What do cadavers, Tricorders and Qualcomm have in common? Only the biggest thing thats happening in medical technology these days. And its not happening in a pharmaceutical research lab or at the National Institutes of Health, but at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.
With the glitzy Vegas-style keynote announcement of the Tricorder X PRIZE at the CES, Paul Jacobs, CEO of wireless chip company Qualcomm [NASDAQ:QCOM]– not IBM [NYSE:IBM], Wellpoint [NYSE:WLP], or Pfizer [NYSE:PFE] — may well be remembered by history for launching the radical age of metadata medicine.
While the popular press has been focusing on emerging therapeutics from genomics and synthetic biology, metadata medicine can put the power of deep cognitive computing analytics into the hands of individuals, not just researchers. Metadata medicine will do more for widespread health and well-being than anything since the advent of vaccines and antibiotics.
But first to explain the Tricorder for the uninitiated. (It is hard to fathom, but there are those who living under a rock never heard of Star Trek and its iconic theatrical devices.) A Tricorder is a Star Trek inspired cordless device the size of a fat smart-phone, which exhibits fantastical power (at least on TV) to diagnose anything when waved over a hapless human.
A Tricorder is rather like having a team of doctors plus an entire diagnostic laboratory in your pocket. Crazy idea? The X PRIZE folks have a terrific record of only launching "challenge" prizes when they know a goal is technologically reachable – like a private company putting a civilian into outer space for the Space X PRIZE (achieved by Burt Rutan and Paul Allen in 2004), or now, creating a Tricorder.
The ultimate Tricorder idea is to access the wealth of (voluntary) data about what youve been doing, eating, how your own biological machinery has been operating, and marry it with a rich stream of highly precise and real-time physiologically-specific information about whats going in your body right now – wherever you are – and link this wirelessly to the analytic computing power that resides in the Cloud. In the Cloud, practically everything that is known in the medical literature can be instantly accessed to diagnose and provide advice specifically relevant to you, your body, now.
The first Tricoders will be the beta versions of eventual ubiquitous consumer devices. What will that be like? Just consider the sensing technologies that are emerging for the Tricorder of the future.
Imagine measuring nearly everything important about whats going on in your body, along with everything you have personally experienced and done. This dense constellation of highly-specific information can then be evaluated in light of the best and broadest collection of medical information available, as well as compared to millions of other peoples similar experiences or symptoms. This "metadata" analysis is one of the most important mega-trends in the massive computing power of the Cloud. And the collateral mega-trend that hasnt risen to the top of pop-tech visibility resides with enabling sensor technologies.
To unleash metadata medicine we need to integrate three domains of health-related information: whats around you and impacting your body, how your body is operating, and what your body looks like, mainly inside.
First your environment — this includes what youre exposed to from sunlight to air pollution, to on-the-job hazards, where youve been, what youve done, how youve slept, what youve eaten, any medications youve taken. Getting all this data is already a walk-in-the-park if the Tricorder links just to your iPhone and existing apps.
Its a guarantee there will be many more (voluntary) apps. And lots more data will come from wearable, or clothing-integrated and even skin-paintable (useful tattoos?) electronics. Its easy to image, for example, dissolvable micro-RFID inside your prescription pill – honey I shrunk the EZ Pass and made it edible. The EZ-passed pill notifies your iPhone when you took that med, and where those meds were purchased, who made them and even from what specific batch in the manufacturing process that pill originated.
Next we need sensors to continuously track your vital signs during everyday living. Not much of this is commercialized yet, but much is now possible. Tiny LEDs in a Tricorder (or iPhone….) can easily capture blood oximetry through the skin, and semiconductor laser spectrometers can read carbon dioxide lung function as you breath out. Soon nanotech enabled sensors could become part of your morning breakfast routine – just swallow a one-a-day sensor pill to collect all manner of key internal biochemistry data, sent wirelessly to your wrist-band, smart-watch or iPhone. Youll be able to have a real-time and even organ-specific personal vital-signs dashboard.
And the third information set will be native to the future Tricorder. Using a combination of technologies and wavelengths, through-body high-resolution imaging will literally see whats going on inside your body yielding science-fiction-class imaging. Ultra-high-resolution ultrasound (GEs machines are already PC-sized), terahertz imagers (a magic wavelength that sits below visible light with x-ray like qualities) will be integrated with a Tricorder-scale x-ray feature. Huge vacuum-tube-based X-ray machines are on the verge of succumbing to micro-miniaturization.
The Tricorder will of course wirelessly link in real-time to information about your history and bodys dashboard maintained in the Cloud. This panoply of data will be subjected to complex metadata analytics to yield near instant opinions or advice, and when relevant, specific diagnoses.
So now imagine youve been in an accident, or suffered a heart attack. The Tricorders information could, nay, will some day be able to link to a Cloud-stored super high-resolution 3D image of your body assembled from a fused set of precision images from a combination of super-high-resolution CAT and MRI scans — your virtual doppelganger! Such scans will become inevitably cheaper over time, and you will update them at your regular wellness office visits.
We now move beyond diagnostics and permit doctors to proceed with a trial run of a virtual surgery on your specific Cloud-based data-doppelganger that will precisely emulate your current condition because it will have a wireless link to the Tricorder. All the pieces are in place to make this possible.
NYU School of Medicine for example just introduced an on-line 3D and interactive virtual-reality cadaver for medical students. Theyve labeled it the BioDigital Human. Students can examine specific organs with far richer detail than the iconic textbook illustrations. NYU profs caution it doesnt replace the physical, the tactile experience of an autopsy on a real cadaver.
But that is precisely whats coming. In due course it will become cheap to produce a personal BioDigital data set, not a generic human. Surgeons will not only be able to view that 3D BioDigital body, but to put on haptic surgical gloves with tactical feedback that provide a full virtual reality experience, the ability to feel the virtual organ. With all this in place – from Tricorder in the field to digital doppelganger in the Cloud — we have the ability to perform a variety of trail surgical runs that will be highly specific to you; indeed, will be the digital you.
Enough super-computing capability already resides in the Cloud, and more is coming, to power the creation of virtual realities, as well as the soft domains of real-time metadata analytics. Last year IBM demonstrated the dawn of the new class of metadata analysis and cognitive computing with a clever stunt: Big Blues Watson supercomputer competed against, and beat, Jeopardys two greatest champions.
The kinds of experiential and highly human associations that characterize the questions on Jeopardy were long considered the forte of the eclectic human brain; turned out to be easy pickings for Watsons logic processors. Importantly, that kind of logic is precisely what is needed to deal with the complexities and vagaries of health advice and medical diagnoses. (See my earlier column for more on the implications of Watson.)
IBM deservedly got more useful PR out of the Jeopardy stunt than any advertising campaign. But IBM didnt build Watson to perform Wizard of Oz type feats on game shows. It was to demonstrate Big Meta-Data capabilities for applications like traffic control, manufacturing supply chain, and medicine. No surprise then that health-services giant Wellpoint recently announced that Cedars-Sinais cancer clinic will use Watson to help perform diagnoses. Many more like this will follow, and with progressively much more capability.
Privacy concerns will inevitably arise. But ask yourselves: Are your vital signs more personal than the information that regularly gets posted on your Facebook pages? And what about all those financial transactions already entrusted to wireless links to the Cloud? But doubtless we shall engage the debate.
For those who would rather live in a cabin, smoke Camels and drink Jack Daniels — you just dont have to participate. Were not talking Big Brother, but voluntary Big Metadata. Those of us with Tricorders wireless linked to a sea of Watsons might also indulge habits and unhealthy food, but well know if and when it harms us, when to stop, what to do to ameliorate. Therapeutics can fix you, and theyll get better. But diagnostics and prevention, when sufficiently granular and smart, are game changers.
Initially Tricorders will be in the hands of ER doctors and EMTs. But one day Tricorders will end up embedded as a feature in your iPhone along with a suite of apps. Doubt it? Who would have thought in 1990 that a megapixel movie camera would disappear in to cell phones?
All this technology embedded in a Tricorder, or added to an iPhone, will require ever greater computing power both in the device, and in the Cloud. Hence the emergence of metadata medicine is bullish not just for companies like IBM in the Cloud, but also Qualcomm with its mobile-device oriented ARM processors and wireless chips.
The macro is also bullish for smart sensor companies (subject for another day and column), and those that produce metadata software; Teradata Corporation [NYSE:TDC] for example. Its also bullish for Cloud infrastructure companies, the likes of HP or DuPont Fabros, because of the mind-boggling requirements to deal with the exaflood of data. Its also a huge driver for companies that master and evolve the formerly pedestrian task of maintaining personal health records. Katie bar the door if the revered $1 billion a year private medical records company Epic Systems ever goes public.
Im fond of quoting from one of the more entertaining and eerily accurate books on forecasting, Scott Adams 2003 "The Dilbert Future." One of Adams forecasts: The future will not be like Star Trek. Well apparently it will be. At least in some cases. So beam me up Scotty.
Original Source: http://www.forbes.com/sites/markpmills/2012/01/18/with-the-tricorder-x-prize-qualcomm-launches-the-new-era-of-metadata-medicine/