Sky High Wi-Fi

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In many places around the world, Internet connectivity is an almost unheard-of luxury. Roughly 4 billion people have no access to the web. Much of India doesn’t even have functioning lavatories, public or private. Much of the Third World went straight to mobile phones and never developed a copper wire infrastructure, which makes delivering Internet at reasonable speed hard and expensive. What to do?

The answer from two of our online overlords came into closer focus this week when Facebook revealed their Internet drone and Google announced that it was working with Madagascar for that island state to be the first customer for its balloon based platform, Project Loon. In both cases, the idea is to get a platform high enough to beam a laser-based Internet signal to Earth, which can then be distributed through a network of repeating towers to remote towns and villages.

Both projects have a pretty high gee-whiz factor. The Facebook drone has the wingspan of a 737 and in theory, will be able to deliver “tens of Gigabits per second” from twice the height at which a 737 would normally fly. It’s solar powered and pretty much Star Wars awesome. The Loon is a little more pedestrian, but still way cool. Think microwave tower suspended under a Zeppelin.

In principle, all this tech applied to bring the Internet to billions of poor people is a laudable, perhaps noble idea. Communication brings people together. Having access to the world anywhere in the world no matter your status is surely a good thing? But so is clean water, childhood immunization, education for girls and women, the end to genital mutilation, universal health care and contraception…the list goes on.

Whether you like Bill Gates or not, you have to grant that he and his wife have almost single-handedly taken on some of the greatest curses of the poorest people in our world and made a huge difference. They have pretty much eliminated the horrific parasite Guinea Worm, and they are closing in on a bunch of other diseases which plague the world’s poor. They are doing this with well-managed grants; they have donated over $30 Billion so far. I have no idea how many Loons or drones you could get for $30 Billion —a few I’m guessing — but how about we eliminate Malaria first?

The sad fact is that to the narcissistic tech wonders who rule Silicon Valley, Drones and Loons are cool. Malaria, not so much. How about we do the Loons and Drones, but we donate an equal amount to the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation and help them give a reasonable standard of life to the future customers of those Wi-Fi services?

Wearable Meets Medical

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We are all familiar with wearable tech like Fitbit that screams, “Look at me, I’m a jogger! Be impressed by my fitness!” But in reality, they aren’t much use as medical devices. Medical practice has used lab monitoring for many years, but the moment the patient leaves, so does most of the opportunity to monitor the treatment in a meaningful way. That might be changing. The Google X research division — home to Glass and WiFi by balloon — has announced plans for a wearable device designed to monitor patients with the kind of accuracy and reliability medicine would find useful.

It’s a brilliant idea that, in many ways, makes more sense than most of the consumer wearable applications littering the market right now. Initially, they are targeting clinical trials, but I could see this going much wider. Imagine a not-too-distant future where your doctor dispenses prescriptions along with the watch needed to track the efficacy of the treatment in real time. I have no idea which parameters could be tracked without compromising the skin, but we already track things like blood oxygen level and alcohol that way, so I imagine the opportunity is out there.

At first glance, this looks like something of a niche play, but if you factor in the enormous growth in conditions like diabetes and childhood asthma (both of which benefit from constant measurement of critical levels), I wouldn’t be surprised to see the early versions of this kind of tech seeing very rapid adoption. It’s good to see yet another technology imagined in Star Trek becoming reality. Now if only we could figure out matter transportation too.

Counting Calories the Google Way

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We all know that not all food is cooked equal. A fast-food cheeseburger versus one cooked at home contains quite a different nutritional value due to the choice of ingredients used during the preparation process. This is why sometimes counting calories might not necessarily be very accurate, but it is still a good way of getting a rough idea of how much you are consuming.

To aid you with this process, Google has been working on a project that taps into artificial intelligence to help analyze photos of food and give its best bet of the amount of calories there are in that meal.

This technology was recently revealed during the Rework Deep Learning Summit. Dubbed “Im2Calories”, it relies on a camera to analyze the photo. Based on demonstrations, it seems that the system is pretty adept at recognizing the different elements on a plate of food. It also gauged the size of each piece of food in relation to the plate, and also took into consideration any condiments that might have been used.

So how accurate is Im2Calories? At the moment it is unclear as to how close or far the system is from its readings, but Im2Calories is a system which will improve itself through use over time. Even if the technology only works some of the time, as more people begin to use it, the more data will be collected and the more accurate it will become. Im2Calories is designed to improve itself through usage.

At the moment there are apps like MyFitnessPal which has a huge database of different types of food, portion sizes, etc. that users have to enter in manually, but if Im2Calories could speed up the process through automation, more people might ditch the pen, paper, and calculator to figure out how much they are consuming.

Dr. Google?

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Occasionally Google comes up with an idea which is just plain great…and they should get credit for doing that.  According to Google about 5% of searches are in some way health related. What they have just announced is that they will be expanding their Knowledge Graph to include health topics and disease conditions. In case you aren’t a sad search geek like myself the Knowledge Graph is the big box on the right which opens up in the results for a wide range of common searches like dictionary definitions, famous people, places and many popular topics. The search results for health queries is a heavily fought over area. The major drug companies spend enormous amounts of effort in terms of content creation (and paid ads) to secure top placement.  Obviously they have a dog in the hunt and perhaps on many occasions the last person you would want to consult about your health is big Pharma. That’s where this idea hits home. At the moment if you search Google for a medical term you will get back something from some form of online reference like the National Library of Medicine but it’s typically pretty thin.

Google says they will be working with an independent group of doctors from the Mayo Clinic to curate accurate and sensible information about a wide range of health topics and conditions, going further than the thin outline they currently present. Even if the top of the search results is packed with content schilling for the drug barons the Knowledge Graph to the right will give you a sane and trustworthy block of detailed independent information as opposed to marketing hyperbole. It’s a great idea.

3D Printing Finding Its Way Into Orthopedics

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Current casts, which are made of plaster, are not only heavy and uncomfortable, but they also get smelly as they are unable to get wet. 3D-printed casts are the total opposite. The cast revealed last year, called the Cortex cast, was made out of nylon plastic. It was waterproof, lightweight, ventilated, and, once its purpose was served, it could be recycled — not to mention it was also stylish sporting a spider, web-like design. Patients who need it would theoretically get their fracture X-rayed, and then the 3D printer would custom print the cast to the shape of their limb, with extra reinforcement in the injured area.

Deniz Karasahin, the industrial designer behind a similar cast, called the Osteoid medical cast, won this year’s A’Design Award for 3D-printed forms and products. Though his design is similar to the one from last year, it goes a step further, incorporating a bone stimulation system known as low-intensity pulsed ultrasound (LIPUS). The system works by applying “transcutaneous acoustic energy” to the fractured bones, according to a report on LIPUS in the Indian Journal of Orthopedics.

It’s believed that this low-intensity energy causes mechanical stress at the cellular level on both ends of the broken bone, stimulating “molecular and cellular pathways involved in healing.” Meanwhile, other research purports that the energy causes microscopic gas bubbles to develop within the fractured bone. In turn, these bubbles trap the acoustic energy with tissue fluid, causing a chain reaction in which the fluids circulate within, blood pressure rises around the injury, and healing accelerates “by enhancing gas exchange and nutrient delivery.”

Regardless, Karasahin and his team claim that someone who’s using the cast can undergo 20-minute daily sessions with LIPUS to reduce the healing process by 38 percent while increasing the healing rate by as much as 80 percent. Those rates includes fractures that are nonunion, meaning that they fail to heal correctly. That’s good news for the estimated 6.2 million fractures occurring in the U.S. every year, of which five to 10 percent take longer than expected to heal or are nonunion.

The researchers’ next steps are to develop a more effective locking mechanism that’s “strong enough to protect the limb, practical enough to put it on the fragile injured area and simple enough so that it doesn’t disturb the general form of the medical cast.”