Digital Medicine

With a processing speed of one trillion arithmetical floating point operations per second (1 teraflops) Intel’s latest computer chip is equivalent to a building-sized, 10,000-Pentium-chip supercomputer built a mere 14 years ago. Given such exponentially accelerating power, it should come as no surprise that the Beholder (as  in ”Beauty is in the eye of…) is now a computer that can judge the artistic quality of photographs.

Whether or not the world can wrap its collective brain around the mind-boggling philosophical implications of this development, there is no question that most of the world does manage to keep up with some pretty mind-boggling applications of computing (for a recent example, one that diagnoses a smartphone user’s specific form of hearing loss then adjusts the phone’s audio output signal to compensate for the hearing loss.)

I say “most” of the world: The exception is the healthcare industry, including the health insurance segment, which acts as though computing were some new-fangled surprise to be kept at arms-length for a few decades. But—gosh golly!—in a foolhardy rush to the front of the pack, Aetna has discovered that computer games can actually be used to make people healthier! (Oh, and boost profits, by the way.)

As it dawns on health insurers that computers might have a role to play in augmenting the health and care of humans (and not just a role in making them richer by processing claims more efficiently) others are figuring out (for example) how to replace the cane and the seeing-eye dog for the blind with a “Kinecthesia belt” based on the Kinect game system.

Some are even figuring out how to use human computation to augment computer intelligence.[1] Another way to augment computer intelligence might be to architect chips the way our brain circuits are architected, as indeed has just been done, in the form of a “brain chip” that simulates the neural synapse, ion channels and all. A benefit to healthcare is that the chip will be good for modeling and therefore understanding brain functions. But perhaps it could also be used for building robot brains, to go with the robot beauty of the most lifelike, hip-swinging, female android to date. The result could be a brainy, beautiful and quite real robot physical therapist.

Whichever direction the augmentation flows—from computer to human or vice versa—the BMI (Brain–Machine Interface) is of course the vital connector and conduit.[2] A new material that wraps around the neocortex is an interesting BMI candidate because it can monitor brain signals in unprecedented detail. Its initial use is to study brain activity in epilepsy patients. If it were coupled with our new ability to read brain signals in a moving person, then the possibilities for helping paralyzed patients to control exoskeletons enabling them to walk and use their hands and arms would be that much stronger.

Personalized & Regenerative Medicine

We need personalized medicine desperately, as the FDA’s revocation last week of Avastin as an approved breast cancer therapy shows. To throw out a drug that works for some people, but does not work for everyone, is to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Spinal cord injury patients are also in desperate need, but their baby—a stem cell therapy trial that had high hopes of success—was halted by Geron for financial reasons.

But for every setback, there are a dozen steps forward. Here are some:

Genesis Redux

And Science looked out upon the darkness of the Deep and said: Let There Be Light!

And, by golly, there was!

See you next week!


[1] The use of human computation to augment computers also has deep philosophical significance because it shows definitively that the boot is in the process of being transferred to the other foot—the other foot being robotic. If you want to learn more about the philosophical implications of emergent machine intelligence, please read my book.

[2] In my book, I argue the augmentation flows both ways.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *