SciTech Now Episode 315

In this episode of SciTech Now, from cell phones to espresso machines, smart devices are doubling as personal assistants; Bailey McCann discusses the future of fingerprinting technology; Dr. Katherine Luker is working tirelessly to answer the question: what is breast cancer?; and proton therapy is a new, less invasive, way to combat cancer.



Coming up, smart devices as personal assistants.

It was very important to us that the interaction between the user and our application is very natural.

But please place your cup under the spout and say ready.


We want the response to be as if a human being is responding to a question.

Fingerprinting -- keeping us safe or invading our privacy?

There's a possibility you could use your fingerprint for payments.

There's a possibility you could use it for your library card.

There's obviously, you know, terrorism concerns.

There are questions about being able to track people as they come and go.

A unique look at breast cancer.

That's a model of how the woman's cells in her, uh, tumor that are her normal cells interact with her cancer cells.

Protons battling cancer.

Proton therapy releases radiation in a way that X-rays can't.

X-rays will go into the body and then release radiation to the tumor but also release radiation past the tumor.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, and contributions to this station.

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.

From cell phones to espresso machines, smart devices are ubiquitous in modern-day living.

And tech companies are racing to offer the slickest, most efficient digital assistants for everything from managing your calendar to monitoring traffic.

Richard Waters of the explores some of the many artificial intelligence companions on the market.

Are they really working?

Let's take a look.


Helpful or threatening?

Cute or scary?

Whether we like it or not, these machines are becoming more commonplace and fundamental to the way we live our lives.

Let's chat.

The very main feature of this robot is the fact that it is entirely controlled by the human voice.

Are you married?

Not yet.

Talking to computers has been a dream of technologists and storytellers for decades.

Sign here.

Even if it can sometimes seem a bit scary.

Encounters with disembodied intelligences are no longer confined to science fiction.

Intelligent agents, digital assistants, chatbots -- there's a growing array of these smart companions that are eager to become our guides to the digital world.

Google is one of the powerful tech companies who believe the new technology will be as significant as the first phase of the Web.

It's the wild, wild West.

Everyone's trying to figure out, like, what is the right morality?

People really got very, very familiar with, you know, accessing information on the Web and, you know, using browser to kind of do things that they never could do, you know, before that.

Um, so I see that kind of a step-function change in how people will actually react and interact with computing.

But I also see a lot of experimentation needed to get to next steps here.

I'm here in the studio at ToyTalk.

And this is where the voices of chatbots are recorded.

Humans record thousands of lines of script.

And when you talk to an artificial intelligence in your smartphone or some physical object, uh, the machine will try to anticipate and understand what your interests are and then feed lines back to you that it thinks are in context.

Um, so I have the first physical embodiment of that here.

Um, this Barbie doll actually has a chatbot implanted inside.

Let's chat.

[ Ding ]


Can you say that again?

Do you want to play a game or talk some more?

I really like clothes.

[ Ding ]


What's the point if it's not fun?

[ Ding ] Why did the belt go to jail?

[ Ding ]

I don't know.

Why did the belt go to jail?

[ Ding ]

Because he held up a pair of pants.

[ Laughs ] Want to hear another one? Uh-oh.

I can't find a Wi-Fi network.

It's not quite Hal.

But chatbots like Barbie could be a forerunner of how we will all, one day, be talking to computers.

These programs are sometimes given a veneer of human personality and are designed to engage you in conversation, usually by feeding back canned responses.

They fit easily into today's widely used messaging systems, where they can chat back and forth with humans in text form.

And then one of the interesting qualities of this trend is that it actually largely started, um, in the East and has come here to the West.

Um, what WeChat in China in particular, um, is the portal to the Internet in mainland China.

And the number of bots and businesses that exist in texting there has been an enormous number for now half a decade.

Just this year, in 2016, we're gonna see that happen on the major platforms here in the States.

Bots often come with personalities already baked in.

They can appear in mobile chat apps.

Or like these, they can be designed as characters in video games, creating a new form of interactive storytelling.

Facebook and Microsoft have both put bots at the center of their plans recently, seeing the beginning of an entirely new way of living with computers.

All the big tech companies are racing to experiment with different interfaces.

There's the Amazon Echo, a black cylinder that sits on your kitchen table and orders groceries; Apple's Siri, a question-and-answer system that was developed for smartphones; Google Now, a predictive assistant that tries to anticipate what you'll want to do next and give you the information before you even ask; Facebook M, a text-messaging system which relies on people at the moment, but Facebook wants to replace with artificial intelligence; and Microsoft Cortana, a personal assistant that is trying to make the move from the PC to the mobile world.

What's the weather gonna be like tomorrow?

The bar for success for all these experiments is set much higher than for many of today's technologies.

To give you an example, if, you know, you search for something, and you got an article, you got a pointer to a webpage that's not as relevant, it's one thing.

But let's say the assistant said, 'Hey, you know, it's time to leave for your flight.

And guess what.

Your flight's delayed.

No problem,' and then it turns out it's not delayed and you miss the flight, that's a problem.

The range of experimentation suggests the field is still wide open, with upstarts eager to challenge the big tech players.

Voice-controlled digital assistants like Hound represent the first generation of these intelligent assistants.

Chief executive Keyvan Mohajer has been working on this dream for 10 years.

When we designed Hound, it was very important to us that the interaction between the user and our application is very natural.

So when you talk to Hound, we want the response to be natural as if a human being is responding to a question.

We wanted the responses to be grammatically correct, not too long, not too short, and delightful.

Uh, okay, Hound.

[ Ding ] Show me coffee shops that are within a half a mile of where I am and that are open now.

[ Ding ]

Here are several coffee shops within 0.5 miles.

I'd like one that has the best coffee and where I can sit outside with free Wi-Fi.

You didn't say, 'Okay, Hound,' so it didn't... [ Ding ]


Companies like Hound believe voice control will become even more important with the much-predicted Internet of Things...

Make me an espresso.

...when many everyday objects become smart and connected.

No problem.

Please place your cup under the spout and say 'ready.'


You can ask your espresso machine to give you, a double-shot espresso.

While it's making the double-shot espresso, you can say, 'How's the weather today?

Who won the game last night?'

So one device can enable its own functionality.

But it can also enable multiple other domains that the creator of the device can think is useful for the end user.

Communicating through voice or text messaging is only part of what makes these new digital assistants and agents intelligent.

Behind the scenes, companies like Google are applying new types of machine learning and analyzing data about you to come up with the best answers.

Despite the considerable hype, the intelligent agents are not quite ready for prime time.

Their language abilities are not perfect.

They don't always know exactly what we want.

But they're making rapid progress.

And this leaves plenty of questions.

What are we giving up in return for the convenience of talking to the machines?

They will be making assumptions about what we should know and when.

They'll be in the background, listening, perhaps watching what we're doing.

They will assume more control over our lives.

But the payoff in terms of a more useful and practical coexistence with the computers could be significant.

Should fingerprinting be mandatory?

Many states think so and are increasing budgets in their fingerprinting departments.

But that's just the beginning.

While some consider DNA collection a preventative measure against terrorism, others claim it violates privacy.

Bailey McCann, editor and publisher of the online tech publication CivSource, has covered the industry for 15 years and joins me now to discuss new technologies and trends.

So fingerprinting has been around for a long, long time.

And now it's even easier to get those fingerprints.

Even my smartphone asks me if I want to lock it with my fingerprint.


It's definitely a technology that's, on the commercial side, expanding rapidly, people wanting to use their fingerprints for a lot of things.

There's a possibility you could use your fingerprints for payments.

There's a possibility you could use it for your library card if you want to have a biometric ID.

There's a lot going on.

But there is a disconnect between law enforcement's capability with the technology and everyday users.

In some cases, the commercial cases, like, iPhone has actually surpassed what police can do.

So I think that's why you're starting to see the ramp-up on the law enforcement side.

And that, you know, obviously, creates a whole host of attendant issues in terms of privacy and different evidence and what you can use, what you can't use.

And ultimately, who owns that fingerprint?

I mean, it's my fingerprint.

But, really, it's sitting in a database somewhere that can be searched and possibly used against me later on.

You know, I think, the more you digitize anything, the more it becomes readily usable.

Historically, we had sort of what you would think of from, like, the cop shows where you'd, like, put your fingers in ink and then roll them on the paper.

And then it would be on an index card in some drawer somewhere.

And it was much harder to cross-reference that if you got picked up in some other location from where you got picked up the first time, for example.


But now we don't have to deal with that because a lot of it's been digitized.

Well, plus the... When I come back from an overseas trip, I see... I mean, I use a global entry thing.

I'm putting my fingerprints in every time.


I already registered with them.

But I also see travelers come into the United States for the first time.

They're all fingerprinted.


Um, and a lot of that's increased since 9/11.

Um, there's obviously, you know, terrorism concerns.

There are questions about being able to track people as they come and go.

There are biometrics in your passport.

There are, um, different ways that that information is used.

Um, you know, law enforcement would probably be the first to tell you that they try to keep them separate so that if you're not actually accused of something, you know, your fingerprint's not gonna readily come up just because you came in from whatever country.


But, you know, I mean, there are questions because there is a general lack of transparency around law enforcement security, um, for obvious reasons.

But also, it does raise questions from people on the outside.

So people are gonna say, 'Listen, I -- I've done nothing wrong.

What do I care?

Why should I care that my...'


'...fingerprint sits in a database either with Apple or with the Department of Homeland Security?'


If you... You know, and there are a lot of people who feel like, 'I have nothing to hide.

So here. Let's just do it.'


But that tends to go awry with something actually does happen because then, suddenly, people have a profile, um, you know, that said they checked in over here.

They've used biometrics at work.

They've done, you know, different things.

And, you know, you can infer a lot of things that are not correct about a profile of data that somebody might have on you.

I mean, think about online advertising.

You know, you go to Target.

You look at one thing.

Ads for this thing follow you everywhere over the Internet.

And suddenly, the Internet has decided, based off of these clicks, this is your profile.

You know, and if, you know, like, if I'm shopping for my dad's Father's Day present, then those ads suddenly probably think I'm, like, a 60-year-old guy who likes fishing.

You know, and it's not, like, totally accurate.

And -- but they're doing it off of totally innocent, you know, pattern recognition because I just spent a whole bunch of time on Cabela's.

All right.

Bailey McCann, thanks for joining us.


At the Luker Lab in Detroit, Michigan, scientists are trying to answer a very tough question.

What is breast cancer?

Since each person's cancer is unique, Dr. Luker has developed a software to visualize the interaction of healthy cells and cancerous cells in each individual patient.

Here's the story.

I think it's important for any person to be able to follow their passion and do what brings them joy.

If a girl is interested in fashion, or if she's interested in physics, that should be valued because she's valuable.

Ever since I was little, everybody in my family could tell I was gonna be a scientist.

I mean, my friends called me Professor.

And it was really more a question of what kind of science I might do.

What I do now is protein engineering.

I ended up getting a PhD in molecular biology and biochemistry.

But when I met my husband, he was a radiologist.

And he wanted to become a scientist as well.

So we ended up working together in a laboratory that did imaging work.

And so now the engineering that I do of proteins is usually to make things imageable.

So my job is to try to build light-up machines, basically, that report on biochemical events in breast cancer.

We run our lab with a lot of undergraduates in the laboratory.

Right now, we have six.

So a lot of my job is mentoring all day long.

I do my own research.

But I also assist them.

Working with Kathy is awesome.

She is so helpful and encourages me to first try to solve my problems on my own and then is always there for me when I need it.

She's really good at adapting her mentoring style to each individual student.

It's, like, really exciting to me 'cause it's never boring.

There's always something new to learn.

And it's such a great environment.

And it's pretty dynamic.

And there's a ton of interaction.

Research is interesting 'cause you have waves of, like, you're really busy with a lot of experiments.

And then, you know, the next week, maybe you're doing your data analysis and thinking about, like, what to do next and planning.

It's a little bit like you're tryin' to take a big epic journey.

And you need to recruit other people to go along.

The goal is long.

Everybody has a contribution to make.

The heroic part is the courage it comes to take the level of failure, to face that failure every day and put yourself out there and propose something.

Without that kind of courage, uh, you won't be curing any diseases.

We have some cell issues we're trying to solve.

So, basically, I'm just taking care of the cells right now.

We like to split them all, which means, like, take some out of the flasks so that they can grow throughout the weekend, and they don't die from being too overcrowded.

Kind of like a pet.

They need to be, like, fed every day and split every day so there are not too many cells in a flask.

There's a whole lot of work that needs to be done in just understanding, what is the breast cancer?

What is it?

We don't really always have a clear handle on what makes it even a cancer.

I mean, you know, you think that maybe, if you have breast cancer, you have one thing.

But everybody's breast cancer is different.

And the contribution that this type of work makes to that is to try to identify new opportunities for therapeutic targets.

That's usually what this type of work is good for.

So these are the breast cancer cells, right?



And then the ones that are out here, are they the ones that are the patient's cells, the normal cells?

Um, the stromal cells.

Stromal cells. Yeah.


We have this two-photon microscope, which is, like, a big thing, what I use a lot for a lot of my experiments.

And I'm able to look at cells that have different proteins tagged with different fluorescent proteins.

That's a model of how the woman's cells in her, uh, tumor that are her normal cells interact with her cancer cells and her cancer cells interact with the normal cells.

And actually, they change each other to form a tumor environment.

So there's more than one kind of cell in a tumor.

And those tumors, they speak to the cells around them so much that they actually recruit them for help.

And so that's kinda the nature of her project right now is to chase that down.

How are the cells communicating with each other?

We may not be able to say for sure that cells are dead.

But we will be able to say that they're changed.

I really enjoy the -- the experiments we've done with changing metabolism with breast cancer cells, so changing their glucose or their other nutrients and also then applying chemotherapy drugs to those cells and seeing how your body's environment is gonna affect how those drugs work.

It's almost like being able to go to another world.

So it's thrilling to see what your eyes can't normally see to be able to test it, to be able to detect it, to see that it's there.

So I think it just brings a sense of wonder to people.

Without these kinds of positive relationships, you know, the work environment, it would be hard to get up every morning and face that kind of... You know, it's like, 'Okay.

We're gonna cure breast cancer.'

That is a big, big goal.

On a day-to-day basis, most researchers find that they can't hold that big goal up in front of them every day, or they can't face it.

Once in a while, you pick your head up, and you look.

You have to reflect back and think, 'Okay.

What is my science today gonna help with in the future?'

It's inspiring.

And it's -- definitely pushes me forward every day.

To be able to tell, like, my family members or my friends that I'm doing something in cancer research is so cool.

And it's really worth it.

And people care.

Kathy is a STEM hero because she is pioneer in the field.

She's really good at adapting.

She's one of the smartest people that I know.

She is so fun to work with.

And she has taught me so much, not just about science but how to be better person in general.

Health care professionals at the University of Florida Health Cancer Center in Orlando are implementing proton therapy as a new way to combat cancer.

Compared to traditional radiation treatments, proton therapy is far more precise in focusing radiation, which is critical in treating brain and spine cancer.

Here's the story.

Central Florida has a new tool to combat cancer.

In April 2016, the UF Health Cancer Center at Orlando Health opened a facility that offers proton therapy.

Proton therapy uses charged particles, protons, instead of X-rays, which is what we've used for conventional radiation.

Proton therapy releases radiation more precisely in a way that X-rays can't.

X-rays will go into the body and then release radiation in the tumor but also release radiation past the tumor.

Protons, on the other hand, go into the body, but when they reach the tumor, they release all of their dose.

And then there's no dose beyond the tumor.

So this allows us to treat cancers, especially in very sensitive locations, with less risk to the patient.

In a way, it's like a controlled explosion right inside of the tumor.

The Proton Therapy Center at Orlando Health is the first of its kind in Central Florida and one of only 23 in the country.

Proton therapy is a better type of treatment for a variety of cancers.

Some of them are going to be cancers that are located in very critical areas like the brain, the eye, the spinal cord or other very sensitive parts of the body.

Basically, proton therapy delivers less radiation to the body to treat the tumor the same amount.

And often, that magnitude is 50 percent.

Sometimes, it's 60, 70 percent less total radiation to the body to achieve the same effect inside the tumor.

Angie Oswald is battling a rare and aggressive brain tumor, called a hemangiopericytoma.

After nine years and two surgeries, the cancer has returned again.

This time, proton therapy will keep her off the operating table and should limit long-term side effects.

They're able to treat a fairly large area and actually two areas at one time, which is pretty amazing.

And so the idea is that this cancer won't grow back in these areas.

And ideally, I could be cancer-free indefinitely.

Angela has an extremely rare tumor.

And she's being treated with an exceptionally complex treatment plan that targets some of the lining of the brain but also some of the major veins that are inside the brain.

And what we end up creating is a extremely complex shape that reflects the anatomy of the brain and the distribution of the tumor.

It's 10 times better than the surgeries just because I'm able to live my life.

I'm able to work.

I'm able to be home every day.

With the surgeries, it was definitely, um, life-changing.

I had to leave work.

I had to take time off.

Um, I had to have family come take care of me.

I was thrilled when I found out I did not have to have another surgery.

I think that's really the best part, is just being able to continue with everyday life and with minimal impact to my family and my daily life.

If we had used conventional radiation, the amount of brain that would've been treated would've been extremely large.

And that would've had effects for the rest of her life.

It would've increased the risk of stroke, increased the risk of vision loss.

It would've increased the risk also of neurocognitive change.

So, using protons, we're able to limit the dose extremely well to just the areas we need to treat.

As a person that treats pediatric cancer and brain tumors, I want to give my patients the best.

And I finally can tell them that we are giving them something that's as good or better than any treatment available in the world.

Proton treatment lets us treat these patients in a way that's effective for tumors and has the lowest risk of causing them side effects, not just in the next few weeks or months, but for the rest of their lives.

And that wraps it up for this time.

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

You can also subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Until next time, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

Funding for this program is made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, and contributions to this station.