SciTech Now Episode 230

In this episode of SciTech Now, how ants and slime might help us understand collective human behavior; founder of Not Impossible Labs Mick Ebeling discusses “technology for the sake of humanity”; behind the scenes of one at the world’s first virtual medical centers; and a robot that has the potential to change the hotel industry.


Coming up... how ants and slime mold may get us out of gridlock.

What we do is we build setups that we can place very quickly on top of a trail to force the ants to walk on top of our setup.

And then we can record what they're doing with three different cameras.

Technology overcoming the impossible...

It is a cheap pair of sunglasses from the Venice Beach boardwalk, a coat hanger, and a web camera.

High-tech help for our heroes...

There's times that I might think I need to go to the hospital E.R., and I can get on there, and if there's any problems I need to know, she can answer.

There's usually a doctor right off beside her there.

And, finally, hands-free housekeeping...

We're not trying to just sell robots.

We're trying to sell time.

And if you just imagine the time that we could save by creating a product that does it for you completely autonomously?

To me, that's amazing.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by...


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.

For most people, getting stuck in a traffic jam on the New Jersey turnpike is a grueling lesson in futility.

But if you're Simone Garnier of the New Jersey Institute of Technology, it's an opportunity to ponder how we became so inefficient compared to other species.

Garnier is studying ants and slime mold in order to better understand collective human behavior.

When you look over an ant colony, and especially if you look up close, it looks extremely messy.

There doesn't seem to be a particular organization to the system.

However, if you take a step back, you're going to see trails that are all coming from one region that branches out, and they seem to be branching out at particular points.

You're going to see the traffic.

If you look at the traffic from far, it is not actually completely random.

It follows a particular path.

You're going to see an actually very well-organized superorganism.

This is Professor Simone Garnier of the New Jersey Institute of Technology, and his research into ants and slime mold has given him a unique perspective of our own collective behaviors.

Every time I'm in traffic, it's like occasion for me to observe the behavior of the other people and try to understand why we are so bad at organizing our traffic when ants, for instance, are so efficient at it.

The work we do is all about how a large-scale organization emerges from the actions of a lot of different individuals.

For example, take a swarm of South American army ants.

Most ant species are going to either dig into the ground to establish a network of chambers.

But the army ants don't do this.

They keep moving all the time in their colonies.

And they're capable of doing this with very tiny brains.

There's no boss in the colony.

There's nobody telling them, 'Well, it's time to do this,' or 'it's time to do that.'

Decisions are communal and often made through the use of pheromones, molecular dollops secreted by each ant as they move along.

That's their main mechanism of communication, main mechanism of orientation inside the rain forest.

But they are practically blind.

And just by using pheromones and touch, army ants can solve a myriad of dilemmas.

If you look at the ground floor in the rain forest, it's extremely messy.

There's a lot of ups and downs, a lot of gaps.

So, these army ants have this very particular behavior adaptation to create structures, ladders, and bridges.

To expedite their traffic.

After all, why go around a gap when you can build a bridge over it?

So, what we do is we build setups that we can place very quickly on top of a trail to force the ants to walk on top of our setup, and then we can record what they're doing with three different cameras.

To figure out what triggers the creation of these living structures.

What we suspect is when an ant arrives in front of a gap, it has to slow down, naturally.

And because it slows down, the ants behind them are piling up and actually start walking over the ants that are slowed down.

And it seems that the signal when someone is stepping on your back is a signal for the ants to stop moving.

Repeat that signal over and over in front of a traffic jam, and you get the beginnings of a bridge -- one even able to adjust itself to shorten the overall path.

And they're capable of doing this with very tiny brains.

But maybe this doesn't impress you.

We big-brained creatures work together to make bridges all the time.

We use apps to tell us the shortest route.

So, then, how about a creature with no brain at all?

So, slime mold is this unicellular organism that's actually a collection of nuclei inside.

So, it's like the cells of your body had all fused together to form this sort of gelatinous blob.

A blob capable of solving one of the most complex problems in sociology and economics, known as the multiarmed bandit problem.

It's a reference to the arm bandit in the casino.

And you might have 50 of these slot machines in front of you, and they don't always have the same reward rate.

But you won't know which machines are better unless you spend hours pumping them full of quarters.

And so, there's gonna be a point where we need to make a decision and stop, because otherwise we will just drain all our resources.

And so that's the multiarmed bandit problem.

You don't have to go to the casino to experience this problem.

You experience it all the time.

If you want to buy a new laptop on Amazon, you don't have all the time in the world to focus on getting all the information, opening all the information, all the options.

It's the same thing in traffic.

You have multiple options when you want to go from your work to your home.

Now, you can spend the entire year exploring all these routes one by one, but you don't have the time to just drive around the entire state of New Jersey.

And take the fastest way to get out, of course.

You have to pick the best one based on the information that you have right now.

So, how does the slime mold solve this problem?

So, when a puddle of slime mold happens to move over a food source, this is gonna trigger a set of signals inside the cell.

It's gonna start pulsating faster with a higher amplitude locally.

Now, the neighboring parts of the slime mold are gonna start, also, in turn, pulsating faster.

Pulling the cell body in the fluid away from the areas with less food.

The side that is close to the higher-priority food source little by little is going to basically redistribute all the material that is attached to the poorer food source.

When they tested this behavior in a lab using petri dish upon petri dish of slime molds, Dr. Garnier and his colleagues saw that the mold often chose the food-rich side to spread to.

In about 80% to 85% of the cases, it finds the best arm of the system.

It's a lot better than what human beings are capable of doing.

And if a single-cell blob with no brain makes better decisions than we do, maybe its behaviors are worth replicating and studying in detail.

The next step is to transform this behavior into equations and computer models.

Where they can then be applied to robots, urban planning, or maybe even solving our traffic woes.

Which is something that is actually very difficult to do experimentally by blocking an entire bridge for an entire day.

We live in an exciting age, where new technologies tackle seemingly impossible problems every single day.

But can tech offer hope to an artist battling ALS or restore hearing to a young musician?

Founder of Not Impossible Labs Mick Ebeling says yes.

Reporter Andrea Vasquez has this interview via Google Hangout.

Mick Ebeling, thank you for joining us.

You're the founder of Not Impossible Labs.

So, what is Not Impossible Labs?

What do you do?

Not Impossible Labs is a company that is based on the premise of technology for the sake of humanity.

And what that means is how do you take existing technology, anything that exists and plays in kind of the world, how do you maybe create new technology?

How do you engineer, hack, make something so that it accomplishes a fundamental human and social need?

So, technology that we make that accomplishes a human need.

That's what Not Impossible is.

That's what we do.

And our mission is to change the world through technology and story.

And what that means is obviously the technology part I just explained.

But because we have a filmmaking background and a storytelling background, whatever we create, we then go and take that and tell a really powerful story around that.

So, we'll make a movie or a short, and that's how we get the word out about the work that we do.

How did you get started?

We got started because back in 2009, I met a paralyzed graffiti artist named Tempt.

And Tempt at that time, or would have been the '80s and '90s, was one of L.A.'s most prominent graffiti artists.

And I didn't know him.

I didn't know anything about him.

But my wife and I went to an art benefit and were exposed to him and his work, and we found out that he had ALS, Lou Gehrig's disease.

And it was one of those moments, one of those kind of chance encounters that was stuck in the back of our head, and come towards the end of that year, we decided to make a donation on behalf of my company to the Tempt One Foundation.

When I sat across from his brother and said, 'Hey, we're gonna make a donation.

What are you gonna use it for?'

Their response was, 'We just want to be able to communicate and talk with Tempt again.'

And that was when I learned that the majority of the world doesn't have what I thought everybody had, which is a Stephen Hawking machine, right?

A device that allowed you to talk with your eyes.

And they said that that's not the case, that that's only because you have money or insurance.

And they didn't have either.

So, that kind of set the course of a principle that I write about and I talk a lot about and that we live by here, which is the principle of commit and then figure it out.

And so, I told his brother and father, 'Listen.

That's ridiculous.

We have to make something for him so that he can communicate and do his art again.'

And then, off we went.

And then we went off, and we created the Eyewriter.

And the Eyewriter is this.

That's it.

This is an example of it.


Steve Jobs would not be very happy with it.

It's not supposed to be pretty.

It is a cheap pair of sunglasses from the Venice Beach boardwalk, a coat hanger, and a web camera.

And what this does is, when you put it on, it focuses the camera back on your eye, and then it uses the center of your eye, your pupil, as a tracking point.

So, as you move your eyes, so does the cursor move on the screen.

You're writing the physical letters with your eyeballs?

Exactly, with your eyeballs.

[ Laughing ] Okay.

With the movement of your eyes.

Yeah, yeah.

Is it a group of experts when you get a request?

We have principles that we work by and live by here, and one of them is that you surround yourself with people who are specialists and experts in their particular field.

So, with the Eyewriter, I brought together a team of brilliant people from literally all the corners of the Earth, from Hong Kong, the Netherlands, Germany, New York, Utah.

Everybody came in from all kinds of places, and we just worked for a fast and furious five weeks.

One of the projects that you have is Music: Not Impossible.

Can you tell me about that?

With Music: Not Impossible, what we did is we recognized the fact that most people who are deaf, for them to experience music, it comes through the form of very kind of blunt vibrations.

If they go to a concert, they're just feeling kind of the bass or the speaker's turned up very loud.

That's the way that they experience music.

Having friends who are deaf, we realized that those vibrations are fairly -- they're not very accurate.

They're just kind of a general projection of these vibrating kind of tones of the music.

So, we said, 'Well, wait a second.

What if we were able to dissect music and actually project those vibrations but in a very smart way, in a very acute way?'

So, we created a solution that takes a music file and actually separates it out, fragments it out, and then projects it across the different parts of your body with little haptic vibrating motors.

So, what you have is you have now instead of feeling music -- and this goes for people who can hear or can't hear -- rather than just being hit with kind of that blunt instrument or that blunt vibration, now you have very tactile, very acute vibration patterns for lyrics or lead guitar or the bass guitar, the drums or the synth or whatever it might be.

So, the thing that we created for Mandy, who is a deaf singer -- this is the first time she was actually able to feel her music in a very precise way.

And the testimony to the fact that this actually worked, when we played one of her songs, she was able -- she can't hear -- but she was able to sing the song perfectly on time because she was able to feel the music.

So, when she started singing, it was the exact spot in the song that her lyrics were supposed to come up.

So, it was an amazing experience.

I look forward to seeing what else comes out of your lab.

Thank you, Mick Ebeling, for joining us.

Absolutely. Thank you.

Medical-technological advances not only affect the tools doctors use, but also the way they treat their patients.

Reporter Jim Kirchherr brings us to one of the world's first virtual medical centers, a facility that's putting a new twist on bedside manner.

In suburban St. Louis there's a brand-new office building.

You wouldn't know from the spacious lobby or from the high-tech workstations, but this is a medical building.

It's a place of doctors and nurses and monitors, but no beds, no exam rooms, no patients -- at least not here.

Around the clock, there are nurses and what's called 'triage software' monitoring patients in intensive-care units in hospitals in five states.

Chuck Belfield popped up one of his empty rooms in Oklahoma.

If a nurse is focusing on one particular patient, and his or her other patient gets bad, I'll get alerts on that, where they may not necessarily get those as quickly as I might.

Smaller hospitals can also be connected to specialists, who are often only found in big cities.

And Mercy's working to expand this network beyond its own hospital system.

But now the real buzz around here is taking this technology from intensive care to just plain healthcare.

Well, if you think about it, there really is no place it can't be.

We started in the intensive-care unit.

That was almost 10 years ago.

But our learnings from there evolved quickly into the hospital, which has now evolved quickly into the home.

A home, say, like this one, in Gerald, Missouri.

It's more than an hour outside St. Louis.

Donald Hayes lives here with his niece.

He was a longtime smoker.

Suffers from COPD, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

He spent a week in the hospital, and now he's almost always hooked up to oxygen.

He's also hooked up to the Mercy Virtual Care Center.

Now I see you.

At 11:00 on most days, he gets a house call from his nurse.

Can you hear me okay?

I sure can. Can you hear me?

I can hear you.

Okay, so, let me pull up our data.

This is not what you were trained to do, I imagine.

Not in the beginning, not at all.

Didn't even imagine something like this would be possible.

All right, so, I've got your weight, 176.4.

This is more than just a 'How are you doing?' call.

Before they connected, the nurse and her computers receive data from his house about his blood pressure, oxygen, heart rate, and weight.

Most people think of this as being telemedicine or television medicine, and it's much broader than that.

It uses the technology of telemedicine, but it also uses the data, integrates the data into the telemedicine process.

It is done synchronously and asynchronously.

So, make a point of getting up, taking a walk every day.

Gerald, Missouri, has a population of about 1,300 people.

It's not on the interstate, and the nearest hospital is in Washington, Missouri.

That's about a 40-minute drive, which isn't so bad unless you're heading to the emergency room.

I don't ever want to see one of them again.

There's times that I might think I need to go to the hospital E.R., and I can get on there, and if there's any problems I need to know, she can answer.

There's usually a doctor right off beside her there.

But Dr. Helton is my main one on this setup.

We've already seen success with multiple hospital admissions, and emergency rooms avoided because we proactively intervened.

Mercy is working to convince health-insurance companies and Medicare to cover this kind of home care, which it argues is a much cheaper ounce of prevention than the pound of cure typically covered at the hospital.

I feel real wheezy.

So, for now Mercy is picking up the tab for Donald Hayes' care, and this is still a pilot program it hopes to scale up.

That will be helpful for you in...

This is a big investment in what Mercy doctors feel is just the beginning.

The fourth floor of the building has an area devoted to ideas, brainstorming, collaboration.

But I think some of our concepts are a little ahead of the technology right now.

It's a future that might see wearable even in planted devices, providing a steady stream of information, not just to set off an alarm for the chronically ill, but possibly to provide something like a 'check engine' light for the healthy.

So, over time, virtual care will actually become standard care.

Continue to work on the low-sodium diet.

My biggest concern is not necessarily the ability of the technology to improve our care that we give.

My biggest fear is that we'll think of ourselves as technologists rather than as caregivers.

We still have to preserve that relationship that's there, and that will be a constant tug and pull and battle.

All right. Take care.

I'll see you tomorrow.

Okay, see you tomorrow.



So, I'm at the Brain Fitness Club in Winter Park, and I'm talking to Nikhil Patel, who's developed a very cool app, which allows people to sort of assess their cognitive abilities.

Nikhil, tell me a little bit about it.

Well, what I've developed is a 5-minute test that can identify the likelihood that you have some form of cognitive impairment, whether it be Alzheimer's or something like that 10 to 20 years earlier than it's being identified now.

What's the current way that Alzheimer's and those kinds of diseases are currently diagnosed?

So, currently, the only way to diagnose stuff like Alzheimer's is through an MRI, which is both very invasive and expensive.

So, tell me a little bit about the app here.

It showed us four shapes.

Now, after a couple seconds, it asks us where we saw a certain shape.

And what we also have to do is remember where they saw it and tap that quadrant at the screen.

And what do you hope to do with this in the future?

The goal of this is to become something that can be used in a primary-care doctor's office, at your yearly checkup.

Well, Nikhil Patel, thank you so much for showing us your innovation.

Thank you.

Because in the future the housekeeper might just be a robot, Maidbot will help hotel staff make beds and vacuum floors, and, according to its young inventor from upstate New York, the Maidbot will lift a major weight off the staff shoulders.

Take a look.

If 19-year-old entrepreneur Micah Green gets his way, a new housekeeping robot he created will be on the market by 2017.

Maidbot is still in prototype stage, and once complete, Green says it will help take the hotel industry by storm.

It's been the same, for, like, over a hundred years.

The biggest innovation in housekeeping has been the electric vacuum, which came out in 1905.

Maidbot will assist hotel-housekeeping staff to clean the floors, and it will eventually make beds and help maintain the bathrooms.

The team of eight from Ithaca, New York, says the lightweight machine will do more than just save time.

It'll save someone's neck, literally.

Robotics in general focuses on dull, dirty, or dangerous tasks.

So, housekeeping encompasses all of those.

Studies show that maids and housekeepers have one of the highest injury rates in the hotel industry and in the entire private sector.

Coming in at around 40%, back injuries are the most commonly reported, followed by pains in the hand and wrist and shoulder.

A lot of injuries aren't reported, and especially among this kind of workforce because they're part-time workers.

Sometimes they're contract workers, and they're probably at risk of losing their jobs.

Grant Esler lectures about OSHA guidelines at Rochester Institute of Technology.

He says ergonomic injuries are more subject to underreporting simply because they're not as obvious.

Muscular-skeletal injuries are difficult to identify as work-related.

It could happen when you're playing softball or picking up your kid at home.

I find this fascinating.

But how is this gonna be able to clean my floor and make my bed?

So, this is the first step in that direction, but this guy's gonna focus on the floors.

And essentially what we're doing here is we're creating the robotic vacuum, where the power will be in the center, and then we'll have the intake.

Maidbot's omnidirectional wheels roll forward like normal wheels but can slide sideways and won't skid when it turns.

David Moroniti is in charge of the technology.

This is the transmitter the team is using to test the product.

Now, for tradition aircraft, you use this throttle stick you want to hold in a certain position.

So, if I want to go forward at a certain rate, I can leave it there.

Maidbot will make its rounds to a few hotels this spring so staff can check it out.

More than anything, the startup's boss says he wants his invention to make a real difference in people's lives.

We're not trying to just sell robots.

We're trying to sell time.

And if you just imagine the time that we could save by creating a product that does it for you completely autonomously?

To me, that's amazing.

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.

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...