Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Curse of the Internet

It's hard to imagine our lives without the
Someone from 1950s appeared today... what's most difficult thing about life to explain to them. A device in pocket capable of accessing all information known to man. Use it to look at pictures of cats and argue with strangers.
Internet  - either mobile or desktop.

The Internet has become a catalyst of innovation, an essential tool in business and social life. It brought new levels of participation and access to knowledge. It enabled new forms of interaction, albeit mostly utilized for entertainment purposes (as in the famous answer of a Reddit user to a now deleted question captured in the figure on the right).

But despite all the advantages and conveniences, does the Internet really serve us or is it the other way around?

Internet companies, large and small, are quietly but forcefully collecting our life's data hoping to have us "on the leash."

If people want to use a web service, the service gets away with almost anything. Google knows about our friendships, content of gmail and google voice conversations. They see the places we go or want to go on maps and how we spend time on millions of websites. Amazon knows about our tastes and interests, phone carriers have nearly minute-by-minute accounts of months and years of our lives, credit card companies are building our psychographic profiles. Target stores can figure out their customers' health conditions before they do... and if you think other companies are better protecting sensitive information (remember the giant data breach?), think again.

Discovered this week, major security flow dubbed "Heartbleed" had existed for over two years. The defect in encryption technology used by many websites and networking equipment makers have put millions of passwords and other sensitive information at risk. Just another reminder of why you should scrutinize the security on the Internet and other web-connected gadgetry.

Vulnerabilities can be found everywhere. The network of a big oil company was hacked through the online menu of a Chinese restaurant popular with employees. Target was breached through its heating and cooling system. Printers, thermostats, videoconferencing equipment, household items, even vending machines and gas pumps can be used to gain access to your data. And so can employees of the companies collecting data. Last year there were multiple cases when stolen patient identification information was used to file unauthorized income tax returns.

Recently published SANS healthcare cyberthreat report reveals that health care networks (hospitals, insurance carriers, pharmaceutical companies, web sites, software and devices) - have been and continue to be compromised by successful cybercriminal attacks. Health networks seem to have the weakest Internet security among sites dealing with sensitive information, often not addressing very basic issues, vulnerable to off-line password guessing and user impersonation attack.

Trust is especially important in health care. As the days of blind trust that 'doctor knows best' are becoming a distant memory, new cases of security breaches can lower the trust further discouraging use of digital health services and disclosure of important medically relevant information.

At present, most digital health products and corporate wellness programs fail both companies and patients. There are many fundamental flaws responsible for that. And the lack of trust is not going to make it any more successful.

Paraphrasing Derek Thompson's passage about Facebook and Amazon, for the Internet of Things for Health and Wellness to succeed, we have to embrace a new version of intimacy that felt natural when the good old-fashioned country doctor made house calls. The machines have to know us. Will we let them?


Pogue D (2014). The curse of the cloud. Scientific American, 310 (2) PMID: 24640327

Wu F, & Xu L (2013). Security analysis and Improvement of a Privacy Authentication Scheme for Telecare Medical Information Systems. Journal of medical systems, 37 (4) PMID: 23818249

The SANS-Norse Healthcare Cyberthreat Report:

Sunday, December 15, 2013

From Cyber Zombiness to Ambient Awareness

Dr. Phlox, the Enterprise surgeon, responded to the comment about movies (aka stories unfold on the screen) by answering: "Well, we had something similar a few hundred years ago, but they lost their appeal when people discovered their real lives were more interesting."

At this stage of our evolution, virtual characters and screens are taking over our lives. We stare at our devices - smartphones, tablets, laptops, TVs - 12 or more hours a day.  We are less fully aware of our surroundings and reality. We already lost many of our ancient abilities - like the ability to recognize certain smells related to survival and identity (check the color wheel bellow). We lost the desire to move fast (see this study about today's kids taking a minute-and-a-half longer to run a mile than kids did in the 1980s or this piece about marathon runners), and are losing fine motor skills - as more children can not hold a pencil.

The average American socializes offline by about 5 minutes less than 10 years ago. And does a little less of everything that involves communicating with the real world. Perhaps this is the reason for headlines like "Completely oblivious cellphone users didn't see a gunman in their midst" or "Americans don't trust each other anymore."

Meanwhile more and more devices are watching everything we do - online and offline. This holiday season, at least a thousand of retailers - from large chain stores to small boutiques will track shoppers' movements in real time using iBeacons, Gimbal sensors and other high tech innovations. Mobile phones will soon be analyzing our emotions, isles in the grocery store and mannequins modeling clothes will be able to scan our faces and offer well-timed in-store commercials and coupons. So will smart TVs and cars. And technology worn by other people - such as google glass or Kapture wristband. And even more technology to watch when we are being watched, so we can smile when on camera. Everything will spy on us and we are gradually becoming used to it, outsourcing self-awareness and self-management to machines.

Will this ever lead to devices bringing real value to human life? And new ways to extend our senses and cognitive abilities, and enrich our daily lives without interfering with them?

Only time will tell.


Colin IM, & Paris I (2013). Glucose meters with built-in automated bolus calculator: gadget or real value for insulin-treated diabetic patients? Diabetes therapy : research, treatment and education of diabetes and related disorders, 4 (1), 1-11 PMID: 23250633

Scott Wallsten (2013). What Are We Not Doing When We're Online The National Bureau of Economic Research DOI: 10.2139/ssrn.1966654

Shoham, A. and Pesämaa, O. (2013), Gadget Loving: A Test of an Integrative Model. Psychol. Mark., 30: 247–262. doi: 10.1002/mar.20602

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Building a 23rd Century Tricorder in the 21st

The $10 million Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize and $2.25 million Nokia Sensing XCHALLENGES are trying to identify the best portable technologies for diagnosing disease - as easily as Dr. McCoy's tricorder of the 23rd Century could. What scientific knowledge could help us to develop it in this age? Detecting metabolites, sensing DNA, imaging the nanoworld of the human body or interaction between matter and energy?

Medical diagnostics was always a multi-modal procedure. Even ancient physicians used optical sensing (observation), audio (auscitation) and olfaction along with interrogation and pattern recognition techniques. "The best diagnostic test" was always different for any given situation.

And the so much sought after tricorder can't be only about a single technological innovation or the right combination of existing measurement technologies, it is also about putting all the pieces together in a system that's smaller, lighter, cheaper, faster, better.

21st-century innovation is proving to be even more prolific than that of the 20th. Too many ideas, too few financially-supported ventures pursuing some of them. Yet, these 12 finalists of Nokia Sensing Challenge give an idea of what technologies are among the most popular. Here's the list:

Diagnostic Device Sensing platform Examples of diagnostic applications
Apollo  Optical - Spectrophotometer Noninvasive glucose monitoring
Holomic Optical - lens-free microscope Blood analysis, HIV monitoring
i-calQ Optical Blood and saliva analysis, Ebola monitoring
InSilixa Electrical Genetic diagnostics
MoboSens Electrical Water pollution monitoring
Gene- RADAR Biochemical Virus detection
Programmable-Bio-Nan-Chip Flluorescence, Immunoassays Heart disease
QUASAR Electromagnetic, ECG Heart disease
Silicon BioDevices Immunoassays Blood analysis
ABUS-urodynamics Ultrasound Disorders of urinary system
Elfi-Tech Occlusion Spectroscopy Noninvasive cardiac monitoring
Owlstone Chemical - Field Asymmetric Ion Mobility Spectrometer Noninvasive glucose monitoring


Waters H (2011). New $10 million X Prize launched for tricorder-style medical device. Nature medicine, 17 (7) PMID: 21738131