SciTech Now Episode 241

In this episode of SciTech Now, using advanced technology to analyze therapy sessions; can eating exotic species help protect our ecosystem?; science filmmaker Emily Driscoll discusses how eating invasive species may help the environment; making it safe to work with robots; and bridging the gap between good ideas and medical tech products.


Coming up, software-assisted therapy.

How fascinating to be able to get a measurement that says, 'Yeah, you and this client were in tune, objectively.

Your voices were synching, your tone was synching, you were tracking each other in what you were saying and how you were saying it.'

Experiments in exotic eating.

If we can take pressure off of some of the proteins that we're eating now, we can not only take pressure off of those protein sources that we're overfishing but protect native species and coastal reefs.

And finally, a place for big ideas.

If we have this device in place, and instead, a nurse does not have to actually manually check this and upload this information into a computer, we can save a nurse about two minutes every time they do this.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by...

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.

The National Institute of Mental Health reports that nearly 10% of Americans seek therapy.

But how exactly can one measure the effectiveness of these treatments?

According to a team of scientists at the University of Washington, the answer lies in a new software program that uses advanced technology to analyze therapy sessions and to provide detailed feedback to the practitioners.

Here's the story.

We've come a long way with artificial intelligence mimicking human emotions, but what if software programs could detect emotions?

Dr. David Atkins at the University of Washington is working on a system that can do just that.

The goal -- to train and rate therapists.

We're in the A.I. bucket, yeah.

Over 10% of Americans use psychotherapy or talk-based therapy to treat mental-health issues.

But what makes a good therapist?

Atkins and his team have developed software technology that records the audio from a therapy session, then analyzes that audio, looking for specific quality metrics, such as empathy.

Some of that is literally what are the words that are being said but also the way in which words are spoken.

The tone and the inflection in someone's voice can be important, in terms of understanding the interpersonal dynamic between a counselor and a patient.

Atkins says this dynamic can help measure how empathic a therapist is, which in turn rates the quality of care delivered to clients.

So, from your perspective, the drinking isn't really getting in the way of the application process, but from your parents' perspective, they're still a little concerned.



Today, Atkins is recording a mock therapy session with Grin Lord, a licensed clinical psychologist.



Less than an hour later, Atkins has the results from Lord's session.

As you can see here, these are two overall scores for the entire session.

So this is characterizing, overall, how well did the session go.

So we can see here that you were really empathic.

You're summarizing what the client said.

And we can see down here that Kristen is not just a party girl.

And that -- that's what you said at this time.

Oh, okay.

That was a complex reflection.


That's so cool that you can zoom in on what I said.

How fascinating to be able to get a measurement that says, like, 'Yeah, you and this client were in tune, objectively.

Your voices were synching, your tone was synching, you were tracking each other in what you were saying and how you were saying it.'

Atkins is collecting feedback from mock sessions like Lord's before he heads into real clinical settings.

And he admits, it's not all positive.

Some of the initial feedback that therapists are giving us are highlighting some places where, honestly, we're making a mistake.

You know, the system is not perfect, and so the therapist said, 'Hey, look here,' you know?

'Your system said I'm giving information where I was really asking a question.'

Once the program is debugged and the trial phases are complete, Atkins believes this technology can be used to train therapists and help even rate their quality of care.

But are we ready to have a software program determine the quality of care therapists provide?

It's not for the computer to judge therapists.

That was my initial fear when I heard about it, and I really don't see that happening.

If anything, it's gonna eliminate long coding times and be able to have outreach to rural communities and places that couldn't have expert evaluators there.

This is clearly one piece of the puzzle.

We also want to know how well is the patient doing.

Are they improving?

And so any feedback that we would generate from our own system needs to be part of a package that would really help define quality care, in general, for counseling and psychotherapy.

Invasive exotic species can be more than just unwelcome guests.

They can also be a source of food.

Eating exotic species like the venomous lionfish might seem a bit extreme, but it also may just be the key to protecting the oceanic ecosystem.

Here's a look.


These cockroaches are welcome in my kitchen any time.

And I hope that other kitchens will open their doors to them, also.

I've been called a number of things, from an exotic food chef, alternative food designer.

When we talk about alternative and exotic in America, it's something that is out of the normal diet for most people.

It may not be exotic to a person coming from that country.

Exotic species are species that are living where they are not native.

Some of them live there kind of subtly at low population levels, and some of them explode and go crazy and take over.

If they explode and go crazy, they're called invasive species.

At the Safina Center, we're trying to get people to have a closer relationship with the natural world.

We analyze how fish are caught or otherwise get to your plate.

That's how work with Explorers Club.

The Explorers Club is a very unusual organization.

This group of individuals has left a mark to improve society through scientific exploration.

Back to Shackleton's days and Parry's days, when explorers came back and had the Explorers Club annual dinner, they came back to show others what they had found.

We're dealing with the oceans this year.

So the idea behind taking some invasives out, try a new food source, you'll be shocked.

It's gonna be delicious.

I can't think of a single fish that is a worse problem now than lionfish off the east coast of the United States.

I see them here immediately.

They have escaped from aquariums.

Whatever keeps them in check in their native range is missing, and they could easily eat two dozen fish in a meal.

And because they're venomous, many fish would avoid attacking them.

Our lionfish are gonna be a challenge for us.

It's the spine which is the venomous portion.

We'll have needle-stick-proof gloves.

We're gonna give them enough temperature that it will neutralize the quill.

The filets that we use, if we need to, will be most likely broiled and then glazed with a light spice.

Another one of our selections is another invasive, is an Asian carp.

Asian carp are in some of our rivers in the midwest, and they -- Again, that's another fish that is in plague proportions in rivers, and they occupy a lot of the water.

They eat a lot of what's there.

They outcompete native fish for food and for space.

We've never tried this before.

My goal is to do sashimi first to get this myth that all carp is an earthy aftertaste type fish.

This carp is absolutely high sashimi quality.

I usually try to go with the two out of three concept.

If I give you two items you're familiar with, I hope you'll trust me on the third.

The whole idea of these dinners is to educate, trigger your adventurous spirit.

If we could educate people into trying other types of fish products, it would put less pressure on those fish that are in such dire straits now.

This is lionfish.


I was saying that they would have that here.

It's not bad, actually.

Lionfish is great.

Have you tried one of these?

One of the things about eating invasive species is that we're not used to eating them.

That's probably the main impediment.

What else you got here?

Oh, my God.

Are you kidding?

Lionfish, iguana, feral hog, feral goat, all the insects are in one of those, Asian carp, catfish, python.

We got them all.


It smells good.

I got to go get some iguana.

Yeah, let's do that.

I think it will be a little bit of chicken, a little grassy.

Very crunchy and squishy on the inside.

It's better than I expected.

People have to get comfortable with the idea that that is good food to eat.

Because we have so depleted so many of the fish populations of the world, and with 7 billion people and climbing, our pressure is just increasing and increasing, so we're either going to completely demolish the ocean or we're gonna try to do some things a little bit better.

How was it?

I think it was spicy.



Joining me now is science filmmaker Emily Driscoll.

I watched that video, and I got the creepy-crawlies just thinking about those people eating all those insects and fish and... Is this -- you know, this bigger picture, this idea that we could actually help humanity and ecosystems overall by eating some of these species that are just having their way with the rest of us?

Yes, eating invasive species can help the environment in multiple ways.

So, this was the Explorers Club annual dinner, and the Explorers Club, it's a nonprofit that promotes scientific research by air, sea, land, and space.

So, once a year, these explorers get together, and they kind of share stories of their research over the past year, and this was the 112th Explorers Club annual dinner, and we wanted to focus on ocean conservation and restoration.

And I was actually a co-chair this year, along with Gaelin Rosenwaks and Nancy Rosenthal.

So we got to be involved with all the planning.

And Gene Rurka is the exotics food chef, and he's been doing this for 25 years.

He's extending this tradition of when explorers would come back and share foods and artifacts and stories from when they were gone on expedition, and a hundred years ago, those expeditions would last for years at a time.

This is how it started, as a way to share food and experiences from different research trips.

It's pretty exciting to see these scientists who some are probably more comfortable in a cave or in the field somewhere than an evening gown, but they're bringing that little bit of exploration in their food.

So you see these people in evening gowns eating cockroaches and other invasive species, and we really wanted to focus on marine invasive species for this dinner.

Right now, we're focusing on the same proteins over and over again, so if we can take pressure off of some of the proteins that we're eating now and also remove species from the environment that are threats to other species and native species, we can not only take pressure off of those protein sources that we're overfishing but protect native species and coastal reefs.

I think it was amazing, though, when you see those maps and they splay out, how the lionfish, I guess, escaped from tanks, and then here it is, just going right through an entire chunk of ocean.

And you can kind of see it -- up to Mississippi, there's a huge chunk, and then it starts to go all over the rest of the country.


It's surprising just in what a short amount of time an invasive species can take hold.

And not all of them do, but when exotic species come into a new territory and explode and take over, as they say in the film, then they become invasive species.

And the lionfish has only been there for about 20 years, yet it's decimating the whole Atlantic coast and Caribbean and probably now down into South America, too.

And lionfish can eat two or three times their weight in food, and a lot of fish, because they're so new, they don't recognize that lionfish are threats, so they don't know to run away.

Like you can see in the film, a juvenile fish is just kind of hovering there and not even realizing that there's a predator behind it.

There's also this interesting notion that eating a cricket might seem strange to us, but it's actually as much cultural as it is anything else, right?

That there's not -- Some cultures don't necessarily frown upon it, or if that's what's available, that's actually a source of protein that might keep them alive.

And then we think of, as you mentioned, we have a dependence on livestock and protein that's pretty resource-intensive.

I mean, compare what it takes to grow a pound of beef versus a pound of crickets.


And Gene Rurka, the exotic chef, would say when he was going on his expeditions, he would see people eat a tarantula for lunch because that was available to them, and that's a terrific source of protein.

So it might seem strange to us, but other places, insects are pretty common.

And here, even in New York City, you can find insects now at restaurants.

So it's becoming more known.

But in terms of relying on livestock, I mean, the amount of water that goes into a pound of beef -- 2,000 gallons of water to raise a pound of beef.

1 gallon of water to raise a pound of crickets.

So just right there.

And plus, the land use that's involved and the resources, pollution, and not to mention time that it takes to raise these insects.

Is there going to be, you think, a measurable effect if, for example, lionfish becomes the hot new dish?

Considering the rate at which they repopulate and grow and spread, could we actually make a dent in the lionfish population by encouraging people to eat it?

Yes, absolutely.

And I think also the point is just to broaden your view of what is food so we're not just relying on one type of protein.

So right now it's lionfish and Asian carp.

What are other invasive species?

But there are challenges with lionfish because they do have the poisonous spines, and divers have to go in and spear them, so they're not that easy to get.

But right now, they're just -- they're rampant.

But actually, every Whole Foods in Florida is now going to carry lionfish, so it's starting to get easier to find them.

All right.

Emily Driscoll, thanks so much.

Thank you.

Universal Robotics is about making automation accessible for anyone.

Oftentimes, automation is seen as the domain of big manufacturers, the Ford Motor companies of the world, the Chryslers.

The original robot design was when our founder was tasked with putting pepperoni slices on pizza.

But I didn't just want to make a pizza placer.

I wanted to make a robot that was easily teachable for any application.

This lets me teach it easily.

So, as you saw earlier, I can tell the robot, 'Hey, I want to move you,' and it will be compliant, because it says, 'Oh, I'm feeling a force.

I'm gonna go with that force.'

In operation, if it sees an unexpected force, it says, 'Something's wrong.

Maybe I've hit something.

Maybe something's in the way.

I should stop.

I should back off and tell the operator, 'Hey, am I all right?'

What am I doing?'' Our founder basically developed the concept of collaborative robotics.

Rather than a robot that is unaware of its own position and its own movements, I have a robot that has feedback systems and a built-in safety system.

On most production floors, you've got a robot, you've got a sensor, you've got a cage, you've got a gate, you've got a lock -- anything to keep people away from the robot -- because they're so big and so heavy they can be dangerous.

Our robots are light enough that you can easily have them near a person, working right with the operator, and be safe for both the robot and the operator.

There's often a big gap between a good idea and getting a product to market.

One program, started at Washington University in St. Louis and spreading to other cities, is bridging that gap.

The result -- real-world experience and more than a few startups.

Reporter Jim Kirchherr has the story.

This is IDEA Lab's demo day -- presentations and pitches by students, from undergrads to post-docs, of products in various stages of development.

So, we're WOOTA.

We're a social venture that produces water out of air with no electrical input.

Yeah, so we just want to take all of the thinking and heavy lifting out of meal planning.

The teams are collaborative.

This is key.

Medical, engineering, and business, tackling unmet needs in healthcare delivery and clinical medicine.

So, keep an eye out for us.

We'll have a website up pretty soon.

The teams have the support, including a couple of thousand dollars, from Washington University and other sponsors.

So, what we do is that we have three missions.

Our first is to teach entrepreneurship to students in the university, but we're also here to solve medical technology problems, and then, ultimately, we're trying to impact and improve patient healthcare.

We met a team that's developed something called UroStat, a device that measures a hospital patient's urine output in real time.

And to find out more than the pitch, we met up with a couple of the team members in the IDEA Labs workshop that's been set up in an old operating room on the Washington University medical campus.

This is the simulated urine.

[ Chuckles ]

This is biomedical engineer Mrinal Pahwa.

This is Dr. Raphael Sun, a general surgery resident.

A third member of their team is handling the business plan.

They set up a demonstration of the product using an anatomically correct model usually used to train nurses to insert catheters.

The water fills the bladder inside, and then there's the usual setup -- the catheter leading to a container.

But it's hanging from the UroStat scale, which is constantly detecting the weight and computing the volume.

Comes through here, and then that's basically our microprocessor and amplifier.

You can see the bag filling up as it happens on the laptop.

In the ICU, it would go directly to the patient's electronic chart.

No waiting for a nurse to go into the room, to look, record, and enter the information.

What initially sparked my interest was when I was on the transplant service.

So, I would implant a new kidney for the patient, close up the operation, close up the patient, and bring them to the recovery unit.

And an hour would go by, and I would check the computer, and there was no urine output recorded.

So this really sparked my interest because, without knowing the urine output, this new kidney, we don't know what the function is 'cause the first few hours -- the first 24 hours -- is really important for you to know the status of how well that kidney is functioning.

This is exactly the kind of thing IDEA Labs promotes in the healthcare field, turning the 'I wish somebody would do something' into somebody actually doing something.

The doctor brings the idea to the engineer, they team up with someone who knows business, because this has to work as a device and as a product.

So, our biggest saving has been time right now.

So we've communicated to our investors and anyone listening that if we have this device in place and instead, a nurse does not have to actually manually check this and upload this information into a computer, we can save a nurse about two minutes every time they do this.

And 2 nurse minutes every hour, 24 hours a day, comes out to about 300 hours a year checking a urine bag.

So that must get somebody's attention.

Yeah, absolutely.

I think, if anything, the hospital will realize that they can spend their money more wisely to really help make sure that their outcomes are really strong for all of their patients.

If it works right, it should get to 842.

And if the cost of the device is low enough and the savings high enough, you've got a business.

All right.

The nice thing about it is, it doesn't...

The end goal after eight months is actually to create a company that can actually create a product to solve some medical challenge, so...

Are there success stories coming out of this?

Yeah, we've had really great traction.

So, of the past three years we've existed, we've actually had teams go on to achieve about $2.2 million of investment.

A lot of the IDEA Labs teams that have come this far will not get a product to market -- at least, not this time around.

So, this still isn't the right one yet, I don't think.

We're really in the prototype stage.

But if they do, and this is big, the idea, the product, the patent, the business -- it all belongs to them, not to the university.

Having that policy in clear writing has really motivated our teams to be able to say, 'I own this, and I'm doing it, so I'm gonna put a lot of effort into it.'

But certainly, this is something that's changed my career and my outlook on healthcare delivery.

And so, with IDEA Labs, there's this connection that's inherently built now, where someone like Dr. Sun had the idea for this entire project but didn't really know how to make it happen, he can find someone like myself to then kind of put the nuts and bolts together to make it work and then find some other friends who can build a business plan around it, and all of a sudden, we're kind of running full speed ahead, trying to make this happen.


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...