Category: Innovation

21 Jun 2018

Ontario Plans to Let Companies Access A Database of Patient Health Records

All the diseases we’ve ever had; the medications we took to treat them; our genetic condition; the results of any test, scan, or swab to which we’ve ever been subjected. Our medical histories are packed with tremendous value.

In the right, thoughtful hands, these records could help researchers better understand the connections between genetics, diet, disease, and health. Pharmaceuticals could vastly improve.

In the wrong hands, these records hold a different type of value. Forbes reported last year that a medical record can be worth more than 100,000 times as much as a stolen social security number on the black market. These records can be misused even if they’re shared with the wrong people. Employers, for example, may want to know which job applicants are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s Disease; targeted advertisements could get a hell of a lot more personal.

Now, the government of Ontario — a hotbed of technological research — announced Project Spark, an initiative to make healthcare data more accessible to healthcare professionals, researchers, companies, and the people of Ontario themselves. So there’s reason to be excited, and a bit nervous.

Ontario, like all of Canada, provides a single payer healthcare system, meaning doctor visits and other medical expenses are subsidized by the government. That means the government of Ontario has accumulated a vast, central database of its citizens’ electronic health records that in other healthcare systems might be fragmented among various doctor’s offices, health maintenance organizations, and medical labs.

With all of these records in the same place, the government of Ontario claims that it’s easier than ever for people to keep track of their own medical histories and stay better informed of their conditions and risks as they go about their lives. Doctors won’t need to track down elusive records or start piecing together patients’ medical histories from scratch, risking allergic reactions or ordering tests on patients who have been through it all before but weren’t able to bring their paper trail with them.

That’s one of the proposed benefits of Project Spark — a platform that lets people access and contribute to their own medical record in a way that could democratize medicine and healthcare. But the main purpose of Spark is to let innovators, researchers, and other companies “plug in” to the province’s treasure trove of healthcare data.

“This is an interesting initiative that has potential to improve health outcomes and reduce costs,” Avi Goldfarb, a tech economics researcher at University of Toronto, told Futurism.

While the people of Ontario won’t have to contribute additional data to Project Spark — the government isn’t going to come knocking with cheek swabs for genetic tests — but it does turn them and their medical histories into commodities.

Commodities that could bring about medical breakthroughs but could also share more personal details than they may want to give.

Xinh Studio / Emily Cho


Right now, Ontario’s health records are stored in secured databases with tight controls over who can access what. But if Project Spark, or any other holder of big data repositories, is about to open for business, it needs to take extra care in advance. Ontario only gets one shot to do this right.

If the government fails to properly protect patient privacy, or opens the doors to the wrong companies, Ontarians whose data falls into the wrong hands could face dire consequences. The team behind Project Spark has not responded to Futurism’s request for a statement on how it handles data privacy and how it will choose and prioritize among the companies and organizations vying for access to its health records (we will update this article if and when we hear back).

In the meantime, there are some ways that Ontario’s Project Spark (or any other organization that finds itself in this situation) can develop a healthy marketplace that promotes medical transparency and biomedical research without sacrificing data privacy.

“Making health data available for academic research is an important step in advancing our understanding of diseases and cures,” Christian Catalini, an associate professor of technological innovation at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and founder of MIT’s cryptoeconomics lab, told Futurism. “At the same time, when multiple entities, including for-profit ones, receive access, it becomes extremely important to ensure that the data cannot be de-anonymized, especially when used in conjunction with other private datasets,” Catalini added.

Any company or research institute that gains access to electronic health records must be barred from ever learning who it is actually studying. For instance, if a team of scientists wants to determine whether or not people with a certain genetic makeup are predisposed to develop certain conditions, the team could be required to request and receive only the pertinent data from each health record — information on the genes in question and whether or not those people developed the condition being studied. No names or identities at all.

“This information has potential to improve healthcare substantially overall. In the process, it is important that any individual-level data is only accessible to those who need it to improve health outcomes,” Goldfarb said. “The key will be to ensure that individuals are protected as the overall benefit accrues.” Goldfarb cited research that suggests mishandling health data, specifically by keeping information hidden when it’s most needed by practitioners, can have serious repercussions on vulnerable populations in particular.

Luckily, there are plenty of ways to make sure that a system gives researchers and private companies only the data relevant to a study (and nothing else) so that they can’t learn who has had what conditions but just that someone has.

“Digital information is easy to copy and reuse outside of its intended purpose, so I hope the initiative takes data security and privacy very seriously,” added Catalini.

Of course, once the data is out there, it’s very difficult to make sure people don’t misuse it. This is why the government of Ontario needs to be particularly careful as it moves forward. To signal to the world that it respects and values its people and their privacy, Ontario needs to very carefully vet who will have access to Project Spark. As Quartz mentioned, over 100 companies are currently in line.

To make sure that data only goes to those who will use it responsibly, like conducting medical research that could benefit those who unwittingly donated their medical records, the government of Ontario ought to vet every single application to access its health data. Not just once per company, but for every study that would analyze them.

Project Spark could set up its system such that relevant data is available, but then automatically deleted once the study or project is completed. That way, if that same data works its way into another study or some marketing company’s database, it would be easy to tell who broke the rules and cut them off down the road. A model for this already exists: journalists can sometimes access academic papers before they’re released to better prepare their articles as long as they agree not to publish their article until the paper actually comes out. Those who publish early risk losing access in the future.

Again, these are proposed solutions to the problem of gleaning valuable insight from data that ought to be kept safe and anonymous. And we don’t yet know how Project Spark plans to handle these issues.

We live in a world where large troves of data are leaked or stolen on a seemingly daily basis. Whether it’s the latest Facebook privacy scandal, the recent leak of 150 million MyFitnessPal accounts, or the Equifax leak that now feels like ancient history, evidence suggests that just about any data put online could end up stolen. If we want people to trust that their data will be used to help people and not used against them, especially where their personal medical records are concerned, programs like Project Spark will have to invest in the right kind of digital infrastructure before kicking into high gear.

Sourcec: Futurism

19 Jun 2018

Google’s AI Can Predict When A Patient Will Die

AI knows when you’re going to die. But unlike in sci-fi movies, that information could end up saving lives.

A new paper published in Nature suggests that feeding electronic health record data to a deep learning model could substantially improve the accuracy of projected outcomes. In trials using data from two U.S. hospitals, researchers were able to show that these algorithms could predict a patient’s length of stay and time of discharge, but also the time of death.

The neural network described in the study uses an immense amount of data, such as a patient’s vitals and medical history, to make its predictions. A new algorithm lines up previous events of each patient’s records into a timeline, which allowed the deep learning model to pinpoint future outcomes, including time of death. The neural network even includes handwritten notes, comments, and scribbles on old charts to make its predictions. And all of these calculations in record time, of course.

What can we do with this information, besides fear the inevitable? Hospitals could find new ways to prioritize patient care, adjust treatment plans, and catch medical emergencies before they even occur. It could also free up healthcare workers, who would no longer have to manipulate the data into a standardized, legible format.

AI, of course, already has a number of other applications in healthcare. A pair of recently developed algorithms could diagnose lung cancer and heart disease even more accurately than human doctors. Health researchers have also fed retinal images to AI algorithms to determine the chances a patient could develop one (or more) of three major eye diseases.

But those early trials operated on a much smaller scale than what Google is trying to do. More and more of our health data is being uploaded to centralized computer systems, but most of these databases exist independently, spread across various healthcare systems and government agencies.

Funneling all of this personal data into a single predictive model owned by one of the largest private corporations in the world is a solution, but it’s not an appealing one. Electronic health records of millions of patients in the hands of a small number of private companies could quickly allow the likes of Google to exploit health industries, and become a monopoly in healthcare.

Just last week, Alphabet-owned DeepMind Health came under scrutiny by the U.K. government over concerns it was able to “exert excessive monopoly power,” according to TechCrunch. And their relationship was already frayed over allegations that DeepMind Health broke U.K. laws by collecting patient data without proper consent in 2017.

Healthcare professionals are already concerned about the effect that AI will have on medicine once it’s truly embedded, and if we don’t take precautions for transparency before then. The American Medical Association admits in a statement that combining AI with human clinicians can bring significant benefits, but states that AI tools must “strive to meet several key criteria, including being transparent, standards-based, and free from bias.” The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) passed by Congress in 1996 — 22 years is an eternity in technology terms — just won’t cut it.

Without a effective regulatory framework that encourages transparency in the U.S. it will be near impossible to hold these companies accountable. It may be up to private companies to ensure that AI technology will have an impact on healthcare that benefits patients, not just the companies themselves.

Source: Futurism

18 Jun 2018

Want to Breathe on Mars? A Sea-Dwelling Bacteria Could Make That Possible.

Forget constructing cool Martian habitats, growing food, or digging tunnels. If we can’t figure out a way to breathe on Mars, what’s the point of all of our colonization plans?

Now, we may have a new hope in the hunt for a steady supply of oxygen on the Red Planet: cyanobacteria. This family of bacteria sucks up carbon dioxide and discharges oxygen in some of Earth’s most inhospitable environments. On Friday, a team of researchers published a new study in the journal Science linking the tiny organisms to the possibility of human life on Mars.

Remember photosynthesis? It’s how plants and other organisms convert sunlight into energy. Cyanobacteria also use photosynthesis to produce energy, but they’re able to do so in conditions with far less sunlight than what you need to grow your tomato plants. In fact, scientists have found cyanobacteria thriving in the deepest trenches in the ocean.

A key part of the photosynthesis process is the chemical chlorophyll. Most plants and organisms convert visible light into energy using chlorophyll-a. The researchers figured out that cyanobacteria use a special kind of chlorophyll, chlorophyll-f, to convert far-red/near infrared light into energy. This is how they’re able to live in such low-light environments.

“This work redefines the minimum energy needed in light to drive photosynthesis,” study co-author Jennifer Morton said in a news release. “This type of photosynthesis may well be happening in your garden, under a rock.”

The upshot: we can send cyanobacteria to Mars to produce oxygen for colonists in the future, the researchers note. We’ve already found the organisms living in the Mojave Desert, Antarctica, and even on the exterior of the International Space Station (ISS), so they seem well-equipped to survive the harsh conditions of our planetary neighbor.

“This might sound like science fiction, but space agencies and private companies around the world are actively trying to turn this aspiration into reality in the not-too-distant future,” said study co-author Elmars Krausz in the press release. “Photosynthesis could theoretically be harnessed with these types of organisms to create air for humans to breathe on Mars.”

Now that we have a solid lead on a source of extraterrestrial oxygen, go ahead and start mentally constructing that Martian habitat of your dreams. You might not be able to actually live in it for another couple of decades, but at least you’ll likely be able to breathe once you move in.

Source: Futurism

13 Jun 2018

Brain-Based Circuitry Just Made Artificial Intelligence A Whole Lot Faster

We take the vast computing power of our brains for granted. But scientists are still trying to get computers to the brain’s level.

This is how we ended up with artificial intelligence algorithms that learn through virtual neurons  the neural net.

Now a team of engineers has taken another step closer to emulating the computers in our noggins: they’ve built a physical neural network, with circuits that even more closely resemble neurons. When they tested an AI algorithm on the new type of circuitry, they found that it performed as well as conventional neural nets already in use. But! the new integrated neural net system completed the task with 100 times less energy than a conventional AI algorithm.

If these new neuron-based circuits take off, artificial intelligence researchers will soon be able to do a lot more computing with a lot less energy. Like using a tin can to communicate with an actual telephone, computer chips and neural net algorithms just speak two different languages, and work slower as a result. But in the new system, the hardware and software were built to work perfectly together. So the new AI system completed the tasks much faster than a conventional system, without any drop in accuracy.

This is a step up from previous attempts to make silicon-based neural networks. Usually, the AI systems built on these sorts of neuron-inspired chips don’t usually work as well as conventional artificial intelligence. But the new research modeled two types of neurons: one that was geared for quick computations and another that was designed to store long-term memory, the researchers explained to MIT Technology Review.

There’s good reason to be skeptical of any researcher who claims that the answer to truly comprehensive, general artificial intelligence and consciousness is to recreate the human brain. That’s because, fundamentally, we know very little about how the brain works. And chances are, there are lots of things in our brains that a computer would find useless.

But even so, the researchers behind the new artificial neural hardware have been able to glean important lessons from how our brains work and apply it to computer science. In that sense, they have figured out how to further artificial intelligence by cherry-picking what our brains have to offer without getting weighed down trying to rebuild the whole darn thing.

As technology sucks up more and more power, the hundred-fold improvement to energy efficiency in this AI system means scientists will be able to pursue big questions without leaving such a huge footprint on the environment.

Source: Futurism

12 Jun 2018

New VR Demo Lets You use your hands to explore a Cat’s Innards

Oh, cats. Anyone who has tried to understand one has found that a feline’s fickle moods are simply impossible to predict. But ever wonder what makes cats tick — you know, on the inside? Now you can find out thanks to a (very literally) hands-on new demo in virtual reality.

On Monday, San Francisco-based tech company Leap Motion announced the fourth generation of its Orion VR tracking software. The biggest change? Anyone with an Oculus or Vive VR system can better navigate the virtual world with their hands. According to a blog post on the company’s website, the software improvements include “better finger dexterity,” “smoother hand and finger tracking,” and “faster and more consistent hand initialization.”

And what better way to demonstrate these new software capabilities than by exploring a cat’s biology?

Leap Motion
Image Credit: Leap Motion

Leap Motion shows off the tech improvements to Orion in a trio of new demos: Cat Explorer, Particles, and Paint.

Cat Explorer lets you inspect the interior of a disturbingly forlorn-looking feline in VR. You can run your fingers over its exposed ribs, remove the animal’s skin to look at its muscle structure, or even deconstruct the kitty, poking and prodding each individual bone and organ.

In the Particles demo, you can play around with tiny spheres, adjusting their reactions to one another to explore different concepts in physics.

The Paint demo is pretty much what you’d expect — it lets you use your hands to create a three-dimensional composition. Just don’t get too upset if your creation looks more like something that would come from Microsoft Paint than the colorful, well-rendered animals and plants featured in the demo video.

As Leap Motion notes in the blog post, Cat Explorer is a tangible example of the potential benefits of the Orion VR tracking software in “education, training, healthcare, and entertainment.”

We’re already seeing medical schools around the world make the transition to VR, since it’s a lot less messy (and, arguably, more ethical) to dissect a virtual human or animal than a real one. Improvements to a system like Orion could facilitate this shift.

Meanwhile, Particles and Paint demonstrate VR’s potential uses in physics and art, respectively. It’s not hard to imagine physicists using a more robust version of Particles to test out new theories on the behavior of matter (one of its preset settings is “String Theory”); automobile manufactures already use augmented reality to design their vehicles — some version of Paint could facilitate that kind of work, too.

We can’t promise that using the Cat Explorer software will help you understand why your cat chooses to bolt from one side of your house to the other at 3 AM. But, hey, some things are best left mysterious.

Source: Futurism

11 Jun 2018

Did An Acid Trip Change Your Life? Scientists Want To Know About It

Don’t we all just have that friend that won’t shut up about that time he did shrooms in the woods (we get it, Sean. You can stop telling us the story). Now that friend might have a new audience: a Johns Hopkins University psychiatrist is all ears. For, you know, science.

Roland Griffiths, who has spent years studying the medical implications of mood-altering and hallucinogenic drugs, is now soliciting volunteers to share their stories of taking psychedelics, Motherboard reports. In particular, Griffiths wants to know if taking LSD, DMT, or their ilk has had lasting impacts on people’s lives.

According to the experiment’s website, the purpose of the survey is to look for cases of people who gained new psychological insight into their lives while tripping balls. The goal would be to find ways to apply the takeaways in these cases to future psychiatric therapy.

Griffith and his team refer to these sorts of life alterations as quantum change — a powerful shift in one’s moods or thoughts as a result of sudden new insights or experiences.

It’s certainly too soon to speculate what sorts of conclusions and (eventually) treatments might emerge from this experiment. But it does seem to indicate shifting attitudes within the scientific and medical communities, and the growing acceptance of hallucinogenic drugs. With growing evidence that microdosing hallucinogenicscould benefit all sorts of people and medical marijuana allowed in 29 U.S. states, our attitudes towards therapeutic drug use have certainly grown.

And we’re certainly a far cry from MK-Ultra, the top-secret CIA program that tested the effects of LSD on American citizens in hopes of enhancing interrogation and torture techniques. It’s nice to see hallucinogen research continue with the goal of finding new ways to help people instead.

Source: Futurism

09 Jun 2018

Cheap Carbon Capture Technology Might Make Our Climate Goals Possible

So, let’s just say it: we are not on track to meet the ambitious goals of the Paris Accord, the ambitious international agreement intended to limit global warming.

If we are to reach our goals — and perhaps to limit the seemingly inevitable devastation — we need to do something to reduce the greenhouse gases we’ve pumped (and are pumping) into the atmosphere.

For decades, carbon capture has seemed like a promising solution. Why not just take all the carbon dioxide that’s baking the planet and put it somewhere else? The short answer: the technology was way too expensive and energy-intensive to be practical at scale.

Now, though, that might no longer be the case. A new study published Thursday in the journal Joule found a way to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere for the bargain price of $94 to $232 per ton. That’s a major improvement over the researchers’ previous estimate of $1,000 dollars per ton.

While the technology still requires a great deal of energy (the researchers suggest using natural gas or electricity to satisfy it), it’s very feasible. All of the technology required to build the new carbon capture system already exists, according to MIT Technology Review.

Granted, it’s possible that, in practice, the new technology will be more expensive than those estimates predict, especially if it were to be implemented at any major scale. But that would still way better than what experts had assumed it would cost to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and store it elsewhere. And anything that helps get greenhouse gases out of the way and helps mitigate climate change-related destruction is good news.

Currently, Carbon Engineering, the company behind the new research, plans to use its captured carbon to synthesize new carbon-neutral fuels. It’s already begun creating these carbon-neutral energy sources but, as MIT Technology Review reported, fossil fuels remain much cheaper. So if new fuels are going to actually become widespread, the government may need to provide some subsidies to drop the cost.

There are plenty of hurdles to overcome before we can see any benefit from this technology. The company will have to: prove there’s a market for the carbon-neutral synthetic fuel, ramp up operations for large-scale plants, and keep costs low enough to be a feasible solution for climate change. But if it all works out, it’s possible that we might be able to meet some of our goals for the future of the planet, after all.

Source: Futurism

05 Jun 2018

Despite Recent Success, SpaceX Announces Delays to Its Space Tourism Program

Have an excessive amount of expendable income? Not sure what space-related thing to spend it on? If you were planning on investing in an off-world trip with SpaceX (looking at you guys), you’ll have to wait longer than expected.

This weekend, SpaceX spokesman, James Gleeson, announced that the company’s plan to launch paying customers on a week-long trip around the Moon will be delayed. “SpaceX is still planning to fly private individuals around the moon and there is growing interest from many customers,” Mr. Gleeson said in an email to The Wall Street Journal. 

The original announcement of the Moon trip came last February, when Elon Musk shared that two customers would take the ride in an automated Dragon capsule by the end of 2018. But with this new delay, it won’t be until mid-2019 at the earliest, according to The Wall Street Journal. Considering the delays SpaceX has experienced in the past, it could likely be even longer.

The news of this delay comes paired with an announcement that SpaceX will see a decline in launches this year. This is partially due to customer demand, as there just hasn’t been as much of a need to launch bigger satellites deeper into space. To add insult to injury, demand for the Falcon Heavy isn’t as strong as originally anticipated. The Falcon 9 is sufficient enough to put large and small satellites into orbit. All in all, SpaceX has reduced its planned launch schedule for 2018 by almost half.

This all suggests the private spaceflight company has more pressing concerns and more enticing endeavors to sort out before it refocuses on the whole space tourism thing. For instance, SpaceX launched a communications satellite today, June 4, using a rocket the company recovered from previous missions. This brings them one step closer to developing fully-reusable rockets, according to But more steps are obviously needed to reach the goal.

In the meantime, while SpaceX shifts its focus away from space tourism, companies like Virgin Galactic and its recent spinoff, Virgin Orbit, may take over. Richard Branson’s spaceflight company has been talking about providing passengers with a microgravity flight for years, and similarly expects to begin doing so this year.

In addition, the company may be quietly stealing some of SpaceX’s thunder — according to Ars Technica, Virgin Galactic is preparing to begin launching smaller satellites not suited for the Falcon Heavy in the coming months. Other competitors,like Rocket Lab and Vector Space Systems, have already begun flight tests.

Yes, SpaceX still plans to bring tourists to space. And the plan is already more ambitious than other companies’ suborbital flights. Until then though, SpaceX and its competitors will stay busy carving out their share of customers looking to get their satellites into orbit. For now, only Starman gets to use his SpaceX ticket.

Source: Futurism


04 Jun 2018

We Can Now Make Super Accurate 3D Printed Models of Patients’ Brains

It all started when a PhD student got a brain tumor. Brian Keating, who was earning his doctorate from MIT’s Media Lab’s Mediated Matter group, wanted a better understanding of what was happening in his head before he had surgery to get the tumor removed. He wanted to see the tumor up there — to hold it.

So Keating took his doctors’ observations to his lab’s collaborators at Harvard’s Wyss Institute. Together, the group figured out how to 3D print brains based on patients’ CT and MRI scans. The results of their work were published Tuesday in the journal 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing.

The two technologies — 3D printers and brain imaging techniques — are surprisingly compatible. The printers work by gradually layering segments of the item from the bottom up; CT scans assemble images of a brain (or any other body part) in the same way, slice-by-slice, but from the top down. Keating and his colleagues could assemble his brain in the printer just by feeding the device CT scans in the correct order.

To dodge this problem, Keating and his colleagues broke every grey pixel down into even more pixels, each of which was black or white. That way, the 3D printer could register extremely detailed changes in the image based on the ratios of those very tiny black to white pixels.

This might sound like more work, but it’s worth it, because it means figuring out what’s what in the CT scans more quickly. The research team could translate the images for the printer in less than 60 minutes. If radiologists do this by hand, as they often do, it can take more than 30 hours.

With super-accurate 3D printed models that can be produced more quickly than ever before, the research group hopes customized models can start working their way into doctor’s appointments. In general, Americans struggle to understand their health — in 2006, the Department of Education found that 36 percent of adults have a fifth-grade reading level (or lower) about medical conditions in particular. Maybe having a personalized visual aid can help patients better understand their conditions so that they can make better-informed decisions about how to treat them.

Source: Futurism


03 Jun 2018

This Filter Makes Your Photos Indecipherable to Facial Recognition Software

A surprising number of people, from social media platforms to police surveillance systems, are very interested in what you look like. That means companies are able to learn a lot about you — your appearance, age, ethnicity, and more — whenever your face pops up. While this is generally for the sake of targeted ads, it can also put people at risk of privacy violations or identity theft.

To help people hold onto (whatever remains of) their privacy, tools have emerged intended to trip up facial recognition AI. Real-world products like “Face Off Hats” (that’s a physical hat with a trippy pattern) and 3D-printed masks fool face-scanning software by presenting optical illusions to the cameras we encounter during our everyday lives.

But those tactics are to throw off the cameras. What happens if a photo of you somehow makes it online?

Soon, there may be a filter to keep AI from spotting your face those photos that slip past.

Engineers from the University of Toronto have built a filter that slightly alters photos of people’s faces to keep facial recognition software from realizing what its looking at. The AI-driven filter looks for specific facial features and changes certain pixels. People can barely see a difference, but any AI scanning the image can’t even tell that it’s looking at a face.

To build its filter, the team pitted two neural networks against each other. The first AI system was tasked with identifying facial features from a set of several hundred photos, and the second algorithm was responsible for altering the photos to the point that they no longer looked like faces to the first. The two AI systems went back and forth, gradually getting better at their tasks, until the researchers determined that the filter was probably effective enough to work on commercial facial recognition software.

In a test, the filter reduced the accuracy of face-detecting software from correctly spotting just about every face it was shown to only being able to recognize one in 200. Facial recognition AI was also suddenly unable to recognize the emotion or ethnicity of the person pictured, which for some reason tech companies felt was important to be able to do.

This probably isn’t the kind of filter likely to pop up on Instagram, especially since Instagram’s parent company, Facebook, is storing your intimate, personal selfies to make sure no one else uploads them. But the engineers who developed this filter hope to release it via an app in the near future.

Source: Futurism