SciTech Now Episode 306

In this episode of SciTech Now, healthcare technology in the military has meant fewer deaths; Deborah Estrin teaches us what we can learn about our health through small data; the future of autonomous vehicle technology; and how the logs from a stranded whaling has proven quite valuable to climate scientists today.


Coming up, science and technology meet true grit.

Those who are questioning whether or not they're going to be able to live a normal life.

I'm here to tell you, you not only can live a normal life, but you can thrive and do anything you want to do.

Liberating our digital health data.

What mobile allows us to start to do is really have things be based on you.

How are you doing on and off this medication, with and without this dose?

Paving the way for driverless vehicles.

The vehicle computer is able to build up a map of what that road surface looks like.

Each time it gets a new camera image, it can figure out where it is on that road surface by comparing the location of these unique cracks and rocks that are randomly distributed.

Finally, what a century-old whaling expedition reveals about climate change.

Through the frozen winter months, the whalers aboard those ships took note of the temperature, barometric pressure, ice locations, and wind directions in the ship's logbook.

And it turns out data like this is valuable to climate scientists today.

It's all ahead.

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Hello, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Welcome to 'SciTech Now.'

Our weekly program bringing you the latest breakthroughs in science, technology, and innovation.

Let's get started.

Advancements in medical technology have meant fewer deaths and more solutions for debilitating injuries in the military.

Learn how the orthotics and prosthetics lab at St. Petersburg College in Florida is working with veterans to provide mobility in ways not thought possible just a few years ago.

These veterans are up for a challenge.

They're climbing the ice floe of a glacier near Mt. Denali in Alaska.

This is all part of the Combat Wounded Veterans Challenge, an organization based out of Tarpon Springs, Florida.

Our overall mission is to improve the lives of wounded and injured veterans and their families.

The challenges are going to be physically demanding, whether you're an amputee or not.

They're going to be in a lot of cases mentally challenging.

The requirements to climb a mountain, stay on a glacier trek for two weeks.

We'll take anywhere from six to 12 veterans on any one of these excursions.

So they get that team environment they left in the military.

The challenge is planned with a greater goal in mind.

First we look at our research objectives.

And then we look at the type of expedition that's going to support those research objectives.

For prosthetics, that kind of was the genesis of the first area the Combat Wounded Veteran Challenge started.

We'll take a research prosthetist.

So they're in the field right there, doing the trek, doing the climb with the veterans.

And along the way, they're taking readings and measurements.

Many of the researchers are students at the orthotics and prosthetics program at St. Petersburg College.

Here they're under the guidance of Arlene Gillis, the program's director.

The technology in prosthetics has just evolved over the last 30 years.

We've gone from a regular joint, hydraulics, and now we're up to microprocessors.

It's amazing to see how the technology has improved the patient health care.

To train our students we actually have patient models come in.

They'll see a patient, take the history and measurements, create a cast and a mold.

At that point they start their fabrication.

They'll modify the plaster to make sure that they fit the patient properly.

They double-check the measurements.

They build up on areas they want to have relief, and they'll shave down on areas that they want pressure.

Once it's smooth, they take it to the thermal forming room and pull the check model.

Laboratory manager Dale Peterson works closely with the students to ensure the highest quality prosthetic.

A device that we call the diagnostic socket or a test socket is created.

It's made with a plastic material.

When the patient comes back for a fitting, the students can do an evaluation with it and see through the clear socket just how well that socket is fitting.

Patient models like veteran Richard Cicero are a critical part of the students' training.

He lives a very active lifestyle.

He uses a high-tech prosthesis complete with microprocessors.

This knee is called a genium.

And it was truly referred to as the first bionic prosthetic device.

It knows that if you move a certain way, the knee should not flex.

However if you move other ways, the knee should not only flex but help you to get up.

It gives you the ability to not only walk downhill without tripping and falling, but also to walk uphill.

And stabilize you and help propel you up the hill.

The greatest value of the use of the technology that I have is to bring it to my fellow combat injured service members.

Those who are questioning whether or not they're going to be able to live a normal life.

I'm here to tell you, you not only can live a normal life, but you can thrive and you can do anything you want to do.

Fellow veteran David Caras lost his leg in an accident.

It's a hydraulic knee.

There's no electronics at all.

It does not require any charging or programming.

David's hydraulic knee is not as nimble as Richard's bionic one.

He has difficulty going down steps in a normal way.

However, the cost is dramatically less.

And his system is waterproof.

This has proven to be beneficial as a veteran who has participated in the Combat Wounded Veterans Challenge.

One of the adventures I've been on was mountaineering in Alaska.

I was there for two weeks.

Ten days of that was on a glacier.

Another adventure I went on was a diving challenge.

That was down in Key West, Florida.

They looked at the function of our knees, they checked the vacuum, the suction seal, how our legs stay inside the socket at different depths, as well as how fast we could move by using our legs.

At the Key West challenge, veterans are paired with young divers to work as a team.

And so we pair them up at the laboratories who does the coral restoration and give them a mission.

Their mission is to plant coral in hopes of one day having a new reef.

Since 9/11, about 1,700 members of the military have had an amputation.

However, nationally over 180,000 amputations occur each year.

So we look at our research where we take six to 12 vets, but through that research we're hopefully going to affect tens of thousands of people that have -- are using prosthetics.

Combat Wounded Veterans Challenge also sponsored a symposium to showcase new technologies on the horizon.

Dr. Ranu Jung from Florida International University in Miami shared her research on the neural-enabled prosthetic hand system.

The whole project is to restore lost sensation to an upper extremity amputation, to give them the sense of touch and give them the sense of hand opening or closing.

The way the system works is you have the prosthetic hand.

You put sensors in them for hand opening or closing or for grip force or how hard you grip something.

This information then is to be conveyed back to the person.

The device is under FDA review.

And testing with humans is slated for 2016.

Imagine if you were trying to, you know, put up your hair and tie up a ponytail, or you were trying to button a shirt.

If you have no sensation, then it's a very difficult task.

This is restoring all of that to the person.

Prosthetics has become an industry with tremendous capabilities and a limitless future.

This industry is really just getting started.

It's going to explode in the next few years as we bring technologies in from different areas.

For the wounded veteran, the challenge is to keep on fighting.

Get yourself out there again.

Pursue the type of activities that maybe you didn't think you could do anymore but now you know you can.

I think that the greatest thing that has come out of my injury is to come to understand what I'm still able to do and be able to bring that to my peers.

If I can make you want to get up and do something, you're going to get up out of that bed, you're gonna get up out of that chair, you're gonna get up out of that house, and you're gonna start doing and enjoying life, and enjoying life is the key to victory.

Our unique digital traces, or small data, are being collected and analyzed continuously by mobile networks, social media platforms, and search engines.

What can we learn about our health through this data?

Deborah Estrin, co-founder of the nonprofit start-up Open End Health joins us to discuss this trend.

So, I'm fairly positive that Google knows a tremendous amount about my life from obviously reading all my e-mails and figuring out where I am on my maps, et cetera, et cetera.

How does some of this information about me help me live a healthy, longer life?

Google does know a lot about you, which is how they've so improved search and maps and all those other tools they give you over time.

It's not really individuals in Google.

It's algorithms inside of Google.

We are starting to see many ways in which those same data streams can help you as an individual solve your problem, help understand how you're responding to a medication, help you adhere to some behavior that you would like to do because it's good for you.

How does the idea of what's in a smartphone now change our behaviors or at least help us learn from the behaviors that we're already performing?

Mobile health is this leveraging or pervasive technology to address pervasive problems, particularly when it comes to chronic disease.

Seven out of ten avoidable deaths are due to chronic disease.

86% of our health care costs are due to chronic disease.

Very interestingly, there are four behaviors that cause a lot of the suffering, reduced quality of life, and mortality associated with chronic disease.

Getting up and moving?

Getting up and moving.

What you eat.

How much alcohol you drink.

And still how much you smoke.

There are things that the public policy and that we do as a system, but then there's the individual.

And how do I become the best and healthiest, best feeling that I can be, and how do I take care of those chronic conditions that I have, because more than 50% of Americans have a chronic condition, at least one.

As we age we end up with more than one.

We end up taking more than one medication.

What mobile allows us to start to do is really have things be based on you.

How are you doing on and off this medication, with and without this dose, using this form of physical therapy?

Whatever is the behavior that you need to do that somebody prescribed to you to do or suggests for you to do, how can that mobile technology both really bring back the data of what's working and inform that feedback loop, and also help to prod you along and motivate you to continue to do it or to restart it again when we fall off the wagons, as routinely happens.

How do we take the data that we're generating and read it and interpret it well?

Let's say I put all that stuff into an app, the phone is with me, it knows I'm doing the exercises, I input exactly what pill I'm taking at what time of day.

Now, it goes somewhere, maybe to a doctor or a specialist.

How do they take all this and sift through it and say, this isn't working as well for you?

That's where the state of the science and technology is, this condition at a time, trying to bridge that gap.

You mentioned the word that is part of that solution.

In a sense, it's all about apps.

It's all about applications that take in data, a lot of which would be passively generated, so you don't have to enter it.

Maybe it's coming from the pharmacy or a smart pill box.

It's processing that data and making inferences and getting rid of the noise, yeah, this is vacation week, just because you're staying at home all the time doesn't mean you've entered a depressive episode or that your arthritis has flared.

In the same way that Google and our apps have become so much more smarter and adaptive, the same technology, the algorithms that become adaptive and allow things to personalize can be applied here.

What can an average consumer do today to figure out how to obtain the signals in the first place, gather it, and give it to the appropriate people to analyze it?

There are a growing number of applications and services that are already in the business of saying, give me access to your Fitbit data or give me access to your senior elder that you're taking care of, your father, mother, aunt, who you might have them wear a Fitbit, so that you can track how mobile they are from a day to day basis, because you're not always able to visit.

So the way that the average consumer needs to go about it for the most part is to look for those apps and services that are out there already, marketing to the particular demographic or condition.

And they are increasingly having you as part of your onboarding, letting you get access to some of your data.

I noticed in your TED med talk, you said something that was interesting.

It was about your father.

who had passed away, that there were signals that he was generating that now in hindsight you saw, oh, my gosh, certainly there was something coming, but we didn't really know about it, but now I think about it, maybe I should put a tracking watch on my elders in my family.

Explain that.

He was the primary caregiver for my mother who had slow onset dementia.

He had stopped preparing a meal or two at home during the week for her, they were eating out all the time.

Those trips and his patterns in retrospect changed.

Now, I have an older sister who is a real doctor.

And Margo noticed these changes.

But most people don't have that.

And truthfully, some of those things we had to catch up with.

When he went to see his cardiologist and the cardiologist asked him how are you doing, have things changed, his sense of self was that he was doing fine, and he loved his cardiologist, he wanted to be performing well for that doctor.

So I don't think it's so much about you putting a tracking device on your elder relatives, but rather people themselves, as they're living alone in context where they're separated from family members who in the old village context would be observing them all the time, might choose to be able to see for themselves whether their mobility is changed, whether they need a little more encouragement to get out and walk around the block.

Maybe sometime in the future we'll even have little agents that run on our behalf around our e-mail and our texting.

One of the things that's very difficult to observe is, as I mentioned about my mother, is cognitive impairment.

Advances in that field are very important, very slow to progress, because we only see patients when they're pretty far advanced into the disease.

What if we had agents that are looking at the anger we use in our e-mail or texts or the way in which we talk to our Amazon Echo, and start to detect changes in those language patterns.

Deborah Estrin, thanks so much for joining us.

Thank you.

Engineers at Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas have been developing autonomous vehicle technology for more than a decade.

We take you inside the lab to see how the technology behind driverless cars has evolved.

This is Marty, our autonomous vehicle research platform that we use for developing new autonomous vehicle technologies here at Southwest Research Institute.

This vehicle is fully actuated and capable of turning the steering wheel, changing gears, pressing on the brakes all by itself.

Up here we have a GPS antenna that the vehicle is able to use to get a rough idea of where it is in the world at any time.

GPS sensors are very common on vehicles now, but they're not necessarily accurate enough for autonomous driving.

They can jump around, and we can lose the signal as we get cloud cover or drive underneath trees or bridges.

We also have this LIDAR sensor.

This is constantly scanning the environment around us, giving us an idea of where buildings and things like that near the vehicle are.

The vehicle can use this to try and improve its idea of where it is by comparing a detected building to a known building.

This requires a lot of heavy computational power.

We're able to do lots of different autonomous functions to include off-road driving by using machine vision and very complicated algorithms that can determine the best path for a vehicle to take, when there's no road to be driven on.

What we're showing off here today is our Ranger system, and Ranger, you can't actually see on top of the vehicle.

It's a very nice alternative to being able to have the vehicle figure out where its position is.

Ranger is a camera underneath the vehicle.

It's mounted downward, so it's constantly taking pictures of the road surface as we drive around.

While the road surface looks like a random mix of rocks and cracks to us, the vehicle computer is able to build up a map of what that road surface looks like, and each time it gets a new camera image, it can figure out exactly where it is on that road surface by comparing the location of these unique cracks and rocks that are just randomly distributed throughout the road surface.

This gives us a very simple and robust way to get extremely high accurate position of the vehicle, to within just a couple of centimeters, that's not dependent on the GPS signal that we can lose.

This is really the core building block that we need for developing an autonomous vehicle and providing very reliable, very safe, and very comfortable behavior for the passengers.

Now we're going to put it in robotic mode.

The vehicle is going to switch gears and take full control of the vehicle.

So we are now in autonomous mode.

The computer switched gears into drive and is now fully in control of the vehicle.

So all the brake pedal, all the gas, and all the steering wheel is completely controlled by the vehicle software.

And you can see, as we're coming up to turns, the vehicle can anticipate that and slows us down to give us a nice comfortable ride.

Now we're coming up on this obstacle course.

We're gonna be flying through these cones.

And these cones are just here to show how accurate this Ranger localization system is.

We can do the same thing with GPS, but what happens is we have to record that route and then we can drive it maybe in the next hour or so.

After that, the GPS has drifted enough that it becomes unusable.

In fact the precision is more accurate than GPS.

And it also works in a GPS-denied environment, so we can combine these sensing technologies to be used with GPS and our other algorithms to give us some of the best autonomous vehicle systems in the world.

At the turn of the 20th century, a huge sheet of sea ice collapsed, trapping a group of 200 whalers against the coast of Alaska for a long, grueling winter.

To keep sane amidst hunger, sickness and hopelessness, they kept a weather diary to record daily temperature, wind directions and barometric pressure.

Scientists today are using these logs to understand historic weather patterns and compare them to current conditions in the Arctic.

The year was 1897.

One of the coldest and deadliest in maritime history.

But the men aboard the didn't know what they were in for, or that scientists more than a hundred years later would benefit from their tragic voyage.

Every spring, ships headed up the West coast following the sea ice as it melted back into the Arctic.

They were hunting bow head whales.

Their blubber was used for oil.

Their baleen for women's corsets.

It was a booming business.

Some say whaling was more lucrative than the gold rush.

For the the whaling season of 1897 was going great, until September.

A big sheet of sea ice came down out of the Arctic Ocean and pinned the and six other ships against the coast of Alaska.

That left 200 men trapped in the Arctic as the winter set in.

Two nearby ships sank and all the men piled into the 150 men in one ship.

They're running out of food, so they start shooting seals and polar bears.

Some get scurvy.

One sailor has such a bad case of syphilis that he commits suicide.

What's the one thing they do every day to hold on to their sanity?

They keep a weather diary.

Through the frozen winter months, the sailors aboard those ships took note of the temperature, barometric pressure, ice location and wind directions in the ship's logbook.

And it turns out data like this is valuable to climate scientists today.

They're gathering it from thousands of old whaling ship logbooks like the and plugging it into a big computer program to re-create historical weather patterns and compare them to the way things look in the Arctic today.

Bottom line, if you were a whaler today, it would be highly unlikely you would encounter the same treacherous ice conditions that the crew of the saw.

What happened to those guys, anyway?

16 of them died.

After ten months trapped in the ice, though, the rest of them were finally free.

But instead of heading home, they went right back to hunting whales.

And that wraps it up for this time.

For more on science, technology, and innovation, visit our website, check us out on Facebook and Instagram, and join the conversation on Twitter.

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Until next time, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

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