You Can Pick Your Google Assistant Voice By… Color?

At the annual I/O developers conference in May, Google CEO Sundar Pichai announced that users now have six additional options for their Assistant’s voice, one voice of which is John Legend. Google Assistant has now rolled out their a creative UI that allows users to pick a voice by color. You tap on the color associated with a given voice which Google says they chose at random, and then you listen to a sample of the voice and select from there.

Why It’s Hot: Not only is Google Assistant offering a range of male and female voices, they’re using an intentionally vague selection mechanism (color) as opposed to more traditionally gendered names or even just the labels “male” and “female”. This is a big improvement in equalizing the traditionally VERY gendered area of tech assistant voices, where almost all assistants are given female-sounding voices and names (Siri, Alexa, etc). Google Assistant itself had only a female voice until late 2017, when the option for a male voice was rolled out.

The justification often used for this systemic sexism is that studies show that both men and women choose and trust female voices more. The WSJ recently cited two studies that both found men and women find female voices “welcoming and warm” – the only exception being when the voices are teaching them about computers, in which case male voices are preferred. Female voices are especially desired when giving love and relationship advice.

Using the results of these studies, which simply reflect the ingrained misogyny in our society, to justify having ONLY female voices is lazy at best. So by giving users a range of voices, plus a vague selection system to choose them from, is a great step from Google toward allowing users to choose their voice without as much overt gendered signaling.

Learn More: Engadget

Lyft Purchases CitiBike Parent Company Motivate

Lyft has officially moved beyond cars. They announced this week the acquisition of Motivate, the parent company behind CitiBike, Chicago’s Divvy, and many other popular ride-sharing programs around the country. The programs will be renamed Lyft Bike, and Motivate will continue to help with some maintenance.

Lyft says this acquisition supports and enhances their larger strategy of 1) improving transportation access, 2) building community through shared rides and public transit integration, and 3) having fewer cars on the road and reducing congestion. And, of course, it certainly doesn’t help that the bikesharing market is booming, too.

This isn’t the first foray into bikes for a ridesharing company. Uber acquired Jump, a San Francisco dockless bike-sharing startup, earlier this year. Uber was also reportedly interested in buying Motivate, though Lyft won out. And last winter Lyft teamed up with Baltimore’s bike sharing service to use their bike docks as Lyft pickup/dropoff points.

Why It’s Hot: Motivate is a major national bikesharing company, and this acquisition signals a huge expansion for Lyft. How might they further integrate bikesharing and ridesharing, now that the two will be under one roof in many major US cities? They say they want to improve transportation access and build community, what might this look like from a bikesharing POV?

Learn More: Engadget | Verge

Microsoft improves facial recognition across genders and skin tones

Tech is racist and sexist, and one of the many glaring manifestations of that is in the accuracy of facial recognition technology. Commercially available facial recognition as a whole works better on light skin than on dark skin, and also recognizes male faces better than female faces. So overall, the technology is catered toward white male faces and performs worst on female faces with dark skin.

In an effort to reduce this bias, Microsoft just announced an update to their facial recognition technology, available to consumers as the Face API via Azure Cognitive Services. They claim this update has reduced error rates for all people of color by 20 percent, and for female faces by 9 percent.

The reason why these systems are so biased is confusingly simple. AI tech like facial recognition is only as strong as the data used to train them. So, if a facial recognition system is going to recognize all kinds of faces equally, its training dataset needs to (wait for it) include all kinds of faces.

In order to improve their facial recognition tech, Microsoft made three key changes:

  1. Expanded and revised training and benchmark datasets
  2. Launched new data collection efforts focusing on skin tone, gender, and age
  3. Improved classifier to produce more precise results

Why It’s Hot: It’s great that Microsoft has invested a lot of time and money into improving their facial recognition to be more inclusive. But the question remains, why wasn’t it important to the company (and to every tech company) to include women and people of color to begin with? The fact that these systems need to be “updated” is symptomatic of the rampant sexism and racism that still permeates the industry. This update is a step toward fixing a problem that shouldn’t have been there in the first place.

Further, is this solution truly enhancing facial recognition for all people? Do they have trans and nonbinary people in their datasets? What about people with distinct facial markings or characteristics? Or does this solution update the software to a less blatant, but still questionable, level of bias?

Learn More: Engadget | Microsoft


Latest American Girl Doll Accessory: Mini Xbox One S

The American Girl doll’s wide range of accessories has gotten another great addition: a mini Xbox One S console, controller, headset, chair, and a few faux games. The console box doubles as an actual projector – you can drop the “games” (viewfinder-like discs) in and the console projects a handful of static images. The chair also has built-in speakers and a 3.5mm plug so you can play music or audio from it.

American Girl has done a good job of representation with their range of dolls and accessories, and this is no different. When the company launched back in 1986, the three original dolls represented different eras in American history (shout out Molly Samantha and Kirsten), but the dolls were all white.

In the next 15 years, the company added an African-American doll (Addy), a Mexican-American doll (Josefina), and a Native American doll (Kaya’aton’my, a First American Girl), and since then they’ve continued to release an ethnically diverse range of dolls along with a wide range of accessories that help to normalize everything from wheelchairs and diabetes kits and hearing aids to a Mars habitat, a terrarium, and a science fair kit.

American Girl’s quest for diversity and inclusion isn’t ideal – they don’t have any dolls with physical disabilities, and the ratio of white to non-white dolls is still high. And, from a cost point of view, the dolls and accessories are stupid expensive, which limits the audience to girls with well-off adults in their life.

Why It’s Hot: This gamer kit is another addition to the brand that smartly reinforces their image as a progressive, empowering company. And who wouldn’t want to buy something progressive and empowering for a young girl?!


Learn More: Engadget

A French hospital is testing VR as a painkiller (!)

VR has been used on patients in medical settings before, from distracting nervous patients at the dentist to helping patients combat phantom pains. But now graduate students in France are working on bringing VR into a new territory: the emergency room.

Students at St. Joseph’s Hospital have designed an immersive VR program that has two goals: 1) to help patients calm down in the stressful setting, and 2) to help increase the patients’ pain tolerance without any drugs. It’s a simple implementation – basically the patient simply straps on a VR headset, and is transported via auditory and visual stimuli to a Zen garden or a tranquil forest setting.

The VR experiences help calm patients down just by nature of being calming settings, but the really interesting part is relating to the pain tolerance response. Patients exhibit increased pain tolerance because of several affects of the VR experience. Distraction is important, because the patient is less aware of what’s happening to their body when their focus is successfully held elsewhere. But also significant is the way the VR actually helps trigger changes in the patient’s brain and nervous system, which can slowly be reprogrammed to give the patient a lesser response to the pain. This neural reprogramming has already been studied and implemented for treatment of chronic pain and illnesses, and now the work of these French grad students is exploring the potential for VR as a tool in acute, immediate situations as well.

Why It’s Hot: An innovative new approach to pain management that has zero side effects -especially promising given the increasing dangers of addiction with many pain medications currently being used (and overused) in hospitals today.

Learn More: Engadget

Lyft and United Way partner to provide free rides

Lyft has been making moves in the corporate benevolence arena lately, starting with their Lyft Relief Rides program which provides free rides after natural disasters and other crises. They announced in May that they’re expanding the program and committing $1.5 million to it over the next year. And they’ve now provided more details on how they’re expanding the program: they are partnering with United Way to provide free rides to appointments for passengers in need – not just for medical visits, but also other vital appointments like job interviews and veterans services.

United Way is integrating Lyft into their 2-1-1 referral helpline in twelve cities across America, including Austin, Denver, San Francisco, and Philadelphia. 2-1-1 is a free, confidential referral and information helpline that allows people in need to connect with essential services via phone, text, and the internet. Per the United Way U.S. President Mary Sellers, last year the 2-1-1 network received over 250,000 transportation requests, and they could not meet 20% of the requests due to resource issues. The Lyft partnership will enable United Way to meet more community needs than previously allowed.

Why It’s Hot: It’s unclear what the corporate/profit motivation is behind this – maybe it’s truly just an act of generosity by Lyft? Either way, this is a great example of a company thoughtfully and appropriately helping to meet a need through offering their unique resources.

Learn More: Engadget | Lyft

Another airport brand activation, this time for Coke

In recent weeks we’ve talked about Kit Kat’s vending machine for people with delayed tickets in the Sao Paolo airport, and the Steinlager/Guinness takeover of the screens in the Auckland airport for All Blacks vs. Lions fans to battle it out. Now Coke is joining their ranks with an airport activation of its own: a Middle Seat Lounge in Boston’s Logan airport, available only for passengers with a middle seat ticket.

The lounge was a pop-up, only available for one day. Once you got into the lounge with your middle-seat ticket, you got free Coke products, games to play, the opportunity to meet a former Celtics NBA star, and a branded 3-pack of Cokes to take on the plane, snap a picture with your seatmates, and be entered to win a free trip on Delta.

Why It’s Hot: The lounge certainly isn’t all that fancy, and it was only open for a day. But the overarching strategy of focusing on a universal pain point in air travel (the dreaded middle seat!), especially when coming from an airline itself, is a smart, empathetic move. Coke and Delta are acknowledging the people who feel especially annoyed at their seat assignment, and singling them out as deserving of a little extra treat to ease the pain. In terms of customer service and building brand loyalty, making customers feel seen and understood is always a good move.

Learn More:

Birth Control Pill Emoji Officially Under Consideration

The process of getting an emoji added to the Unicode Standard is a surprisingly complex one. (If you’re interested in learning more, check out the 99% Invisible podcast episode linked below!) It involves submitting a lengthy application to the Unicode Consortium, who can then vote on the proposal, request revisions, or deny the proposal altogether, then getting final approval by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), in a process that can take over 18 months to complete. The Unicode Consortium is responsible for selecting and approving of all emojis, and their voting board comprised mostly of multinational American tech companies like Apple, Adobe, Facebook, Google, IBM, Microsoft, Netflix, Oracle, and SAP. (The government of Oman is the only non-tech voting member.)

You have to be savvy about getting emojis approved because the voting members are huge corporations and, once approved, the emoji will literally populate every emoji-enabled keyboard in the world – so the voting vendors have to feel comfortable releasing the emojis in all markets and all cultures. For example, as Emojination co-founder Jennifer 8. Lee mentions in Engadget, the same-sex family emoji was scorned in Russia, and the alcohol emojis were a big issue in Muslim countries. (Unicode circumvented the alcohol issue by calling the emojis “wine glass” and “beer mug” instead of “wine” and “beer”.) In 2015, Durex submitted an application for a condom emoji, and that was pretty swiftly rejected. (Part of the reason may have been because it was submitted by a company who stood to profit financially from the popularization of the emoji – but still, yeah, that did not go over well.)

So, basically, to get an emoji approved, you have two obstacles: the thoroughly corporatized and self-interested voting board, and the complex cross-cultural norms and expectations. Within this framework, it’s easy to see why a birth control pill emoji would be a complicated one. But last month, two women, Nora Hamada and her friend Megan Giller, sent in a proposal for just that.

Hamada and Giller submitted their application with the support of the organization Emojination, a nonprofit dedicated to democratizing the emoji approval process through encouraging and supporting people in submitting emoji proposals to the Unicode Consortium. Some of Emojination’s successful projects include the dumpling, hijab, and ballet flat emojis.

The women came up with the idea after attending an Emojination workshop in NYC. Hamada says, “When you search for emoji to represent women and safe sex, the things that come up most often are breastfeeding and babies,” and she realized there should also be an emoji for women who are deciding not to have children. They were also inspired by the invention of the birth control pill in the 60s as a historical turning point for women. As Giller says, “the pill stands for equality and the right to choose.”

In their application, Hamada and Giller smartly named the emoji “pills in a circular case” – but that’s the only politically-minded concession they made. The rest of their application, in fact, is very explicitly political. They go into depth on the historical significance of the pill and how relevant and widespread it is in today’s society. And it’s no coincidence that their application coincides with the current devastating rollbacks in female reproductive rights in America. As Hamada says, “Our rights for birth control are being taken away. In a way, this is a small form of protest against that.”

In a positive development, the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee recently came back to the two women asking for revisions and more statistics. (The original submitted design is on the left above; revision is on the right.) The next steps are certainly not guaranteed to go well, but it’s a good sign that the Subcommittee showed interest and engagement with their proposal. Hopefully we’ll hear more news about this potential emoji soon.

Why It’s Hot: With their emoji application, these two women are forcing the hands of each voting member of the Unicode Consortium to vote on a symbol that represents so many things that corporations are historically total cowards about: feminism, female sexuality and sexual autonomy, womanhood separate from motherhood, etc. The emoji is politically charged for the corporations either way – which message will they decide to send?

Learn More: Engadget

99% Invisible podcast:

Fitbit (FINALLY) Adds Period Tracking Functionality

Fitbit’s plan to launch “women’s health” tracking (aka period tracking – not necessarily just for women!) has finally come to fruition and was launched this week. The tracker is available on the Fitbit app and on two devices, the Ionic and Versa smartwatches. All Fitbit users who have self-identified as female will receive a notification that tracking is available; all other users who wish to use the tracking have to opt in manually.

The tracker offers four features, none of which are new or revolutionary at all:

  • In-app period tracking: Log your period, record symptoms, and get notifications alerting you to predicted period start date
  • Smartwatch integration: See where you are in your cycle directly from your smartwatch
  • “News You Can Use”: Tracker includes relevant content written by doctors
  • Community feature: Fitbit created new community groups focused on periods, birth control, trying to conceive, pregnancy, and perimenopause/menopause

One perceived benefit could be that users can now see their period tracking data alongside their other health data – but even that isn’t a value-add for Fitbit specifically, because many standalone period tracker apps integrate with Apple Health so that you can see all your data side-by-side through that platform.

What’s the most interesting about this development is how uninteresting it is, ultimately. The fact that Fitbit just now, in 2018, rolled out period tracking is pretty bad optics. Apple Health, after much outcry, added period tracking in 2015! As The Verge notes, Fitbit itself admitted that period tracking has been a top-five user requested feature for “a while” (sideeye). Is it purely a coincidence they’ve finally decided to focus on period tracking after a dismal holiday earnings report, a bad year last year, and the news that they are no longer the top wearable maker in the US? Their users currently are over half men, so creating this female-focused feature seems like a pretty transparent grab at a new audience segment.

Why It’s Hot: A seemingly thoughtful, well-meaning update meant to benefit a historically ignored population turns out to (probably) be a thinly veiled ploy to buy more customers.

Learn More: Engadget | The Verge

Maple Syrup and Honey Producers are Pissed at the FDA

The FDA is in the process of updating nutrition and serving size labeling requirements for packaged foods, a move that is overwhelmingly positive in terms of providing increased transparency for consumers. But one part of these new requirements is causing a huge backlash in the seemingly idyllic circles of maple syrup and honey producers.

According to the FDA’s new rules, nutritional labels on all honey and maple syrup must list the sugars in the product as “added sugars” even though some of the products themselves are entirely naturally produced. This is a huge deal for these natural producers, since the unique selling point of their products is that they are naturally made and do not have any added sugar.

Don’t freak out yet though, the law is not set to go into effect until 2020 and Senator Sanders is totally on it.

Why It’s Hot: A particularly egregious example of applying rules too broadly and without sufficient flexibility. At what point is “helpful to most” not a good enough justification?

Learn More: USA Today | Burlington Free Press

AI Software Predicts Heart Attacks During 911 Calls

An AI program currently in use in Copenhagen, Denmark is set for wider rollout after a series of successful initial testing. The software, called Corti, listens in on emergency calls and detects common heart attack cues such as breathing patterns, tone of voice, and background noises. It then gives the call dispatcher recommendations in real time of how to proceed.

The phone dispatchers in Copenhagen can recognize cardiac arrest from phone calls around 73% of the time; Corti can improve that rate to up to 95% accuracy. This is key because when dealing with someone going into cardiac arrest outside of a hospital, time is of the essence–the chance of survival decreases about 10% each minute, so getting to a diagnosis quickly can literally save lives. Making that diagnosis can be challenging for dispatchers, who have to make sense of symptoms that are being relayed by a panicked friend or relative, often competing with a lot of background noise (sirens, yelling, etc) as well.

In one example, when the platform was in testing, it recognized that a man who had fallen off a roof was in cardiac arrest. The dispatcher on the phone deduced that the man had broken his back from the fall, so they gave instructions to the relative on the phone as though the man were otherwise stable. But the AI recognized because of the man’s breathing patterns that he had suffered cardiac arrest and fallen as a result. Since the software was in testing only, it did not alert the dispatcher, and unfortunately the paramedics were unable to revive him. But had the software been able to intervene, it could have alerted the dispatcher, who could have then given CPR instructions to a bystander, better prepared the first responders, instructed someone to find an automated defibrillator, etc.

Expanded tests will take place in four sites across Europe from September 2018 to April 2019, and the startup will soon announce their expansion plans in America as well.

Why It’s Hot: AI in medicine is not new. What about emergency medicine? Are we ready to let AI into our darkest and most fearful moments? In moments of panic, will we trust machines more or less than humans?

Learn More: Fast Company

FDA Recommends Approval of First Ever Cannabis-Derived Drug

Happy 420! A FDA advisory committee has just recommended approval for the first-ever cannabis-derived medicine for prescription use in the US.

The drug, which will be used to treat severe forms of epilepsy, contains cannabidiol (or CBD), which is one of more than 80 active cannabinoid chemicals. It differs from THC in that it does not produce a high.

The official FDA approval would limit the drug to epilepsy patients, but as with many prescriptions drugs, doctors have the option to prescribe if “off-label” for different treatment purposes.

One thing that the FDA will continue to monitor with the drug: potential for abuse. The FDA’s Controlled Substance Staff assessed the potential for abuse based on both animal and human experimental data, and they did not find signals indicating a high potential.

Why It’s Hot: First ever cannabis-derived medicine! It sends two signals: that the government is willing to evolve its views on cannabis, and that cannabis-derived materials are not all DaNgErOuS and terrible. Will this help in the push for decriminalization/legalization of cannabis in the country?

Learn More: CNN

FDA Approves Non-Supervised Diagnostic AI

We’ve talked a lot about AI in healthcare recently, with a big focus on AI being used as a diagnostic tool to process scans/images and find potential issues. All of this technology thus far has been created with the understanding that the AI’s results will be reviewed and evaluated by a trained, specialized medical professional. That is, the doctor is still the final decision-maker, and the AI is her assistant.

All that changed this week, when the FDA announced its approval of the first AI tool that is meant to operate and issue a diagnosis completely independently, without any supervision from a specialized doctor. The software program, named IDx-DR, can detect diabetic retinopathy, a form of eye disease, by looking at photos of the retina that a nurse or doctor uploads to the program. After checking the image to make sure it’s high-resolution enough, the program evaluates the photo and then gives a diagnosis.

This is great on one level – it means that any nurse or doctor can upload a photo, and patients don’t need to wait to see a medical specialist in order to review the AI results and get a diagnosis. So theoretically, medical care will be more accessible and sooner. But, the flip side is a tricky ethical situation… Who is responsible when the diagnosis is wrong?

Why It’s Hot: Wait, are robots actually coming for our jobs after all? And who do we blame when they screw it up?


Learn More: The Verge | FDA release

Microsoft AI Knows When to Interrupt You

In an interesting social/behavioral development, Microsoft’s latest Xiaolce chatbot AI upgrade includes learnings for when to interrupt human conversation.

The functionality is called “full duplex voice sense” and what it does, on a basic level, is that it allows the chatbot to talk and listen simultaneously. (The old, walkie-talkie way of AI conversation is called “half duplex”.) It can predict what you’re likely to say next, and knows when to interrupt you with relevant information.

There are two goals for this functionality:

  1. Provide a more natural flow to your conversation
  2. Users don’t need to use a wake word every time they respond during conversations

Microsoft plans on spreading this technology to Microsoft’s chatbots in the US and Japan, though it could quickly catch on in other conversational AI tools as well.

Why It’s Hot: What makes a computer feel more human? I’d venture to say that human speech patterns have a lot to do with it. How will having a more human-like AI assistant change how we speak to our computers, how we interact with them, and on a bigger level, how we start to view them within the context of our lives? Will this change how we feel about our computers, how we rely on them in our daily lives? Will our brains begin to process AI like how we process other humans? (Basically, will we all be like Joaquin?)

Learn More: Engadget | Microsoft

Concertgoers’ brain waves sync up at shows

When humans listen to music together, their brain waves sync up and they report greater satisfaction with the experience, according to new findings discussed this week at the Cognitive Neuroscience Society.

This isn’t surprising, since music and gathering are core components of many cultures throughout history. The links between music, ritual, dance, and social connection have been around since long before any scientists have measured it. But, science is fun so here’s how they researched it!

Study participants were split into three groups. One group watched a live concert with a large audience, one group watched a recording of the concert with a large audience, and one group watched the recording with only a few other people. The results were clear – the delta brain waves of the people watching the live show in the large group were far more synchronized than the other two groups. Delta brain waves are in the frequency that is matched with the beat of the music, suggesting that the beat is what drove that synchronicity. Further, the more synchronized an individual audience member, the more they reported feelings of connection and enjoyment.

Why It’s Hot:
1. Scientists are taking a closer look at rhythm and beat interventions in movement disorders (like Parkinson’s disease) and language disorders (like dyslexia), but in order to do that, we need a deeper understanding of the neural bases of rhythm and beat perception. This study is a fascinating addition to that knowledge base.
2. Real live shared experiences are still important to us on a neurological level – we can’t replicate everything behind screens, we still need to gather together as humans and connect.

Learn More: Science News

AI is helping hospitals in China cope with a doctor shortage

AI is quickly becoming a promising technology for healthcare around the world, but China is gearing up to become THE global leader in AI in healthcare in the coming decades.

Why China, and why now? Three reasons:

  1. China has a low doctor-to-patient ratio – 1.5 doctors for every 1,000 people in China, compared with 2.5 for every thousand in the US, so the need is pronounced
  2. The Chinese government announced last summer that they are pursuing global dominance in AI by 2030 through heavy investments in the industry
  3. The restrictions on AI tools and data in healthcare are fairly relaxed, allowing for quick approval and implementation

This market is also being targeted by China’s big tech companies. Both Alibaba and Tencent have research units for developing AI diagnostic tools, and a Beijing-based consultancy reported 131 companies currently working on applying AI to China’s healthcare industry. Per IDC, the AI healthcare market in China will reach nearly a billion dollars (USD) by 2022.

Though there are many different types of AI tools being developed, image processing is the biggest category now. The tools, which rely on image classification, play to the strength of the latest deep-learning algorithms. And, it’s one of the things doctors need the most help with from a volume POV. For example, next month, a hospital in Beijing that treats a jaw-dropping 10,000 outpatients every day will start running all its lung scans through an algorithm that expedites the screening process. The algorithm, developed by a Beijing-based startup called PereDoc, can quickly spot nodules and other early signs of lung diseases. It allows doctors who are overwhelmed by patient volume process these scans in an accurate and expedited way.

Why It’s Hot: The general consensus around AI, in the US at least, is that it’s COMING FOR OUR JOBS! But this is a wonderful example of how emerging technologies can actually fill urgent gaps in critical industries, allowing for faster and more effective treatment and a better patient experience.

Learn More: Engadget | Technology Review

Andre Agassi is building a dyslexia assessment game

You probably know Andre Agassi from his incredible tennis career. But the former champion is making incredible moves in a totally different space – early childhood education and science. He’s not new to this space – he already has a foundation, the Andre Agassi Early Childhood Neuroscience Foundation, which he created to fund research and development of early literacy apps. And he is deeply involved in the education space in general – he’s helped build 70 charter schools in the past four years, educating 33,000 students.

For his latest project, Agassi announced at SXSW this year that his foundation is spearheading a dyslexia screening initiative. The initiative, called Readvolution, is focused on creating a dyslexia assessment game that will be completely free. Agassi’s foundation is partnering with neuroscientists from leading universities including California at San Francisco (UCSF) and the Weill Institute of for Neurosciences to formulate and scientifically validate the game.

Then, to actually build the game and provide further learning support, the foundation is partnering with Square Panda. Square Panda is an edtech startup that invented an AI-powered phonics-based system for early childhood reading and cognitive learning. They’ll use their AI to not only create the dyslexia assessment game, but also expand their educational offerings so that kids with dyslexia can acquire a broader range of language and literacy skills, too.

In an interview with Engadget, Agassi said he’s been using Square Panda’s offerings in his charter school in Las Vegas, and he immediately saw the difference it made in the students. “I’m very interested in this space,” Agassi said, “because I’ve seen first-hand what a challenge it can be to guide an entire classroom full of kids at the pace that each kid individually deserves.”

Why It’s Hot:
1: Collaborative teamwork across industries is an incredibly powerful tool.
2: Use your money and power for good, everyone!

Learn More: Engadget

British Airways expanding biometric gate screening in the US

British Airways is getting into the biometric game with its boarding gates in the US. Last year they began testing self-service boarding gates at LAX, and they are now rolling out the gates in some flights to/from Orlando, Miami, and JFK airports as well.

The new technology doesn’t replace security screenings; rather, it allows the airline to bypass scanning everyone’s boarding passes at the gate as they board the plane. Instead of having to produce their boarding pass, travelers just look into a camera, wait for their biometric data to scan and be confirmed against their passport/visa/immigration photos, and then proceed onto the plane. The main benefit? Speed. British Airways says that in LAX, these new gates allowed them to board 400 passengers in 22 minutes, less than half the time it usually takes.

Other airlines are getting in on the biometric tech too. JetBlue is trialing biometric boarding on flights from Boston to Aruba, and last year Delta started trying out facial recognition for checking luggage and fingerprints for boarding. Dubai International Airport is working on a tunnel equipped with both facial recognition cameras and iris scanners (!) that would cut the need for travel documents entirely.

Why It’s Hot: The impetus behind this tech development – faster, smoother boarding – is ostensibly a positive thing. But what databases are necessary for this kind of screening? Immigration and ID documents are incredibly sensitive, even more so in our current xenophobic political climate. Is cutting down boarding time worth the risk?

Learn More: Engadget | Forbes

Apple to open medical clinics for employees

Apple announced that it is opening medical clinics called “AC Wellness” for its employees (of which there are over 120,000). It quietly launched a website, for the venture that says:

AC Wellness is an independent medical practice dedicated to delivering compassionate, effective healthcare to the Apple employee population.

The company will build two clinics, one in the Apple headquarters building, and one just north of it. The clinics are going to be concierge-style, with job postings ranging from medical assistants / nurses / phlebotomists to primary care doctors, health partners, clinical exercise coaches, and care navigators. Sources told CNBC that Apple “plans to use AC Wellness clinics as a platform for testing out products and services that it could eventually provide for all consumers,” but it’s pretty clearly being rolled out as an employee-only venture for now.

Why It’s Hot: This isn’t the first instance of tech companies moving into the deeply dysfunctional healthcare space – Amazon recently announced a partnership with Warren Buffett and JPMorgan Chase, though the details of that partnership are sketchy. But this seems to be the first move by a tech giant to opening a privatized medical care center. In a country that already uses healthcare to stratify economic classes via linking insurance to jobs, what does it mean that Apple employees get not just better insurance, but better CARE because of their ability to get a job at Apple? What will happen if job-based doctor’s offices become the norm for certain social/economic classes of people?

Read More: Engadget | Gizmodo

Scientists develop a 3D-printed smartphone microscope

Australian researchers at the Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics, a transdisciplinary government network, have created a 3D-printed device that clips onto smartphones, transforming them into fully functional microscopes. The device was developed with the goal of helping researchers and scientists have access to this crucial tool in remote regions and developing countries.

The microscope works by clipping an additional lens to the phone’s camera lens, and then holding slides up to it. Users can use the phone’s existing flash to do bright field or dark field imaging, which means the microscope can visualize both plant and mammalian cells. It’s powerful enough to view specimens as small as 1/200th of a millimeter. All of this means that the microscope can be used for things like analyzing water cleanliness, testing blood samples for parasites, and diagnosing diseases including malaria.

There are other portable microscopes on the market, but they require external LEDs and power sources, and get bulky surprisingly fast. This microscope makes full use of the smartphone as a power and light source, requiring nothing other than the clip itself.

Best of all? The researchers have made the 3D printing files free to the public. Good job, team.

Why It’s Hot: The 3D printer is again an innovation powerhouse, creating lifesaving technology with an incredibly low barrier to entry. And in making the printing files free to the public, these researchers are making a fantastic statement on putting the common good above individual profit. Would this have happened if a corporation, not a government program, made this innovation?

Learn More: Engadget | Newsweek

FDA Approves Blood Test That Can Detect Concussions

The FDA has approved the first-ever blood test that can detect signs of concussions, a huge step forward in the quest to make concussion diagnosis faster and more accurate.

The two main ways of detecting concussions now are giving patients a neurological test or, frequently, a CT scan. The neurological tests are not always accurate because the medical professional giving the test often isn’t familiar with the patient’s baseline performance. And CT scans, while a powerful diagnostic tool, expose people to high doses of radiation – about the equivalent of 100-200 chest X-rays – and are very expensive.

So it’s not that we don’t have ways of diagnosing concussions, it’s that our current method is akin to using a sledgehammer to pound a small nail. What’s missing is a way to figure out who should be given a CT scan for further diagnosis, and who doesn’t need it. This is where the blood test comes in.

The blood test works by measuring two proteins the brain releases into the blood after a head injury. The levels of these proteins will indicate whether the patient has lesions on their brain that will be visible in a CT scan or not. And it’s very accurate – it can predict the presence of a lesion 97.5% of the time, and determine who doesn’t have a lesion 99.6% of the time.

Though sports – football in particular – immediately come to mind (no pun intended) on the topic of concussions, the urgency of this drug development was actually a result of military necessity. As traumatic brain injuries have mounted during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the armed forces have been desperately seeking a way to quickly predict whether a blow to the head has caused bleeding or bruising in the brain (and, therefore, what the best plan of treatment is). The development of this blood test, as well as the clinical trials preceding FDA approval, were largely underwritten by the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command. Test results can currently be obtained in 3-4 hours, but the Defense Department is working with the drug company to reduce that window to one hour.

Why It’s Hot: The funding and pressure from the armed forces had a huge impact on the speed of this blood test’s development and FDA approval. It will certainly benefit the men and women serving in the military, but it also has a massive wider impact on the general public, as well as other people at high risk for brain injuries (athletes, etc). What other medtech breakthroughs can we look forward to from unexpected sources?

Learn More: Engadget | LA Times


MDMA for PTSD enters final round of FDA trials

MDMA – aka ecstasy – as part of assisted psychotherapy is entering final round of clinical trials in Vancouver, clearing the path for Canada and the United States to approve the drug for therapeutic use as early as 2021. The therapy consists of three 8-hour sessions in which the participant takes MDMA, and 12 sessions without the drug. The entire process spans three-and-a-half months.

The FDA designated MDMA a “breakthrough therapy” for PTSD in August 2017, and they have agreed to approve the therapy if stage three studies show the drug is effective and there are no safety issues. They have also greenlit a third round of clinical trials in the US, but MAPS (the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies), the organization overseeing the research in North America needs to raise $25 million first to conduct the US study.

MDMA is an empathogen, meaning that it stimulates togetherness and trust among users. It also inhibits activity in the brain that treats fear and stimulates hormones that make people feel more connected. So the drug is powerful in PTSD therapy in particular because it allows participants to open up to their therapists and talk about their experiences in a trusting, bonded way.

Traditional PTSD treatments can last years and years, and focus on desensitization (aka reliving experiences) which can cause emotional pain and trauma. Just 10 to 15 percent of people recover, and the drop-out rate is high. MDMA-assisted therapy, on the other hand, usually lasts fewer than 4 months, and two-thirds of participants were free from PTSD one year after treatment.

“It wasn’t a party drug. There was no party. It wasn’t trippy. I didn’t see things. I didn’t have some miraculous spiritual experience. I didn’t get the urge to get up and dance. For the first time in years I was able to open up and talk painlessly. The fear, the barriers were removed and I was able to talk to these people.”
-Ed Thompson, former PTSD sufferer who participated in second-round trials

Why It’s Hot: The government has been incredibly slow to legalize psychedelics partly because, per MAPS founder Rick Doblin, pharmaceutical companies don’t stand to profit from studying compounds that are in the public domain and cannot be patented. This trial marks an important step toward legalization of a drug purely because of its therapeutic benefits, and not because of lobbying/fundraising/pressure from pharma companies.

Learn More: Newsweek | Globe & Mail 

FDA seeks to curb abuse of OTC anti-diarrhea meds via packaging

As a part of its efforts to curb the current opioid crisis in America, the FDA has requested that OTC anti-diarrhea medications modify its packaging to make overdosing more difficult.

These drugs, specifically Immodium A-D and various store brands and generics, are tied to the opioid crisis because in massive doses, the active ingredient, loperamide, works in the body the same way as heroin, morphine, and oxycodone. Some people suffering from addiction are buying the anti-diarrhea meds and consuming huge amounts of them – between 50 and 300 pills per day – in order to maintain their high or to self-treat their opioid withdrawal symptoms. Since the pills are relatively affordable, selling at big box stores at $10 for 400 pills, the drug is an appealing quick fix.

The FDA already added a warning to the product label in spring 2017 to warn against ingesting high doses of loperamide, including from abuse and misuse, but of course that warning label uh… didn’t help. (Shocker.) So they’re taking a design-based step and asking manufacturers to alter their physical packaging in order to change user behavior. For example, a retail package could contain eight 2-mg capsules, enough for two days of medication for its intended purposes. Think of how Sudafed, NyQuil, etc are packaged in individual and frustratingly difficult-to-open blister packs – it would take a lot of physical effort to gather and dose a huge quantity of those medications.

Why It’s Hot: Changing the physical packaging of medication to alter user behavior is a fascinating UX/product design strategy. It involves cost and effort on the manufacturer’s behalf to redesign and repackage the medication, but if it works, it’s a blunt and effective approach. What else could we physically alter in order to change users’ negative or self-harming behaviors?

Read More: CBS News | FDA

MIT Engineers Design Chip That Works Like Brain Synapses

MIT engineers have engineered a chip that mimics the human brain’s synapses, in a big development for the field of neuromorphic computing (aka computing that’s structured like neurons) and a step forward toward developing portable neural networks.

This chip is a big deal because human brains are, for now anyway, much more powerful than any computer. They contain 80 billion neurons, plus 100 trillion synapses that connect and control the flow of signals between the neurons. This vast network is remarkably hard to manifest in a computer chip because until neuromorphic computing, chips have always communicated in binary, with two signals: On and Off.

Brain synapses, however, can precisely control communication between neurons by adjusting their activation depending on the amount and kind of ions crossing the synapses. Essentially, communicating with chips is like painting in black and white (no mixing!), and communicating with brain synapses is like painting with an endless palette of colors.

Here’s a comparison: in 2013, a supercomputer using 83k processors and a petabyte of memory took 40 minutes to simulate one second of 1% of neural activity in a brain. (!!!)

The chip developed by the MIT engineers isn’t the first neuromorphic chip to be announced – Intel and IBM have tried to do so in the past, but their construction materials caused inconsistent synaptic activity, so the chips were unreliable. This MIT-created chip is using a new approach, designing the artificial synapses with a material called silicon germanium. This material allows for a precise control of the strength of the electrical current flowing between them, just as synapses can control the flow of ions between neurons. Unlike previous chips, this one thus far has proven to be incredibly reliable.

And the chip works: in a simulation, it recognized handwriting samples with 95% accuracy, compared to the 97% accuracy of existing software. The next step is to actually build a chip that is capable of carrying out the handwriting recognition task, with the end goal of creating portable neural network devices.

Why It’s Hot: Developing a chip that can successfully mimic synaptic communication would be a massive leap forward for the future of AI. Tasks and processes that we currently need supercomputers to execute would be possible to run from the phone in your pocket. The ramifications for medicine, science, and surely lots of goofy and sinister tech developments alike are endless.

Learn More: Engadget | Science Alert

New Digital Scale Won’t Tell You How Much You Weigh

Shapa is a new digital scale created by behavioral scientist Dan Ariely, a professor of behavioral economics at Duke University and author of many books including PREDICTABLY IRRATIONAL and THE (HONEST) TRUTH ABOUT DISHONESTY. His work looks into how humans make decisions, and the role of rationality – or irrationality – in our daily lives. He’s recently he’s turned his work to the decisions we make around health, and Shapa is one result of his work.

Shapa is unique in many ways, but the most obvious one is that it doesn’t have a screen and it won’t tell you how much you weigh. (Yep, a scale that doesn’t display weight.) This is a deliberate choice in today’s world of hypertracking. We have so many technologies at our fingertips that can track a million things about our bodies – from steps walked, flights of stairs climbed, hours slept, to muscle mass, water percentage, bone density, etc. And companies like Fitbit and Garmin even have smart scales, designed to work with their own wearables. Basically, more than ever, tech has enabled humans to create an entire ecosystem of data-driven knowledge about our own bodies.

The problem, Ariely says, is that the actual story of our health gets lost in these data points. “By giving people more granularity,” he says, “we’re making information less useful.” That’s especially true of weight, which can fluctuate as much as three pounds throughout the day. Watching the scale go up and down in normal, healthy patterns and scrutinizing it to a tenth of a pound tells us nothing about overall health.

Enter Shapa. With Shapa, the scale works in tandem with an app, so though the app is indeed recording your weight, it never tells you what that is. Instead, it displays a color, depending on if you’re underweight, about right or overweight, but nothing more specific. The app also sends you on goals and missions: things like tidy your bedroom, write a goal and affix it on your fridge, set an alarm on your phone to get up every two hours, walk to the gym, etc. Through these tasks and goals, the Shapa app is training you into better habits, and it’s also recording which habits are resulting in you making healthier decisions (as reflected in weight trends).

Why It’s Hot: This product, and the theory behind it, is taking the concept of the monitored human (and all the assorted tech developments) and turning it on its head. Is less information actually better when it comes to tracking your health? How can these psychology principles be applied to other health tracking fields?

Read More: Engadget | Wired

Samsung debuts smart glasses for people with vision impairments

Samsung announced this week that they will be debuting Relúmĭno, a VR-based smartphone app for people with vision impairments, at CES 2018. Relúmĭno is a product of their C-Lab (Creative Lab) program.

Jeonghun Cho, one of the C-Lab creators of Relúmĭno, said he was inspired to create these glasses after learning that only 14% of people with visual impairments are totally blind, and the remaining 86% of people have low vision and are typically able to distinguish between light and dark. He wanted to find a way to use technology to improve their residual vision, and from that goal, the Relúmĭno glasses were born.

One of the most significant aspects of these glasses is their price. Many products that improve visual perception are very expensive, so the Relúmĭno is significant in that it’s much more accessible from a price standpoint. Samsung achieved this by harnessing the power of the user’s smartphones and VR technology, so the only additional components that users need beyond a Samsung smartphone is a VR headset.

This product is still in its early stages, and their next hurdle will be completing a version of Relúmĭno that is fully housed within regular sunglasses, rather than the VR headset. This would make the product much more mobile, and would work better in outdoor conditions.

Why It’s Hot: Another incredible example of existing technology being used to bring life-changing quality of life improvements to people who really need it. What other significant medical problems can be solved with the tech we use every day?

Read more: Ars Technica | Samsung

Breakthrough Bacterial “Live Ink” Developed For 3D Printing

ETH Zurich, a science & tech university, has announced the development of a new kind of ink that contains live bacteria. This ink has fantastic implications for several areas of science, including cleaning up environmental pollution and creating medical supplies.

For environmental pollution, the ink is key because it suspends bacteria in a polymer hydrogel, which keeps the bacteria alive and fed for a time. Once the bacteria eat all of the hydrogel, it can begin to process other materials – for example, toxins in water. ETH Zurich researchers printed a live ink grid embedded with bacteria that eat the hazardous chemical phenol, and then put the lattice in phenol-contaminated water. The water was completely purified in just a few days.

For medical supplies, this ink is important not because of the bacteria itself, but because of the strands of material that the bacteria create when they move: bacterial cellulose. Bacterial cellulose is pure, holds a lot of water, and is soothing to wounds on human flesh. And it’s a natural material, so human bodies generally don’t reject the cellulose. As a result, this material is perfect for materials like skin transplants and wound dressings. Until now, bacterial cellulose could only be grown in flat sheets, which isn’t conducive to the contours of bodies – but now with this 3D ink, researchers can print cellulose in the shape of someone’s elbow, or face, or ankle, etc.

Why It’s Hot: There are SO many possible applications of this technology. 3D printing is relatively easy to access, and there are a million kinds of bacteria (unscientific estimation) that could be used and modified to achieve a multitude of goals. For example, researchers are already eyeing bacteria that could be genetically modified to secrete medicine to speed wound healing, and before you know it we’ll all be buying bacterially enhanced Band-Aids!

Read more: The Verge | Science News

This video game is also an ADHD prescription medicine

Akili Interactive just announced incredible results from a pivotal study of their investigational digital medicine, AKL-T01, aka a VIDEO GAME, in treating pediatric ADHD. This sounds bonkers but it’s true, I swear.

In a randomized, controlled trial of 348 kids and teenagers with ADHD, AKL-T01 showed a statistically significant improvement compared to an active control on the primary goal of changing the subjects’ Attention Performance Index, a measure of ADHD symptoms. With these study results in hand, Akili plans to file AKL-T01 with the FDA for clearance as a novel treatment for pediatric ADHD.

AKL-T01 is built on Akili’s proprietary Project: EVO tech platform that “enables selective targeting and activation of specific cognitive neural systems in the brain that exhibit deficiencies from various medical conditions” (BusinessWire). Basically, the game uses algorithms to deliver stimuli that engage targeted neural systems in the brain, and the algorithms automatically adjust the level, aka dose, of stimuli depending on the particular patient. The treatment looks and feels like a video game, with art, music, storytelling, and rewards to keep kids engaged for maximum compliance.

Why It’s Hot: IT’S A VIDEO GAME THAT IS ALSO A PRESCRIPTION FOR CHANGING NEURAL PATHWAYS IN PEOPLE. That is bonkers. If the FDA approves this as a medication, and the platform is expanded to treat other brain/neurological disorders, the possibilities are endless.

Learn More: BusinessWire | Reuters

Apple Watch Gains Momentum as Key AFib Diagnosis Tool

Two developments this week are putting Apple Watch front & center in the ongoing search for better atrial fibrillation (AFib) diagnostic and management tools. AFib is a condition where your heartbeat is irregular, and it often has zero symptoms and goes undiagnosed. It’s currently the leading cause of strokes, and related deaths and hospitalizations, in the US.

First, the FDA has cleared the first EKG band as a direct-to-consumer – meaning, you don’t need a prescription to purchase or use it – Apple Watch accessory. The KardiaBand, a device made by startup AliveCor, can capture your EKG in 30 seconds. The band’s algorithms can then detect whether signs of AFib are present in the EKG. The band also makes use of the Apple Watch’s heartbeat sensors and will alert you if your watch is picking up fast or irregular heartbeats, and prompt you to complete an EKG test on the spot to further analyze any symptoms you may be feeling.

Second, Stanford has launched an irregular heartbeat study using the Apple Watch and an app available on the App Store called Apple Heart Study. Users just download the app and consent to participate, and then their data is automatically collected and analyzed by Stanford. If AFib is detected, the app will send you a push notification as well as provide a free consultation with a Stanford doctor and an EKG patch for further monitoring. With Apple’s recent release of HealthKit and ResearchKit, this study is another step toward positioning the Apple Watch as a versatile, reliable health monitoring device.

Why It’s Hot: These two developments are cracking the facade of a time-honored medical tradition of keeping information about your own body behind expert oversight. The KardiaBand being direct-to-consumer indicates a big step forward in companies being able to build hardware and software that rival medical technology to a level that the FDA will approve it. And the Stanford study is working directly with Apple Watch users, not requiring any subjects to go into a medical facility for testing and data gathering. Is this the first step toward breaking down the expert oversight firewall? But of course, on the other hand, what are the ramifications of people’s health data being shared and stored on their devices?

Learn More: EKG band | Stanford study

FDA Approves First-Ever Digital Pill

The FDA has approved a pill called Abilify MyCite that can digitally track whether it’s been ingested, and when. The point of the medication is to increase patient compliance, the thought being that if the patient is being held accountable by their medication, they’ll be more likely to take their pills. Non-compliance is a huge issue – not only does it decrease patient outcomes, it’s also can create drug resistance, and in the case of overdosing, can create dangerous drug dependency.

The pill works via a sensor in the actual pill made of copper and magnesium that sends out an electric signal once the sensor hits the stomach acid. The patient wears a patch on their ribcage that receives the electric signal, and sends it along to an app that records the date and time of the pill digestion. The app allows for data sharing with doctors and family members (and sharing permissions can be revoked at any time).

Though the technology is promising, there are big ethical questions raised by this new pill. First, Abilify is an antipsychotic medication prescribed primarily to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. The FDA’s approving of this particular kind of medication reflects a concerning disregard for the mental wellbeing of patients – Dr. Jeffrey Lieberman told The New York Times, “there’s an irony in it being giving to people with mental disorders that can include delusions. It’s like a biomedical Big Brother.” And his colleague Dr. Paul Appelbaum, Columbia’s director of law, ethics and psychiatry, pointed out that “drugs for almost any other condition would be a better place to start than a drug for schizophrenia.”

Second, the authority figures wielding this level of surveillance could easily manipulate patients. Imagine being told that your insurance company will cover 100% of your pill costs, but only if you take it on time every day. Or that you’re on parole and your freedom is contingent on taking medication. Or that your release from a psychiatric institution is predicated on your drug adherence.

Why It’s Hot: The technology itself is exciting – and the potential implications are fascinatingly broad, from improving patient outcomes to providing a whole new way for authorities to exert control over your physical being. (Yikes.)

Learn more: EngadgetNew York Times