Saturday, June 18, 2011

Of maps and medicine

There was a great TED talk posted this month about technologies which make present-day doctors look like trepanners-the guys who did brain surgery with stone tools. Medicines formulated for your DNA, inkjet printers making kidneys, nanobots, that sort of thing. watch on TED

Although genetics undeniably work, chances are small that I'd encounter it unless I was very ill and had an especially thorough doctor. Daniel Kraft, the speaker, has paid a great deal to get details about his DNA, indicating some health probabilities but not any obvious tune-ups. From a practical perspective,I think the only advice you could give to a med student today is, "this looks important; keep an eye on it". How else can you prepare someone for a career in a field you expect to be reinvented?

When you're gazing out a bus window at block after block of unswept shanty towns, on your way to talk about sensors and mapping, any technology has that same distant feeling. Explaining to someone that I use satellite photos to get directions or plan the growth of a city, that I can translate between languages that I've never spoken-in the end neither of us can say what is possible, and when it's going to arrive in their neighborhood. I'm convinced, we have to spread mini examples of the technology. Just as the first computers were oddities for our museums and labs, why not bring hackable phones and id chips and robots into discussions about education and development. And not in the context of what awesome gadgets we have, but with a message that all of it is constructable, malleable. If a kid in Peru or Philadelphia is good at math, they probably could write a Facebook app much more easily than writing an essay in a foreign language. I don't know that people see that, or that the world's average Facebook user sees it as any more accessible than a fighter jet engine. I don't expect Facebook to go out of its way to make that possible. Instead, I think it sets a challenge for everyone developing technology that kids use in schools. How easy is it to open the cover of your program ? Can an accomplished hacker of your program move on to rewire the real world?

When I was a kid, I reprogrammed a race car game to cause complete havoc - cars with the mass of black holes shooting off into space after a collision, objects with super powerful springs in their center, bounding from one track to the next, even a track which I could win every time because I knew the AI would trap itself. There aren't comparable experiences with video editing and map making and hardware hacking, at least not yet. There ought to be a Project Euler for these media/maker skills, like "trick my printer into writing backwards" or "disguise a city map as a leaf in this photo". Little things that take clever hacks to solve.

1 comment:

  1. Nick,

    I think you've stumbled upon something huge. I always think of hospitals as industrial-age approaches to medicine. The parallel between a factory floor and a hospital isn't coincidental. However, if you think about it, why would you cluster very sick people in one building in rooms close to each other? We still do, and do so at the risk of breeding superbugs in hospital wards.

    Hospitals exist because it is very expensive to have medical equipment in every patient's home. You need equipment, expertise, quick turnaround times.

    Now, with a computer as a central processing unit (where have I heard that before?), and inexpensive peripherals attached to it, we can dream of an affordable hospital at home, or on the go. Oxygen sensors based on ambient light and the camera, like this Android app. http://www.geardiary.com/2010/09/04/android-app-review-instant-heart-rate/

    Keep plugging away on sensors. They are the future of medicine and such. And do look out the window on the bus. It keeps us grounded :-)

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