Broadband and Medicine

Caduceus.svgI think it’s been at least fifteen years since I first began hearing that one of the major benefits of broadband will be improved health care. Yet, except for a few places that are doing telemedicine well, for the average person none of this has yet come to pass. But now I think we are at the cusp of finally seeing medical applications that will need broadband. Following are some areas where we ought to soon see real applications:

Letting the Elderly Stay in Their Homes Longer. This is the holy grail of future medicine products because surveys have shown that a huge majority of Americans want to stay in their homes as long as possible, and die in their homes when it’s time.  There is no one solution that can solve this problem, but a whole suite of technologies and solutions working together – and the good news is that there are now more than a hundred companies looking for ways to make this work.

All solutions for the elderly begin with smart monitoring systems. This means video cameras and sensors of all sorts that look for problems. Medical monitors will monitor vital signs. Smart sensors will track an elderly person and alert somebody if that person doesn’t move for a while. Reminder systems will make sure medications are taken on time. Virtual reality will help homebound elderly to keep in touch with caregivers and to have an active social life from home. Robots can help with physical tasks. The key to a good product is one that ties all of these things together into a package that people can afford (or that is at least less costly than the alternatives). My guess is that we are only a few years away from these packages finally being a reality.

Medical Diagnosis with Artificial Intelligence. IBM’s Big Blue has already demonstrated that it is better than most doctors and nurses at diagnosing medical conditions, with the added benefit that Big Blue generally catches rare diagnoses that doctors tend to not consider. There are already a number of companies working on integrating this into clinics, but this is also going to be taken online so that patients can be screened before even coming to see a doctor. IBM isn’t the only possible solution; companies like Google and Microsoft are now selling time on their AI platforms.

Virtual Reality and Telemedicine. One of the biggest drawbacks today to telemedicine is that a doctor can’t really get a good look at a patient in as much detail as they can in a live visit. But with big bandwidth and virtual reality technology doctors will soon be able to see patients in 3D and in close-up detail, which is going to make telemedicine a lot more accurate and usable. And combining this technology with some sort of medical monitor to supply vital signs can allow for easy treatment of most problems. But this is going to require big bandwidth at homes as well as a big data pipe between the remote community and the doctors.

Nanobots. A lot of future treatment of diseases is going to involve nanobots in the bloodstream. These will be tiny devices that deliver medicine specifically to the areas of the body that need it, are engineered to attack specific viruses or germs, or that monitor ongoing health issues closely. There are researchers who believe that we will carry nanobots with us at all time – to fend off cancer, treat diseases like the common cold before we have any symptoms, to rejuvenate cells, and to act as an early warning system for anything unusual.  There are already nanobot treatments for cancer being tested. We clearly will need to monitor nanobots and that means a reliable broadband connection and specific kinds of sensors.

The Future is Almost Here

Alexander_Crystal_SeerIt seems there has been a flip sometime in the last few years in how quickly predictions made by futurists have become reality. It has historically been the case that new technologies have taken longer to come to fruition than what visionaries imagined. But lately, I have read numerous articles from futurists saying that they are seeing just the opposite, and that things are becoming reality now much faster than what any experts has predicted.

I have heard for years that the rate of acceleration of the growth of human knowledge is getting faster all the time. I may be remembering the quote wrong, but I recall an article I read a few years ago that claimed that the knowledge mankind has gained in just the last few years is greater than all of the knowledge that has been gathered in all of mankind’s history.

That is an amazing claim, but there is a lot of evidence that it’s true. Consider this article that talks about the major scientific announcements that have been made public just in January and February of this year. The list is astounding. Here are just a few of the things on that list:

  • Scientists have discovered teixobactin, the first new antibiotic in 30 years.
  • The first map of the human epigenome has been completed: these are the switches that can turn individual genes in our DNA on and off.
  • There is a new electron microscope that can see individual atoms.
  • Physicists have found a way to accelerate particles to nearly the speed of light without the application of any external forces.
  • Researches have been able to grow human skeletal material in the lab that acts just like the real thing.
  • Stem cells have been used to create cells that can grow human hair.
  • Astronomers have found a black hole that is 12 billion times as massive as our sun.
  • Cosmologists have developed a new physics model that suggests there was no big bang and that the universe has existed forever.
  • Scientists believe there are two more planets beyond Pluto.

Every one of these claims is a big breakthrough, and yet there are so many scientific discoveries being made that most of them barely get any press. I follow tech and science and I had not heard of nearly a third of the items on this list.

I was always interested in science as a kid and I remember even at a young age avidly reading articles in places like Life Magazine that talked about the discovery of how DNA worked, the invention of polymers, or finding the early hominid Lucy fossils. It seemed like there was a major scientific breakthrough a few times each year and such things got wide coverage. As I got a little older I would read Scientific American and other sources of information about science and would see the same thing. There was progress here and there in scientific fields, but nowhere at the pace of what we are seeing today. I have no idea today how scientists stay current since there is so much happening in so many fields. It’s always been understood that any important discovery often leads to progress in other fields of study as scientists understand the implications of various discoveries.

Certainly there are good reasons for the breakthroughs today. Probably first is that we have better tools. We are able to look deeper in space with amazing light and radio telescopes; we can look at smaller things with electron microscopes. And with modern computers, we can crunch the data from experiments faster and more accurately. Science for many years was more about handling the data from studies than it was about doing the actual research.

What is most amazing is how un-amazing this all seems. Twenty or thirty years ago most of the above recent announcements would have been major news. But when we are bombarded by amazing discoveries every time we browse news articles, the amazement gets a bit dulled.

The real excitement for me is all of the areas of research that are getting close to major discoveries. Just in the medical area there are breakthroughs expected in areas like cryonics (keeping people in suspended animation), nanobots for fighting cancer and other diseases from inside the bloodstream, laboratory-made replacement organs, reversing or halting aging, and brain and memory enhancement. And every field of science and technology has its own similar list of amazing things that will probably become reality within just a few years.