SciTech Now Episode 526

In this episode of SciTech Now, a GPS for your body that detect diseases; understanding how the brain processes information; a look at today’s hackers; and a group on a mission to beautify freeways in Texas.



Coming up... navigating through your body.

In small lesions, difficult to reach, electromagnetic navigation is recommended.

The brain's life cycle for memories.

When we tested them 24 hours later, that's when we saw this difference in memory emerging.

Breaking and entering in the world of hackers.

And hacking at MIT has this completely different definition in history.

Beautifying city traffic.

Houston has this big opportunity right now to re-envision the freeway system.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by...


I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Welcome to our weekly program, bringing you the latest breakthroughs in science, technology, and innovation.

Let's get started.

You've seen how a car's GPS navigation system works to help guide you where you want to go, but what about a GPS system for your body that helps detect diseases?

Here's a look at how one company is using technology to redefine medical care.

Most of us use GPS technology in our cars to get to where exactly we want to go, and new medical technology is using a similar concept in the human body to pinpoint potentially cancerous lesions for biopsy.

How did you begin using this technology to better detect, you know, these nodules and these lesions?

Well, the American College of Chest Physicians, after that, said that in small lesions, difficult to reach, electromagnetic navigation is recommended.

Because lung-cancer modules move every time you breathe, it makes it incredibly difficult for doctors to pinpoint their location, but now some surgeons are using an electromagnetic navigation system called Veran SPiN to track one of the most deadly cancers, and it's a variation of GPS.

So we can make a difference and impact in the population with decreased mortality, improve survival, and decrease cost, too, because when you do all this, it's not a surgery.

We do it with small needles, and then they don't need to stay in the hospital, and we can diagnose and treat simultaneously.

Dr. Aldo Parodi says the closest technology to Veran SPiN's electromagnetic tumor software is very similar to something else we use daily to navigate in our cars.

Veran SPiN's electromagnetic sensors are placed on the patient's chest and pinpoint deadly cancer nodules inside.

As he uses the bronchoscope, it's exact, just like your car's GPS navigation.

So the recommendation is, use this system for peripheral, less-than-2-centimeter lesions that are difficult to reach any other way.

That's critical because lung-cancer modules move around when a patient breathes, making them nearly impossible to pinpoint and remove.

The whole purpose is to diagnose and intervene in early-stage cancer.

Survival rates plummet at Stage III and IV diagnoses, which is when most cancers are diagnosed.

This is what we see when we do CAT scans the same day, when we download it in the software, and that X-ray images are going to be transformed in a 3-D map of the airways.

Once I localize the lesion, I touch the lesion, It becomes green, so that's when I have to biopsy.

This is how we download the images into a system with a USB, and these are the electromagnetic pads that we put on the patient's chest, see, so we can look at that in real time.

When you touch the lesion and we see it turn green, what is happening as you biopsy that lesion?

What's happening with your instrument?

I just take the samples out, and I give it to a pathologist that is with me.

He's going to look at the microscope, and he's going to tell me what kind of tissue I got, if it's consistent or not with cancer, so basically trying to shift the state of the diagnosis of cancer so to favor our community, improve survival, and decrease cost -- no need for hospitalization.

[ Keyboard clacking ] ♪♪

Our brains are constantly processing information, including our memories, but how does our brains decide which memories to keep and which ones to discard?

To help answer this question, Columbia University professor Dr. Daphna Shohamy joins us.

How do we -- I mean, we make memories all the time from every interaction, but how do we prioritize in our mind?

Yeah, it's a really crucially important question that we're interested in in my lab.

There are a lot of different factors that impact what we remember.

One of the mysteries, though, is that sometimes you're going to need to remember something long-term when, in the very moment it happened, it didn't stand out in any substantial way.

So one of the paradoxes is that we have a need in our mind to be able to prioritize memories often in retrospect, after something happened.

Is there any way to do that?

There are a number of different ways to do that, thankfully.

One of the ways we've been very interested in has to do with neutral events that don't stand out when they happen but that are followed by something of significance.

So, for example, one example that my coauthor, Kendall Braun, really likes to bring up is imagine you're wandering through Central Park and you stumble on a fantastic jazz ensemble.


While you were wandering, nothing special happened, but once that wonderful jazz ensemble is experienced, the brain kind of triggers a mark that something rewarding just happened, and it uses that mark to later on go back and kind of replay those memories so that they get prioritized in memory.

So I might remember what happened on that walk a little better if I associate it with, what, a positive event?

That's right, so even neutral events, if they're predictive of or lead to a positive event, those neutral events end up being remembered better than other neutral events.

How did you figure this out through tests?

Well, what we did in the study that we published recently is we had participants come in for an experiment in the lab, and we asked them to basically navigate sort of a matrix on the screen.

Nothing particular was happening, and they were just looking for a gold coin.

If they found the gold coin, they would actually get paid, and while they were navigating, looking for the gold coin, we had pictures appear one at a time, nothing of any special significance -- maybe a coffee mug, a picture of a tomato.

And what we did later on is we brought people back and gave them a surprise memory test for all those neutral objects they encountered while they were looking for the gold coin.


And then we basically wanted to see -- was memory better for neutral things that were close to, predictive of the reward, compared to neutral things that led to no reward?

So, when they got paid for the gold coin, they were more likely to have remembered the silly objects that they were watching before that.

That's right.

What we found is that the silly objects, as you call them, right before the reward were the ones that were remembered best, but there was sort of a trick about this, which is that if we tested their memory that same day, that's not what we found.

We found no difference in memory when we tested it the same day.

When we tested them 24 hours later, that's when we saw this difference in memory emerging, as if the brain needed time to sleep on it in order to get this prioritization.

Now, I always think about my brain kind of like these little people that are running around filing cabinets of memories, right, in one place, so there was that beautiful animated movie -- I want to say 'Inside Out' or something, right?


What is the distinction between short-term, medium-term and long-term memory, and how do we make those differently?


We used to distinguish very clearly between short-term and long-term memory.

We now know that there is a distinction but that there's sort of more of a gray zone in between, that there are things we can keep in mind in the moment, but the way we're remembering things in the short-term will have consequences also for what gets remembered in the long-term.

And one of the interesting things that happens -- we know from animal studies looking at neurons in the part of the brain important for memory, which is the hippocampus, that those neurons, during sleep, tend to replay some aspects of the moments from the day before, and so we know there's basically machinery at the biological level in our neurons that will allow this sort of rehearsing of certain events that had happened and that that can prioritize them in long-term memory.

So we're replaying things, kind of sorting through the day while we dream, while we sleep.

We're watching this dream movie, and in the other side of our brain, they're sitting there cataloging everything.

'Is this important?

Is this not?

Okay, keep this.

This was --' whatever, right?

You know, I always wonder also about -- say, for example, when there's a traumatic event like a car crash, people are able to describe it in incredible, vivid detail.

It's almost like everything is slowed down and they start to look at frame by frame, right?

Is there a hypersensitivity, where now there's different sense memories that are all turning on, saying, 'This is a big deal -- record this'?

Yeah, so, basically, when something really important happens, whether good or bad, there are neuromodulatory systems, there are chemicals in our brain that get released, and they can play a role in basically turning on the likelihood or sort of enhancing the encoding of memories in the moment.

The scenario you described as stressful events, such as a car accident, is one where we'd have a lot of stress hormones being released, a lot of arousal releasing hormones into our brain, and those will have a big impact on sort of what we ultimately remember.

They really sort of bathe the brain's memory systems in chemicals that change the likelihood that those memories will be encoded.

Now, when you start to say chemicals, then I wonder, does that mean that, somewhere, we're going to try to figure out, pharmacologically, how do we induce that state to try to trigger better memory retention without all of, obviously, the trauma and the stress of the car wreck?

Yeah, the pharmacology is really an important question there.

We know, for example, that, at least in the case of positive events, rewarding events like finding a gold coin, that it probably involves the neurotransmitter dopamine, and that's interesting because we know a lot about drugs that enhance dopamine in the brain.

And so, basically, if we think dopamine is important for enhancing memories and if we know that various drugs enhance levels of dopamine in the brain, that suggests a window by which the brain or pharmacologically we can enhance which memories are being stored.

Does the inverse also happen, meaning, when we have a bad experience, is our brain actively trying to shield and have us forget something that's painful?

There's a lot of interest in sort of the differences between rewarding events and punishing events and how they get encoded in the brain.

We know that both kinds of events, both categories of events, are arousing in different ways, and this question of sort of the suppression of memories is a really fascinating one.

We don't have a very good understanding yet of exactly how certain memories can retroactively be suppressed in a way that might parallel the way in which certain memories can retroactively be enhanced.

I guess it's almost like people can take lie-detector tests and say, 'No, that never happened to me,' you know, but there's clearly evidence that it but somewhere in their brain -- maybe it's a protective mechanism to say, 'I don't want you to feel those things again.'


You know?

I think this question you're raising, in many ways, is about the vulnerabilities of memories, right?

We were talking earlier about the prioritization of memories and how this can be adaptive and useful, but another aspect of that means that our memories are not actually accurate.

They're not really veridical records of what we experienced.

They're taking our experiences, turning some things up, turning some things down, meaning that our memories are fundamentally biased.


We'd like to think that, when we consider the role of memory in shaping behavior and decisions, it's that memories actually be biased, so in my lab, we think of this not as a of memory but often as a of memory, that memories are being laid down not so we can have an accurate record, but memories are being laid down so that they'll be ready for us to use them when we need to in the future.

Daphna Shohamy, thanks so much.

Thank you.

Did you know that only about 30% of hacks target a specific individual or institution?

Jeremy N. Smith, author of 'Breaking and Entering: The Extraordinary Story of a Hacker Called 'Alien,'' joins us via Google Hangout.

Thanks for being with us.

So, it makes me wonder about the other 70%. What are those 70% of hacks doing?


Well, you know, hackers are opportunistic, so imagine someone going through your neighborhood and just turning the knobs on doors or lifting, you know, windows and seeing what's open and how far you can go.

When you can do that virtually through automated computer scripts, you're much more successful.

So they might be targeting you, or they might just be knocking on your door, knocking on your computer's door or your computer's virtual ports, which are often sort of virtual windows, and seeing what's open and where you can go, and then once you're in, because computers are networked, can you go from one computer to the next to the next to the next?

So you might be able to go in a first floor and get all the way to the penthouse.

Wow, so you're really kind of pointing out a much easier crime with less mess involved.

So is this the future of organized crime?

Yeah, I mean, by the end of the book, you know, Alien uncovers the sort of current day of hacking, which is hacking as a kind of cloud-based service, if you want it.

I mean, there are places you can go.

You don't have to own a computer.

You don't have to know how to program.

You don't have to be a skilled hacker.

You just sign up, you chose your target, you type in the website or organization you want to try to attack, and you chose the kind of, you know, ways they're going to be targeted, the hacks you want them to use, and the hacks launch.

The average day that most of us go through, what are the things that we are doing that can be hacked?

Well, I think we're increasingly aware that anything that's a computer can be hacked, and what we're conscious of is everything is a computer.

So some of the really simple examples that I think are pretty accessible to most of us is our phones are computers.

Our cars are computers.

Our elevators are computers.

Our checkout systems in any store you do, that's a computer.

The security camera you use is a computer.

I mean, there's a scene in the book where she is tracing an attack through a major hospital system, and she runs through the emergency room, and you see, at the average patient bed in a hospital, you're hooked up to about 11 medical devices that themselves are network computers.

Any of those could be what's vulnerable or could be the source of the attack if it gets turned against you.

Let's talk a little bit about the hacker at the center of this, who goes by 'Alien.'

What kind of hacker is she?

I follow her through sort of a 20-year journey that's pretty much the same as the birth of the information-security industry, so if you look at her today, she's what we call a 'white-hat hacker,' so businesses and government agencies hire her and her team to try to break into them to see how they could be broken into, or if you've already been broken into, they'll do sort of response and fly and figure out what got broken into, how you got breached, what might have gotten lost, how to recover, and they'll do sort of digital hostage negotiations in, say, a ransomware case, where you need to figure out, 'How to get my data back safely?

How do I transfer Bitcoin to a bad guy?

Will that really work?

Should I do it?'

Stuff like that.

But if you go all the way back to when she's a 17-year-old at the beginning of the book, hacking has a totally different meaning, and we can talk about that or not if you want.

So, yeah, I mean, I'm imagining 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo' when you're talking about the 17-year-old.

Well, exactly.

Well, today, right, you have the girl with the 17-year-old who is all grown up and has, you know, the station wagon and a couple kids and a business and a mortgage, but she's still hacking.

When she's 17, she enters MIT as a freshman, and hacking at MIT has this completely different definition in history.

It predates computers, and it refers to physical exploration, so kind of going through buildings and other sort of built spaces, so they would go along ledges.

They would climb on rooftops.

They would go through steam tunnels, and there you're exploring the physical spaces in the way computer hackers, you know, explore our networks today.

Is she concerned about the fact that someone could try to turn the tables on her because she figured out where they were, or she helped a client of hers, you know, bring them to justice?

Well, by and large, the cases she's deals with and the adversaries she faces are professionals like her and her team, and so a professional might be motivated by revenge or malice, but, again, if you're trying to make money, the fastest thing is just to go to the next door, and so you just want to not be the lowest-hanging fruit yourself, and you have a better chance of avoiding being a victim.

I'd say, you know, being public with her story, sharing her story with me was one of the braver things she did, but, again, this is someone who is a natural risk-taker, and maybe that's emblematic in that.

Now, is there a way to avoid being the low-hanging fruit?

Because after you listed off all of the ways that I am interfacing with computers, what do I, duck myself into a cave somewhere on a remote island?

Is that the only way to keep myself hack-proof?

Right, well, you know, I talk about that in the book.

I say, you know, I wanted to turn off my phone.

I wanted to unplug everything.

I wanted to buy a shredder.

I wanted to move to the farm with my family, and I guess I went in a couple directions from that.

You know, one is you realize, it's not just computers that can be hacked.

I talked about her physical hacking tradition, but even today, there's a whole genre of physical, what they call 'penetration testers,' and she and her team do some of that work, where they might not use a computer at all.

They might use identity disguises.

They might pick locks, you know, too.

They might, you know, steal your shred bin with your sensitive information.

That might not involve a computer at all.

So hackers can be physical, as well as virtual, so unplugging everything isn't always the solution, and at the same time, we have to realize that security is a trade-off.

I mean, that's one thing she says again and again.

It's about being as safe as you can but then, you know, making peace with the safety you get and saying, 'Okay, I do want the benefits of this modern technology,' so taking that if you will.

But, in the book -- and there's certainly things I could say, you know, quickly that I do to try to be slightly higher-hanging fruit.

We can turn on encryption on our hard drive, which is really just a one-click switch that doesn't change much in your operations.

We can set up encrypted e-mail and choose encrypted messaging operations that better protect us, you know, from people -- if they get our data, those people can no longer read it.

We can, when we use public Wi-Fi, get systems called VPNs, or virtual private network, that give us a little bit better protection in a public space when we're using public Wi-Fi.

And we can also, as citizens and consumers, advocate for better data-usage policies by the companies and the government agencies tracking us, and a lot of that, you know, hasn't risen to the fore before, but I think we're more conscious of it now, so we want to be as vigilant about how companies our data as we are about what they need to do if they our data.

All right, Jeremy N. Smith, author of 'Breaking and Entering: The Extraordinary Story of a Hacker Called 'Alien.'' Thanks so much for joining us.

Thanks for having me.

Really appreciate it.


Humans have always wanted to learn about the sun, but it's dangerous to stare at it with just our eyes, so we built structures to help us study it.

Aristotle had his camera obscura.

Galileo used a telescope to document sunspots.

Spectrometers came next, allowing us to study the spectrum of the sun's light.

100 years later, George Ellery Hale explored the magnetic nature of the sun with a spectroheliograph.

Next, we launched Skylab, and it gave us our first high-resolution pictures of the sun's surface.

The Yohkoh spacecraft took X-rays of the sun.

Then SOHO and Hinode sent us even more incredible images.

TRACE delivered the closest-ever pictures of the sun and its magnetic fields.

SDO images the sun in many wavelengths.

Now, with STEREO, we see the whole sun in 3-D, never missing an inch.

Who knows what we will see next?

We will just have to keep looking up.

♪♪ [ Satellite beeping ] [ Keyboard clacking ] ♪♪

Houston, Texas, is a city defined by highways.

Now one design group is on a mission to give those a makeover through colorful artwork.

Take a look.

Houston's a city that's pretty much defined by freeways.

Everything is everywhere in Houston.

There's a great dry cleaner over here.

There's a great place I want to get food over here.

It's a modern city that's designed around the car.

Tell me about this project.

Houston has this big opportunity right now to re-envision the freeway system.

The big section of US-59 -- or I guess it's I-69 now -- will be coming down or being changed, but in the interim, we wanted to look at ways that we could beautify that project.

Whatever we do would be temporary.

Tell me about some of the other projects SWA has done for Houston.

I mean, one that probably we're most famous for is the Buffalo Bayou project.

By going in and developing an open-space system like that, it transformed people's identity of Houston from just infrastructure and freeways to thinking more about nature in the city.

It's a infrastructure corridor much like the freeway system.

What are some of the technical constraints of beautifying Houston's traffic?

How to go about doing something in a really costing environment... [ Horn blares ] ...vibrations, the noise.

Everything is kind of this gray color.

We need to think about the fact that there's people in cars when they're going down freeways, oftentimes sitting at a standstill.

When you reframe the idea of a freeway as a public space, it opens up doors for including art as a part of that freeway system.

So, this is a mock-up of the project that we're going to be doing along the freeway.

What you're looking at are these Coroplast strips.

It's like corrugated plastic.

You can see, at the bottom, there's little numbers so that the guys that are installing it are able to get the right piece in the right spot, because when you stand back, it creates this image for you.

The first step is creating the images.

Take us through some of your artistic decisions for this design process.

There are a lot of technical constraints within the freeway corridor.

You can't really put realistic imagery because it becomes a billboard and becomes really distracting for the drivers, so some of those constraints, safety constraints primarily, dictate that we take a literal image and make it a little bit pixelated, a little bit almost difficult to understand.

We use children's photography from the city.

At that speed of travel, it actually reads really well.

♪♪ It's essentially a weaving process.

You take the strips, or the strings, and you pull them through the chain-link in a very laborious way.

When you drive down a highway, you know, in Houston, you learn to block out all the white noise, and to see something that's not a billboard and it doesn't really tell you literally what it is and it's kind of beautiful, hopefully it will make their time within that corridor much more enjoyable.

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 then, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

Funding for this program is made possible by... ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪