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

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Putting the Social back... and forth

In the year 2006 'google' was officially declared a verb in Oxford Dictionary and Merriam Webster. But startups have not given up on building search engines. That same year Facebook opened its doors to users over the age of 13, preparing for exponential growth spurt. The list of startups working on yet another social network and lining up to present their sites at Silicon Valley New Tech Meetup kept growing too. And so were the crowds attending the meetups - as everybody wanted to see the next Google or Facebook. Or get a free pizza.

In 2009, it looked like both search and social bubbles were bursting. At least judging by the pitches and taglines. Favorite startup words now were mobile, twitter and monetization. 2009 was, indeed, the year of mobile, twitter... and ponzi schemes. It was the year when Waze Mobile launched internationally and Tumblr released their iPhone app. 

But the Social Digital era has only just begun.  Web was still ripe for more social experience and new startups were fighting for the audience, and fighting against the audience fatigue. The question was whether they could build a business off that audience or whether that audience will be worth an acquisition by the likes of Google or Yahoo. 

From dancing in the 90s to clicking in the 2010s
Shifting focus of social networks, as judged by the SVNEWTech pitches 
The common uses of social networking are promotion (personal or business-related), learning and entertainment. Text was the starting point for broadcasting and marketing ourselves via the Internet. Technologies were evolving and, as shown in the graph below, so were audio- and visual features of social networks, until they merged into video and movie-sharing capabilities.  GPS-enabled smartphones gave rise to location-based services and networks focused on "local" - places, rideshares and travel information. Networks could serve as a self-updating address book and their purpose was shifting from keeping in touch with old friends to finding new ones, increasingly focusing on finding business partners and opportunities. Startups were transitioning from virtual worlds to virtual goods, becoming less interested in just chatting vs learning something useful, and more interested in handling money - from social lending, to fundraising and "helping retailers to serve us better". 

What's next? Despite the challenging funding climate, Silicon Valley startups will keep trying new things, mixing and matching new needs and technologies. After all, the combinations provide endless choices, and the possibilities are endless. 


Cantor M, & Whitehead H (2013). The interplay between social networks and culture: theoretically and among whales and dolphins. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences, 368 (1618) PMID: 23569288

Panek, Elliot T., Yioryos Nardis, and Sara Konrath. "Defining social networking sites and measuring their use: How narcissists differ in their use of Facebook and Twitter." Computers in Human Behavior 29.5 (2013): 2004-2012.

Doreian, Patrick, and Frans Stokman, eds. Evolution of social networks. Vol. 1. Routledge, 2013.

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