All posts by Emily Waltz

Halting COVID-19: The Benefits and Risks of Digital Contact Tracing

Post Syndicated from Emily Waltz original https://spectrum.ieee.org/the-human-os/biomedical/ethics/halting-covid19-benefits-risks-digital-contact-tracing

As COVID-19 sweeps through the planet, a number of researchers have advocated the use of digital contact tracing to reduce the spread of the disease. The controversial technique can be effective, but can have disastrous consequences if not implemented with proper privacy checks and encryption. 

Ramesh Raskar, an associate professor at MIT Media Lab, and his team have developed an app called Private Kit: Safe Paths that they say can do the job while protecting privacy. The software could get integrated into a new, official WHO app touted as the “Waze  for COVID-19.” IEEE Spectrum spoke with Raskar to better understand the risks and benefits of digital contact tracing. 

Big Data Helps Taiwan Fight Coronavirus

Post Syndicated from Emily Waltz original https://spectrum.ieee.org/the-human-os/biomedical/devices/big-data-helps-taiwan-fight-coronavirus

In late January, as the novel coronavirus began spreading through China, computer scientists modeling the outbreak ranked Taiwan the region with the second highest risk of importation of the virus. The island sits just 130 km off the coast of mainland China and shuttles thousands of passengers to and from the mainland daily.

But so far Taiwan reports that it has largely mitigated the spread of the pathogen. Fewer than 50 cases of the coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19, had been confirmed on the island as of March 11. South Korea, by contrast, had confirmed nearly 8,000 cases.

Taiwan owes its success largely to the emergency implementation of big data analytics and new technologies, according to a recent report in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA)authored by individuals in California and Taipei.

Taiwan officials from the beginning of the viral outbreak “did a very detailed mapping of who got it from whom,” and were able to stop a lot of transmission early, says Chih-Hung Jason Wang, director of the Center for Policy, Outcomes and Prevention at Stanford University, who co-authored the opinion article.

Notably, officials integrated Taiwan’s national health insurance database with its immigration and customs database. This enabled the government to track the 14-day travel histories and symptoms of its citizens, nearly all of whom have an identifying national health insurance (NHI) card. All hospitals, clinics and pharmacies were given access to this information for each patient.

Taiwan restricted entry for foreign travelers from the most affected regions, and for those allowed entry, officials tracked them with mobile technologies. Foreign visitors are asked to scan a QR code that takes them to an online health declaration form where they provide contact information and symptoms. People placed under quarantine are given government-issued mobile phones and monitored with calls and visits.

“They incentivized people to be truthful” on their health declaration forms, says Wang. “If you are placed in the high risk group, the government will help you get care. If you get sick by yourself, you’ll have to wander around the hospital trying to get help.”

Taiwan also relied on old-fashioned face-to-face check-ins. Households were grouped into wards, or sections, and a chief was named for each ward. “So [authorities] will say to the chief, ‘There’s a person under quarantine in your ward, why don’t you go check on them and bring them some food,’” says Wang. “In an epidemic, you have to be nice to people, otherwise they’ll hide their symptoms.”

To manage resources, Taiwanese officials used IT to estimate the region’s supply of masks, negative pressure isolation rooms, and other health provisions. They set price limits on masks and rationed them using individuals’ NHI cards and an online ordering mechanism. Soldiers were sent to work at mask factories to ramp up production.

Overseeing all the action is the National Health Command Center. “They set that up in a compound on the seventh floor of Taiwan’s Centers for Disease Control,” says Wang. “There are data analysts in there and reporters; it can host up to a hundred people 24/7.”

These actions are part of Taiwan’s emergency epidemic response plan, which it devised after the 2003 SARS outbreak in China. Under Taiwan’s Communicable Disease Control Act, in the event of a crisis, officials can activate the plan, giving the government powers it wouldn’t normally have.

Taiwanese officials activated the emergency plan January 20 and since then have implemented over 124 action items, according to the JAMA report.

Penalties for noncompliance with the temporary orders are steep. Profiteering off prevention products like masks, or spreading false information about COVID-19 can bring a penalty of years in jail and fines over a hundred thousand US dollars. One couple was fined USD $10,000 for breaking a 14-day quarantine rule. Three Hong Kong visitors who “disappeared for a week” were tracked down, fined USD $2,350 each, and transferred to designated quarters for medical isolation, according to the JAMA report.

Taiwan’s heavy-handed government actions might not go over well in a country such as the United States. But Wang says the measures, so far, have been well received in Taiwan, in part because they were planned ahead and implemented on a temporary basis.

He and his coauthors write that it is unclear “whether the intensive nature of these policies can be maintained until the end of the epidemic and continue to be well-received by the public.”

Taiwan’s emergency measures have probably not halted community-based transmission of COVID-19. Like the rest of the world, the number of officially confirmed cases in Taiwan is likely far fewer than the true number on the ground, since there are people who have the disease and don’t know it, or have such mild symptoms that they don’t seek care or get tested. “It’s impossible not to have more cases,” says Wang.

Software and Genetic Sequencing Track the Coronavirus’s Path

Post Syndicated from Emily Waltz original https://spectrum.ieee.org/the-human-os/biomedical/devices/genetic-sequencing-and-online-software-tools-track-caronaviruss-path

As the deadly new coronavirus permeates the planet, scientists are using genetic sequencing and an open-source software tool to track its transmission. 

The software tool, called Nextstrain, can’t predict where the virus is going next. But it can tell us where new cases of the virus are coming from. That’s crucial information for health officials globally, who are trying to determine whether new cases are arriving in their countries through international travel, or being transmitted locally.

This type of analysis, called genomic epidemiology, “is extremely valuable to public health,” says James Hadfield, a computational scientist working on Nextstrain. “The sooner we can turn around this data, the better the response can be.”

The novel coronavirus, which causes the respiratory disease COVID-19, first emerged in December in China, where it has infected over 80,000 people. It has since spread to more than 85 countries [PDF], with the largest concentrations of cases so far in South Korea, Iran, and Italy. More than 250 cases had been confirmed in the United States at press time. 

How Computer Scientists Are Trying to Predict the Coronavirus’ Next Moves

Post Syndicated from Emily Waltz original https://spectrum.ieee.org/the-human-os/biomedical/devices/predicting-the-coronavirus-next-moves

Computer scientists tracking the deadly coronavirus epidemic have been working diligently to predict the virus’ next moves. The novel virus, which causes a respiratory illness dubbed COVID-19, has taken the lives of more than 2,100 people. It first emerged in December in the Chinese city of Wuhan, and has since infected more than 75,000 people, mostly in China. The numbers of new cases have begun to drop in China, but concern is growing over expanding outbreaks of COVID-19 in Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Thailand. 

Alessandro Vespignani, a computer scientist at Northeastern University in Boston who has developed predictive models of the epidemic, spoke with IEEE Spectrum about computational efforts to thwart a global pandemic. His team has developed a tool, called EpiRisk, that estimates the probability that infected individuals will spread the disease to other areas of the world via travel. The tool also tracks the effectiveness of travel bans.

Mum No More: 3D Printed Vocal Tract Lets Mummy Speak

Post Syndicated from Emily Waltz original https://spectrum.ieee.org/the-human-os/biomedical/bionics/mummy-3d-printed-vocal-tract

The coffin that holds the mummified body of the ancient Egyptian Nesyamun, who lived around 1100 B.C., expresses the man’s desire for his voice to live on. Now, 3,000 years after his death, that wish has come true.

Using a 3D-printed replica of Nesyamun’s vocal tract and an electronic larynx, researchers in the UK have synthesized the dead man’s voice. The researchers described the feat today in the journal Scientific Reports

“We’ve created sound for Nesyamun’s vocal tract exactly as it is positioned in his coffin,” says David Howard, head of the department of electrical engineering at Royal Holloway University of London, who coauthored the report. “We didn’t choose the sound. It is the sound the tract makes.”

How Do Neural Implants Work?

Post Syndicated from Emily Waltz original https://spectrum.ieee.org/the-human-os/biomedical/devices/what-is-neural-implant-neuromodulation-brain-implants-electroceuticals-neuralink-definition-examples

It sounds like science fiction, but a neural implant could, many years from now, read and edit a person’s thoughts. Neural implants are already being used to treat disease, rehabilitate the body after injury, improve memory, communicate with prosthetic limbs, and more. 

The U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) have devoted hundreds of millions of dollars in funding toward this sector. Independent research papers on the topic appear in top journals almost weekly.

Here, we describe types of neural implants, explain how neural implants work, and provide examples demonstrating what these devices can do. 

Are Your Students Bored? This AI Could Tell You

Post Syndicated from Emily Waltz original https://spectrum.ieee.org/the-human-os/biomedical/devices/ai-tracks-emotions-in-the-classroom

Journal Watch report logo, link to report landing page

A professor finishes a lecture and checks his computer. A software program shows that most students lost interest about 30 minutes into the lecture—around the time he went on a tangent. The professor makes a note to stop going on tangents.

The technology for this fictional classroom scene doesn’t yet exist, but scientists are working toward making it a reality. In a paper published this month in IEEE Transactions on Visualization and Computer Graphics, researchers described an artificial intelligence (AI) system that analyzes students’ emotions based on video recordings of the students’ facial expressions.

The system “provides teachers with a quick and convenient measure of the students’ engagement level in a class,” says Huamin Qu, a computer scientist at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, who co-authored the paper. “Knowing whether the lectures are too hard and when students get bored can help improve teaching.”

With DNA Data Storage, 3D-Printed Bunnies Carry Their Own Blueprints

Post Syndicated from Emily Waltz original https://spectrum.ieee.org/the-human-os/biomedical/devices/dna-of-things

Every living thing contains DNA that provides the codes for its existence, and now inanimate objects can have that, too.

In a paper published today in Nature Biotechnology, researchers described how they 3D printed a bunny-shaped trinket that contained DNA encoding the digital instructions for its fabrication. That means that tomorrow, or a thousand years from now, someone could, with merely a piece of that bunny, decode the DNA stored in it, and learn exactly what the trinket looked like, or even 3D print a clone.

The experiment demonstrates that digital information can be stored as DNA in free-form objects. One might call it the DNA of things. 

DARPA Seeks Pathogen Detectors That Use CRISPR to Run 1,000 Tests at Once

Post Syndicated from Emily Waltz original https://spectrum.ieee.org/the-human-os/biomedical/diagnostics/darpa-wants-scifi-pathogen-detectors

The U.S. Department of Defense has put out a call to researchers to develop devices that detect pathogenic threats by performing up to 1,000 diagnostic tests in fewer than 15 minutes.

The devices ideally would determine the presence of a pathogen, and useful details about it, such as whether it’s a drug resistant variety, the severity of the infection, and any co-infections.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, which makes investments in breakthrough technologies on the military’s behalf, will oversee the initiative. 

Scientists have endeavored to make this sort of diagnose-anything, “Star Trek”-inspired device previously, without a lot of success. But DARPA is betting that new technology that leverages gene-editing techniques can achieve this goal.

If the project budget is approved by the White House, DARPA will be able to award more than US $60 million to proposers. An information session will be held in Atlanta on 11 December. DARPA program manager Renee Wegrzyn spoke with IEEE Spectrum about her vision for the these powerful devices. 

Bionic Pacemaker Controlled By Neural Network Reverses Heart Failure in Rats

Post Syndicated from Emily Waltz original https://spectrum.ieee.org/the-human-os/biomedical/devices/bionic-pacemaker-neural-network-heart-rats

For more than 60 years, the pacemaker—a device implanted in the chest that delivers electrical pulses to the heart—has served as the ticker’s ticker, producing a steady beat for hearts that can’t do it on their own.

The device has prolonged countless lives, but even the most sophisticated pacemakers ignore a significant biological fact: Healthy hearts don’t beat steadily like a metronome. They speed up as we inhale and and slow down as we exhale. 

Focusing on this natural variation, called respiratory sinus arrhythmia, may be the key to improving the pacemaker. “Devices have to listen to feedback from the body,” says Julian Paton, a professor at the University of Bristol, in the UK, who is leading some of the research in this area. “We need smarter devices.”

In a paper published this week in the Journal of Physiology, Paton and his colleagues describe a smarter pacemaker that puts natural variation back into a failing heart, helping it to work more efficiently. 

The device reads the electrical signals generated by each breath, and paces the heart accordingly. In rats with heart failure, the device increased the amount of blood their hearts could pump by 20%, compared with monotonic pacemaking, according to the study. ​

“People are beginning to think about ways in which pacemakers could become more intelligent, but there’s nothing on the market that has demonstrated such a profound increase in heart rate,” says Paton.

Current pacemakers adjust heart rate by responding to changes in the body in relatively rudimentary ways, such as with accelerometers or by detecting increases in body temperature. Some newer devices can pace the heart based on respiration. But those devices track average respiration over a period of time, says Paton. “That’s not what we’re doing. We’re modulating the heart based on every breath,” he says.

The device features a neural-network-based analog chip developed by Paton’s coauthor Alain Nogaret at the University of Bath. In the rat experiments, it recorded electrical activity from the rat’s diaphragm muscles, which contract during inhalation. The chip interprets the signals conveyed to it by a lead in real time using Hodgkin-Huxley equations—mathematical modeling of how action potentials in neurons are initiated and propagated. The device then delivers electrical stimulation to the left atria of the heart, prompting it to beat in sync with breathing. 

The advantage of using an analog device, compared with digital, is that it can respond quickly to changes in input from the body, says Paton. The device is scalable and can be miniaturized to the size of a postage stamp.

If the research progresses to humans, Paton says his team will not need to record signals from the diaphragm muscle. Instead, they will be able to integrate the device into conventional pacemakers, and gauge breathing by measuring electrical changes in chest resistance. 

Paton’s work is among several approaches researchers are taking to modernize the pacemaker. Other groups aim to power pacemakers more efficiently, including powering them with the heart itself, and making them out of graphene so they can run on light. Some groups are developing optical pacemakers using a genetic engineering technique called optogenetics, rather than hardware, to trigger cardiac cell contraction.

Drones: For When Medical Intervention Has to Get There Before an Ambulance Can

Post Syndicated from Emily Waltz original https://spectrum.ieee.org/the-human-os/biomedical/devices/drones-beat-new-york-city-ambulances

Medical drones carrying emergency supplies can reach 911 callers in New York City significantly faster than ambulances, according to new research.

The study pitted commercial drones against emergency medical service  (EMS) serving part of Brooklyn, New York. First responders from EMS arrived on the scene of emergencies in about 9.5 minutes on average during the study period, while the drones arrived in about 6.5 minutes. 

“Three minutes might very well represent the difference between life and death,” says Mark Hanna, a pediatric emergency medicine fellow at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, who orchestrated the study. Hanna presented his results last week at the American Academy of Pediatrics 2019 National Conference and Exhibition in New Orleans.

Online Tool Spotted Vaping Illness Before Gov’t Alerts on e-Cigarette Lung Disease

Post Syndicated from Emily Waltz original https://spectrum.ieee.org/the-human-os/biomedical/diagnostics/online-tool-spotted-vaping-illness-before-government-alerts

Web-scouring algorithms are aiding the surveillance of a deadly vaping-related lung disease. The online tool, called HealthMap, first spotted the disease on 25 July, according to its curators. That’s nearly a month before U.S. federal officials announced an investigation into the e-cigarette–related illness.  

Since then, HealthMap’s case counts have lined up closely to that of the feds at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In its most recent update, which was based on data collected through 8 October, the agency reported 1,299 confirmed and probable cases of the lung illness; HealthMap counted 1,305 up to the same date. 

The accuracy of HealthMap suggests that such web-based tools are a viable addition to traditional surveillance methods. “We see it not as a replacement [to traditional warning systems], but as a supplement,” says Yulin Hswen, a research fellow at Boston Children’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School. “It gives you a more comprehensive picture of everything that’s going on, and in real time,” she says.

App Detects Eye Disease in Personal Photos

Post Syndicated from Emily Waltz original https://spectrum.ieee.org/the-human-os/biomedical/diagnostics/app-detects-eye-disease-in-personal-photos

A smartphone app that monitors personal photos can spot eye diseases more than a year before doctors do, according to a new report published today in the journal Science Advances

Using machine learning, the app searches casual portraits for signs of leukocoria: the appearance of a white reflection in the pupil of the eye. Leukocoria, or “white eye,” looks similar to red eye—that creepy red reflection in the eye that often appears with flash photography. But a red reflection is actually a sign of a healthy eye. A white reflection can be a sign of a problem.   

White eye can indicate retinoblastoma, a type of childhood cancer of the retina, or a handful of other eye disorders, including retinopathy of prematurity, cataracts, or Coats Disease. Catching these disorders early can save an eye, or a life. 

“With retinoblastoma, every month counts,” says Bryan Shaw, an associate professor at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. “Tumors grow rapidly and when you start seeing the white eye, you have about six months to a year before the tumor starts to break up and metastasize down the optic nerve to the brain and kills you.”

Fujifilm SonoSite Wants to Bring AI to Ultrasound

Post Syndicated from Emily Waltz original https://spectrum.ieee.org/the-human-os/biomedical/diagnostics/fujifilm-sonosite-wants-to-bring-ai-to-ultrasound

Have you ever needed an IV and had to undergo multiple pricks before the nurse could find a vein? Technology to avoid that painful trial and error is in the works. Fujifilm’s ultrasound diagnostics arm SonoSite announced yesterday that it had partnered with a startup company to develop artificial intelligence that can interpret ultrasound images on a mobile phone.

The companies say the first target for their AI-enabled ultrasound will be finding veins for IV (intravenous) needle insertion. The technology would enable technicians to hold a simple ultrasound wand over the skin while software on a connected mobile device locates the vein for them.

For this project, Fujifilm SonoSite tapped the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence (AI2), which has an incubator for AI startup companies. “Not only do we have to come up with a very accurate model to analyze the ultrasound videos, but on top of that, we have to make sure the model is working effectively on the limited resources of an android tablet or phone,” says Vu Ha, technical director of the AI2 Incubator.

In an interview with IEEE Spectrum, Ha did not disclose the name of the startup that will be taking on the task, saying the fledgling company is still in “stealth mode.

Ha says the AI2 startup will take on the project in two stages: First, it’ll train a model on ultrasound images without any resource constraints, with the purpose of making it as accurate as possible. Then, the startup will go through a sequence of experiments to simplify the model by reducing the number of hidden layers in the network, and by trimming and compressing the network until it is simple enough to operate on a mobile phone. 

The trick will be to shrink the model without sacrificing too much accuracy, Ha says.

If successful, the device could help clinicians reduce the number of unsuccessful attempts at finding a vein, and enable less trained technicians to start IVs as well. Hospitals that do a large volume of IVs often have highly trained staff capable of eyeballing ultrasound videos and using those images to help them to find small blood vessels. But the number of these highly trained clinicians is very small, says Ha.

“My hope is that with this technology, a less trained person will be able to find veins more reliably” using ultrasound, he says. That could broaden the availability of portable ultrasound to rural and resource-poor areas. 

SonoSite and AI2 are homes to two of the many groups of researchers putting AI to work on medical imaging and diagnostics. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved for commercial use a deep learning algorithm to analyze MRI images of the heart, an AI system that looks for signs of diabetic retinopathy in the images of the retina, an algorithm that analyzes X-ray images for signs of wrist fracture, and software that looks for indicators of stroke in CT images of the brain, to name a few.  

Notably, the FDA in 2017 also approved for commercial use smartphone-based ultrasound technology made by Butterfly. The device, which costs less than $2000, can be used to take sonograms for 13 different clinical applications, including blood vessels. Butterfly has announced publicly that it is developing deep learning–based AI that will assist clinicians with image interpretation. But the company has not yet commercially launched the technology. 

At least four other portable or mobile device–based ultrasound technologies have been approved by the FDA, including that of Fujifilm SonoSite, and the Lumify from Philips

But the adoption of these devices has been relatively slow. As Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, told Spectrum recently, the smartphone ultrasound is a “brilliant engineering advance” that’s “hardly used at all” in the health care system. Complex challenges such as reimbursement, training, and the old habits of clinicians often hinder the uptake of new gadgets, despite engineers’ best efforts. 

What the Media Missed About Elon Musk’s $150 Million Augmented Brain Project

Post Syndicated from Emily Waltz original https://spectrum.ieee.org/the-human-os/biomedical/devices/elon-musks-150-million-augmented-brain-project-what-the-media-missed

Elon Musk’s company Neuralink last week announced a plan to sync our brains with artificial intelligence. Here’s what news outlets overlooked.

Elon Musk is known for trumpeting bold and sometimes brash plans. So it was no surprise last week when the Tesla founder made an announcement—in front of a live audience and streamed online, with a video trailer and thematic music—that his new company Neuralink plans to sync our brains with artificial intelligence. (Don’t worry, he assured the audience, “this is not a mandatory thing.”)

What was surprising was the breathless coverage in most media, which lacked context or appreciation for the two decades of research on which Neuralink’s work stands.