minding your safety while walking. We used to call out the youth for this behaviour but now it spans nearly all age groups,” says Sam Wambugu, an information specialist. Authorities in some countries have come up with laws to curb texting or chatting while walking. In South Australia for instance, the Under the Road Traffic Act states that a person “must not walk without due care or attention or without reasonable consideration for other persons using the road,” lest they face a $105 (Sh10,500) fine.

Banned texting

In 2012, Fort Lee, a municipality in New Jersey, banned texting while walking. Violations come with an $85 (Sh8,500) ticket. Back home, the National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) traffic rules only prohibit a driver from using a phone while driving, which sets him back Sh2,000. According to a study published in 2012 by researchers from New York’s Stony Brook University, 60 per cent of people texting while walking veered off their walking path. Over a decade’s time, texting and walking has caused more than 11,100 injuries. In fact, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, pedestrian deaths numbered 5,376 — and were the only group of road users whose fatality numbers increased. A report from the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons also revealed that 78 per cent of American adults believe that distracted walking is a serious issue — but only 29 per cent owned up to doing it themselves. Our brains have evolved to focus attention on primarily one task at a time, a phenomenon psychologists refer to as inattention blindness. Wambugu adds: “People get carried away while texting and miss their flight at the airport because they become oblivious of their surroundings despite repeated calls to board the plane. Some people text while riding on a fast-moving boda boda, possibly another reason for increased road accidents.” Sociologist Kiemo Karatu agrees that chatting and texting while walking is a life risk and a solution must be found. “A lot of us are oblivious of the dangers we are exposing ourselves to. Inability to know when to stop doing two things at the same time is the challenge,” says Karatu. He proposes creating awareness probably through posters on the dangers of using one’s phone while walking. The Washington DC-based Safe Kids Worldwide organisation report dubbed Walking Safely, A Report to the Nation in 2012 found that pedestrian deaths among teens aged 15 to 19 now account for about 50 per cent of pedestrian fatalities. The study discovered that one in five high school students were found crossing the street distracted either by texting, playing video games or listening to music. “We suspect one cause of this disturbing trend is distraction; since the increase in teen injuries seems to correlate with the prevalence of cell phone use, both among walkers and drivers,” says Kate Carr, president and CEO of Safe Kids Worldwide. Just like children at school are taught how to wash their hands regularly to stay healthy, Wambugu says healthy use of the now ubiquitous mobile phones and other hand held devices may be an important addition.

The country’s first regular commercial drone delivery is here

By Adele Peters, Staff Writer for Fast Company  3.26.19

UPS and drone delivery company Matternet are working together to help a hospital network get samples to the lab faster.

 

When a patient at a surgery center in Raleigh, North Carolina, has their blood drawn, a drone now delivers the sample to a central lab for testing. The new delivery system, launched at the WakeMed hospital and campus, is the first regular commercial drone delivery in the United States.

Until now, any samples from outlying clinics in the healthcare system had to be delivered by a courier making multiple stops on the way to the lab along a route that can take as long as three hours. “Even samples marked ‘stat,’ or urgent, which follow a more direct route, can take up to an hour for delivery,” says Stuart Ginn, an ear, nose, and throat surgeon and medical director for WakeMed Innovations, a team that works on implementing and accelerating creative solutions within the healthcare system. “This transit time means a longer delay for the clinician awaiting results for their patients.”


Image: UPS/Matternet

Matternet, the drone delivery company partnering with UPS to provide the service for WakeMed, already operates a similar system in Switzerland. In one recent case, a patient with a heart condition went to the emergency room at a regional Swiss hospital in the evening, after the hospital’s onsite lab had closed and couldn’t test his blood sample. In the past, the hospital would have used an ambulance to deliver the sample to another hospital nearby, in a journey that could take an hour. The drones made the trip within 15 minutes, and saving that time made a meaningful difference in the patient’s treatment, Matternet says.“Fundamentally, our system gives fast, very predictable access,” says Andreas Raptopoulos, founder and CEO of Matternet. Health systems with sprawling campuses can start to centralize services like labs or pharmacies, rather than duplicating the same services in multiple locations. Remote clinics can save costs by relying on more distant labs rather than maintaining their own lab onsite. Those that currently use couriers, like WakeMed, can avoid delays in traffic.

The drones can help by “extending the capabilities of smaller facilities within the healthcare network by potentially expanding what is ‘on the menu’ in terms of testing capabilities at facilities that would otherwise not support onsite laboratory services,” says Ginn. “A larger goal for healthcare service-delivery design going forward is to shape the services we provide around our patients’ needs, pushing services into the community so that we can care for our patients when and where they need it. This is a technology that could make that economically and logistically feasible in ways that have so far eluded healthcare systems.”


Image: UPS/Matternet

In Raleigh, WakeMed staff now load drone containers with medical samples at a facility and hand that to a drone pilot from Matternet, who loads the drone. The drone, which can carry up to five pounds, flies along a predetermined flight path to a landing pad at the main hospital where the main pathology lab is located. The first route now runs from the healthcare system’s surgery center to the lab, and other routes will be added over time; while the first route is short, at about one-third of a mile, it still takes around half an hour with a courier, versus three minutes with the drone. (The other routes that the drone will fly in the future will be several miles long.)The delivery service is part of the FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Pilot Program, a program that works with companies and local governments–in this case, the North Carolina Department of Transportation–to study how drone technology can be used and safely integrated. As the WakeMed service operates, the partners will be demonstrating how the drones can fly safely over a city and stay separated from other air traffic such as helicopters. Matternet, which has proven the economic viability of the service in Switzerland, will also work with UPS to validate the business case for U.S. hospitals and clinics to use the service. UPS, which already works on logistics with healthcare organizations, previously partnered with another drone startup that makes medical deliveries in Rwanda.

While others are still working on drones to deliver packages or pizza, Matternet saw medical delivery as a way to best showcase the potential of the technology. “We feel very strongly that there’s so much inefficiency in how medical systems are run when it comes to logistics,” says Raptopoulos. “Now there’s tremendous benefit we can bring.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world’s largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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Cybersecurity: Don’t let the small stuff cause you big problems

Video

By Danny Palmer, Senior Reporter at ZDNet |

If hospitals don’t take cybersecurity seriously, a series of small issues could be as bad as a major cyberattack like WannaCry, warns NHS Digital chief.

 

Healthcare providers risk ‘death by a thousand cuts’ if they take a poor approach to implementing cyber security and protecting networks and patient data.

The UK’s National Health Service employs 1.2 million people and is currently in the midst of a drive to offer a more digital form of healthcare: fewer doctors and nurses carrying pens and paper, more with access to digital health records, and patient after-care via apps. But security has a central role to play.

“Those organisations which are successful in their transformation journey are those which make cybersecurity and data protection an obligation from the board to the bedside,” said Daniel Jeffery, head of innovation and delivery at NHS Digital, the driving force behind information technology transformation in England.

“Everybody in the organisation knows what they should be doing, what they need to do, how to treat data in that respect and the security elements with that,” he said.

It’s small, simple things which can make a big difference, Jeffery told the audience at at LORCA Live 2019, a cybersecurity conference in London. He cited little things like not writing usernames and passwords on post-it notes and sticking them to screens, or simply making sure data is backed up.

The key is to realise the opportunities from the digital revolution from a health and care perspective, but also making sure security is built in from the beginning Jeffery said. “Ultimately, cybersecurity is an enabler of the digital revolution,” he added.

The NHS has already been an unwitting case study about modern security threats: the WannaCry ransomware attack.

While WannaCry was a global campaign – classified by the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre as a category 2 cyberattack, only one level down from a national cyber emergency – the NHS was particularly badly hit and the organisation’s response has been met with criticism.

“There are two ways in which trust can get eroded for health and care. One is a massive, huge tier 1 or tier 2 type breach – the other is death by a thousand cuts,” said Jeffery.

Organisations of all sizes in all sectors need to have a cybersecurity strategy, but for healthcare, it’s particularly important. Not only do IT networks within hospitals and doctors’ surgeries need to be accessible and secure in order to provide patient care, these networks involve medical information – some of the most sensitive data that can be held about people.

“What’s really important is having control over the data and knowing where it is. It’s the same issue that’s dealt with in many other industries, but to an extra level of duty of care for the people whose data you’ve got,” said Sian John, chief security advisor for EMEA at Microsoft.

“You’re talking about privacy: it’s one level when you’re talking about financial data, it’s another level if that’s my medical history,” she added.

What’s important for health organisations as a whole is being absolutely sure how data is controlled and how it is accessed – and making knowing a priority.

“It’s about changing the mindset from ‘where is the data?’ to ‘is the data protected, wherever it may be?’ And that’s encryption, but also anonymisation of data in certain situations. It’s really about what control you have on the data and if that’s appropriate, over being obsessive over where it is,” John said.

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NHS-related links:

SEE: A winning strategy for cybersecurity (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)

How we’ll invent the future, by Bill Gates – 10 Breakthrough Technologies 2019 (Part 2, The List)

By Bill Gates for MIT Technology Review – February 27, 2019

As well as his introductory essay, read Bill Gates’ conversation with Editor-In-Chief Gideon Lichfield. Below are his picks for the 10 Breakthrough Technologies:

Robot dexterity

Nicolas Ortega
Robot dexterity
  • Why it matters If robots could learn to deal with the messiness of the real world, they could do many more tasks.
  • Key Players OpenAI
    Carnegie Mellon University
    University of Michigan
    UC Berkeley
  • Availability 3-5 years

Robots are teaching themselves to handle the physical world.

For all the talk about machines taking jobs, industrial robots are still clumsy and inflexible. A robot can repeatedly pick up a component on an assembly line with amazing precision and without ever getting bored—but move the object half an inch, or replace it with something slightly different, and the machine will fumble ineptly or paw at thin air.

But while a robot can’t yet be programmed to figure out how to grasp any object just by looking at it, as people do, it can now learn to manipulate the object on its own through virtual trial and error.

One such project is Dactyl, a robot that taught itself to flip a toy building block in its fingers. Dactyl, which comes from the San Francisco nonprofit OpenAI, consists of an off-the-shelf robot hand surrounded by an array of lights and cameras. Using what’s known as reinforcement learning, neural-network software learns how to grasp and turn the block within a simulated environment before the hand tries it out for real. The software experiments, randomly at first, strengthening connections within the network over time as it gets closer to its goal.

It usually isn’t possible to transfer that type of virtual practice to the real world, because things like friction or the varied properties of different materials are so difficult to simulate. The OpenAI team got around this by adding randomness to the virtual training, giving the robot a proxy for the messiness of reality.

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We’ll need further breakthroughs for robots to master the advanced dexterity needed in a real warehouse or factory. But if researchers can reliably employ this kind of learning, robots might eventually assemble our gadgets, load our dishwashers, and even help Grandma out of bed. —Will Knight

New-wave nuclear power

Bob Mumgaard/Plasma Science and Fusion Center/MIT

Advanced fusion and fission reactors are edging closer to reality.

New nuclear designs that have gained momentum in the past year are promising to make this power source safer and cheaper. Among them are generation IV fission reactors, an evolution of traditional designs; small modular reactors; and fusion reactors, a technology that has seemed eternally just out of reach. Developers of generation IV fission designs, such as Canada’s Terrestrial Energy and Washington-based TerraPower, have entered into R&D partnerships with utilities, aiming for grid supply (somewhat optimistically, maybe) by the 2020s.

Small modular reactors typically produce in the tens of megawatts of power (for comparison, a traditional nuclear reactor produces around 1,000 MW). Companies like Oregon’s NuScale say the miniaturized reactors can save money and reduce environmental and financial risks.

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There has even been progress on fusion. Though no one expects delivery before 2030, companies like General Fusion and Commonwealth Fusion Systems, an MIT spinout, are making some headway. Many consider fusion a pipe dream, but because the reactors can’t melt down and don’t create long-lived, high-level waste, it should face much less public resistance than conventional nuclear. (Bill Gates is an investor in TerraPower and Commonwealth Fusion Systems.) —Leigh Phillips

Predicting preemies

Nenov | Getty
Predicting preemies
  • Why it matters 15 million babies are born prematurely every year; it’s the leading cause of death for children under age five
  • Key player Akna Dx
  • Availability A test could be offered in doctor’s offices within five years

A simple blood test can predict if a pregnant woman is at risk of giving birth prematurely.

Our genetic material lives mostly inside our cells. But small amounts of “cell-free” DNA and RNA also float in our blood, often released by dying cells. In pregnant women, that cell-free material is an alphabet soup of nucleic acids from the fetus, the placenta, and the mother.

Stephen Quake, a bioengineer at Stanford, has found a way to use that to tackle one of medicine’s most intractable problems: the roughly one in 10 babies born prematurely.

Free-floating DNA and RNA can yield information that previously required invasive ways of grabbing cells, such as taking a biopsy of a tumor or puncturing a pregnant woman’s belly to perform an amniocentesis. What’s changed is that it’s now easier to detect and sequence the small amounts of cell-free genetic material in the blood. In the last few years researchers have begun developing blood tests for cancer (by spotting the telltale DNA from tumor cells) and for prenatal screening of conditions like Down syndrome.

The tests for these conditions rely on looking for genetic mutations in the DNA. RNA, on the other hand, is the molecule that regulates gene expression—how much of a protein is produced from a gene. By sequencing the free-floating RNA in the mother’s blood, Quake can spot fluctuations in the expression of seven genes that he singles out as associated with preterm birth. That lets him identify women likely to deliver too early. Once alerted, doctors can take measures to stave off an early birth and give the child a better chance of survival.

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The technology behind the blood test, Quake says, is quick, easy, and less than $10 a measurement. He and his collaborators have launched a startup, Akna Dx, to commercialize it. —Bonnie Rochman

Gut probe in a pill

Bruce Peterson
Gut probe in a pill
  • Why it matters The device makes it easier to screen for and study gut diseases, including one that keeps millions of children in poor countries from growing properly
  • Key player Massachusetts General Hospital
  • Availability Now used in adults; testing in infants begins in 2019

A small, swallowable device captures detailed images of the gut without anesthesia, even in infants and children.

Environmental enteric dysfunction (EED) may be one of the costliest diseases you’ve never heard of. Marked by inflamed intestines that are leaky and absorb nutrients poorly, it’s widespread in poor countries and is one reason why many people there are malnourished, have developmental delays, and never reach a normal height. No one knows exactly what causes EED and how it could be prevented or treated.

Practical screening to detect it would help medical workers know when to intervene and how. Therapies are already available for infants, but diagnosing and studying illnesses in the guts of such young children often requires anesthetizing them and inserting a tube called an endoscope down the throat. It’s expensive, uncomfortable, and not practical in areas of the world where EED is prevalent.

So Guillermo Tearney, a pathologist and engineer at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston, is developing small devices that can be used to inspect the gut for signs of EED and even obtain tissue biopsies. Unlike endoscopes, they are simple to use at a primary care visit.

Tearney’s swallowable capsules contain miniature microscopes. They’re attached to a flexible string-like tether that provides power and light while sending images to a briefcase-like console with a monitor. This lets the health-care worker pause the capsule at points of interest and pull it out when finished, allowing it to be sterilized and reused. (Though it sounds gag-­inducing, Tearney’s team has developed a technique that they say doesn’t cause discomfort.) It can also carry technologies that image the entire surface of the digestive tract at the resolution of a single cell or capture three-dimensional cross sections a couple of millimeters deep.

The technology has several applications; at MGH it’s being used to screen for Barrett’s esophagus, a precursor of esophageal cancer. For EED, Tearney’s team has developed an even smaller version for use in infants who can’t swallow a pill. It’s been tested on adolescents in Pakistan, where EED is prevalent, and infant testing is planned for 2019.

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The little probe will help researchers answer questions about EED’s development—such as which cells it affects and whether bacteria are involved—and evaluate interventions and potential treatments. —Courtney Humphries

Custom cancer vaccines

Paper Boat Creative | Getty
Custom Cancer Vaccines
  • Why it matters Conventional chemotherapies take a heavy toll on healthy cells and aren’t always effective against tumors
  • Key players BioNTech
    Genentech
  • Availability In human testing

The treatment incites the body’s natural defenses to destroy only cancer cells by identifying mutations unique to each tumor

Scientists are on the cusp of commercializing the first personalized cancer vaccine. If it works as hoped, the vaccine, which triggers a person’s immune system to identify a tumor by its unique mutations, could effectively shut down many types of cancers.

By using the body’s natural defenses to selectively destroy only tumor cells, the vaccine, unlike conventional chemotherapies, limits damage to healthy cells. The attacking immune cells could also be vigilant in spotting any stray cancer cells after the initial treatment.

The possibility of such vaccines began to take shape in 2008, five years after the Human Genome Project was completed, when geneticists published the first sequence of a cancerous tumor cell.

Soon after, investigators began to compare the DNA of tumor cells with that of healthy cells—and other tumor cells. These studies confirmed that all cancer cells contain hundreds if not thousands of specific mutations, most of which are unique to each tumor.

A few years later, a German startup called BioNTech provided compelling evidence that a vaccine containing copies of these mutations could catalyze the body’s immune system to produce T cells primed to seek out, attack, and destroy all cancer cells harboring them.

In December 2017, BioNTech began a large test of the vaccine in cancer patients, in collaboration with the biotech giant Genentech. The ongoing trial is targeting at least 10 solid cancers and aims to enroll upwards of 560 patients at sites around the globe.

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The two companies are designing new manufacturing techniques to produce thousands of personally customized vaccines cheaply and quickly. That will be tricky because creating the vaccine involves performing a biopsy on the patient’s tumor, sequencing and analyzing its DNA, and rushing that information to the production site. Once produced, the vaccine needs to be promptly delivered to the hospital; delays could be deadly. —Adam Piore

The cow-free burger

Bruce Peterson/Styling: Monica Mariano
The cow-free burger
  • Why it matters Livestock production causes catastrophic deforestation, water pollution, and greenhouse-gas emissions
  • Key players Beyond Meat
    Impossible Foods
  • Availability Plant-based now; lab-grown around 2020

Both lab-grown and plant-based alternatives approximate the taste and nutritional value of real meat without the environmental devastation.

The UN expects the world to have 9.8 billion people by 2050. And those people are getting richer. Neither trend bodes well for climate change—especially because as people escape poverty, they tend to eat more meat.

By that date, according to the predictions, humans will consume 70% more meat than they did in 2005. And it turns out that raising animals for human consumption is among the worst things we do to the environment.

Depending on the animal, producing a pound of meat protein with Western industrialized methods requires 4 to 25 times more water, 6 to 17 times more land, and 6 to 20 times more fossil fuels than producing a pound of plant protein.

The problem is that people aren’t likely to stop eating meat anytime soon. Which means lab-grown and plant-based alternatives might be the best way to limit the destruction.

Making lab-grown meat involves extracting muscle tissue from animals and growing it in bioreactors. The end product looks much like what you’d get from an animal, although researchers are still working on the taste. Researchers at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, who are working to produce lab-grown meat at scale, believe they’ll have a lab-grown burger available by next year. One drawback of lab-grown meat is that the environmental benefits are still sketchy at best—a recent World Economic Forum report says the emissions from lab-grown meat would be only around 7% less than emissions from beef production.

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The better environmental case can be made for plant-based meats from companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods (Bill Gates is an investor in both companies), which use pea proteins, soy, wheat, potatoes, and plant oils to mimic the texture and taste of animal meat.

Beyond Meat has a new 26,000-square-foot (2,400-square-meter) plant in California and has already sold upwards of 25 million burgers from 30,000 stores and restaurants. According to an analysis by the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan, a Beyond Meat patty would probably generate 90% less in greenhouse-gas emissions than a conventional burger made from a cow. —Markkus Rovito

Carbon dioxide catcher

Nico Ortega
Carbon dioxide catcher
  • Why it matters Removing CO2 from the atmosphere might be one of the last viable ways to stop catastrophic climate change
  • Key players Carbon Engineering
    Climeworks
    Global Thermostat
  • Availability 5-10 years

Practical and affordable ways to capture carbon dioxide from the air can soak up excess greenhouse-gas emissions.

Even if we slow carbon dioxide emissions, the warming effect of the greenhouse gas can persist for thousands of years. To prevent a dangerous rise in temperatures, the UN’s climate panel now concludes, the world will need to remove as much as 1 trillion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere this century.

In a surprise finding last summer, Harvard climate scientist David Keith calculated that machines could, in theory, pull this off for less than $100 a ton, through an approach known as direct air capture. That’s an order of magnitude cheaper than earlier estimates that led many scientists to dismiss the technology as far too expensive—though it will still take years for costs to fall to anywhere near that level.

But once you capture the carbon, you still need to figure out what to do with it.

Carbon Engineering, the Canadian startup Keith cofounded in 2009, plans to expand its pilot plant to ramp up production of its synthetic fuels, using the captured carbon dioxide as a key ingredient. (Bill Gates is an investor in Carbon Engineering.)

Zurich-based Climeworks’s direct air capture plant in Italy will produce methane from captured carbon dioxide and hydrogen, while a second plant in Switzerland will sell carbon dioxide to the soft-drinks industry. So will Global Thermostat of New York, which finished constructing its first commercial plant in Alabama last year.

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Still, if it’s used in synthetic fuels or sodas, the carbon dioxide will mostly end up back in the atmosphere. The ultimate goal is to lock greenhouse gases away forever. Some could be nested within products like carbon fiber, polymers, or concrete, but far more will simply need to be buried underground, a costly job that no business model seems likely to support.

In fact, pulling CO2 out of the air is, from an engineering perspective, one of the most difficult and expensive ways of dealing with climate change. But given how slowly we’re reducing emissions, there are no good options left. —James Temple

An ECG on your wrist

Bruce Peterson

Regulatory approval and technological advances are making it easier for people to continuously monitor their hearts with wearable devices.

Fitness trackers aren’t serious medical devices. An intense workout or loose band can mess with the sensors that read your pulse. But an electrocardiogram—the kind doctors use to diagnose abnormalities before they cause a stroke or heart attack— requires a visit to a clinic, and people often fail to take the test in time.

ECG-enabled smart watches, made possible by new regulations and innovations in hardware and software, offer the convenience of a wearable device with something closer to the precision of a medical one.

An Apple Watch–compatible band from Silicon Valley startup AliveCor that can detect atrial fibrillation, a frequent cause of blood clots and stroke, received clearance from the FDA in 2017. Last year, Apple released its own FDA-cleared ECG feature, embedded in the watch itself.

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The health-device company Withings also announced plans for an ECG-equipped watch shortly after.
Current wearables still employ only a single sensor, whereas a real ECG has 12. And no wearable can yet detect a heart attack as it’s happening.

But this might change soon. Last fall, AliveCor presented preliminary results to the American Heart Association on an app and two-­sensor system that can detect a certain type of heart attack. —Karen Hao

Sanitation without sewers

TheDman | Getty
Sanitation without sewers
  • Why it matters 2.3 billion people lack safe sanitation, and many die as a result
  • Key players Duke University
    University of South Florida
    Biomass Controls
    California Institute of Technology
  • Availability 1-2 years

Energy-efficient toilets can operate without a sewer system and treat waste on the spot.

About 2.3 billion people don’t have good sanitation. The lack of proper toilets encourages people to dump fecal matter into nearby ponds and streams, spreading bacteria, viruses, and parasites that can cause diarrhea and cholera. Diarrhea causes one in nine child deaths worldwide.

Now researchers are working to build a new kind of toilet that’s cheap enough for the developing world and can not only dispose of waste but treat it as well.

In 2011 Bill Gates created what was essentially the X Prize in this area—the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge. Since the contest’s launch, several teams have put prototypes in the field. All process the waste locally, so there’s no need for large amounts of water to carry it to a distant treatment plant.

Most of the prototypes are self-contained and don’t need sewers, but they look like traditional toilets housed in small buildings or storage containers. The NEWgenerator toilet, designed at the University of South Florida, filters out pollutants with an anaerobic membrane, which has pores smaller than bacteria and viruses. Another project, from Connecticut-based Biomass Controls, is a refinery the size of a shipping container; it heats the waste to produce a carbon-rich material that can, among other things, fertilize soil.

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One drawback is that the toilets don’t work at every scale. The Biomass Controls product, for example, is designed primarily for tens of thousands of users per day, which makes it less well suited for smaller villages. Another system, developed at Duke University, is meant to be used only by a few nearby homes.

So the challenge now is to make these toilets cheaper and more adaptable to communities of different sizes. “It’s great to build one or two units,” says Daniel Yeh, an associate professor at the University of South Florida, who led the NEWgenerator team. “But to really have the technology impact the world, the only way to do that is mass-produce the units.” —Erin Winick

Smooth-talking AI assistants

Bruce Peterson
Smooth-talking AI assistants
  • Why it matters AI assistants can now perform conversation-based tasks like booking a restaurant reservation or coordinating a package drop-off rather than just obey simple commands
  • Key players Google
    Alibaba
    Amazon
  • Availability 1-2 years

New techniques that capture semantic relationships between words are making machines better at understanding natural language.

We’re used to AI assistants—Alexa playing music in the living room, Siri setting alarms on your phone—but they haven’t really lived up to their alleged smarts. They were supposed to have simplified our lives, but they’ve barely made a dent. They recognize only a narrow range of directives and are easily tripped up by deviations.

But some recent advances are about to expand your digital assistant’s repertoire. In June 2018, researchers at OpenAI developed a technique that trains an AI on unlabeled text to avoid the expense and time of categorizing and tagging all the data manually. A few months later, a team at Google unveiled a system called BERT that learned how to predict missing words by studying millions of sentences. In a multiple-choice test, it did as well as humans at filling in gaps.

These improvements, coupled with better speech synthesis, are letting us move from giving AI assistants simple commands to having conversations with them. They’ll be able to deal with daily minutiae like taking meeting notes, finding information, or shopping online.

Some are already here. Google Duplex, the eerily human-like upgrade of Google Assistant, can pick up your calls to screen for spammers and telemarketers. It can also make calls for you to schedule restaurant reservations or salon appointments.

In China, consumers are getting used to Alibaba’s AliMe, which coordinates package deliveries over the phone and haggles about the price of goods over chat.

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But while AI programs have gotten better at figuring out what you want, they still can’t understand a sentence. Lines are scripted or generated statistically, reflecting how hard it is to imbue machines with true language understanding. Once we cross that hurdle, we’ll see yet another evolution, perhaps from logistics coordinator to babysitter, teacher—or even friend? —Karen Hao

Healthcare firms go for the hybrid cloud approach with compliance and connectivity key

Commentary by James Bourne, Editor-in-Chief, TechForge Media for Cloud Tech News
18 February 2019, 14:02 p.m.

 

It continues to be a hybrid cloud-dominated landscape – and according to new research one of the traditionally toughest industries in terms of cloud adoption is now seeing it as a priority.

A report from enterprise cloud provider Nutanix has found that in two years’ time, more than a third (37%) of healthcare organisations polled said they would deploy hybrid cloud. This represents a major increase from less than a fifth (19%) today.

The study, which polled more than 2,300 IT decision makers, including 345 global healthcare organisations, found more than a quarter (28%) of respondents saw security and compliance as the number one factor in choosing where to run workloads. It’s not entirely surprising. All data can be seen as equal, but healthcare is certainly an industry where the data which comes from it is more equal than others. Factor in compliance initiatives, particularly HIPAA, and it’s clear to see how vital the security message is.

Yet another key area is around IT spending. The survey found healthcare organisations were around 40% over budget when it came to public cloud spend, compared to a 35% average for other industries. Organisations polled who currently use public cloud spend around a quarter (26%) of their annual IT budget on it – a number which is expected to rise to 35% in two years.

Healthcare firms see ERP and CRM, analytics, containers and IoT – the latter being an evident one for connected medical devices – as important use cases for public cloud. The average penetration in healthcare is just above the global score. 88% of those polled said they see hybrid cloud to positively impact their businesses – yet skills are a major issue, behind only AI and machine learning as an area where healthcare firms are struggling for talent.

It is certainly an area where the largest vendors have been targeting in recent months. Amazon Web Services (AWS) announced in September a partnership with Accenture and Merck to build a cloud-based informatics research platform aiming to help life sciences organisations explore drug development. Google took the opportunity at healthcare conference HiMSS to launch a new cloud healthcare API, focusing on data types such as HL7, FHIR and DICOM.

Naturally, Nutanix is also in the business of helping healthcare organisations with their cloud migrations. Yet increased maturity across the industry will make for interesting reading. The healthcare IT stack of the future will require different workloads in different areas, with connectivity the key. More than half of those polled said ‘inter-cloud application mobility’ was essential going forward.

“Healthcare organisations especially need the flexibility, ease of management and security that the cloud delivers, and this need will only become more prominent as attacks on systems become more advanced, compliance regulations more stringent, and data storage needs more demanding,” said Chris Kozup, Nutanix SVP of global marketing. “As our findings predict, healthcare organisations are bullish on hybrid cloud growth for their core applications and will continue to see it as the ideal solution as we usher in the next era of healthcare.

“With the cloud giving way to new technologies and tools such as machine learning and automation, we expect to see positive changes leading to better healthcare solutions in the long run,” Kozup added.

Photo by Hush Naidoo on Unsplash
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