November 8, 2013
You never hear much talk of a war on Alzheimer’s disease because, frankly, we haven’t been putting up much of a fight.
It’s been more than 100 years since German physician Alois Alzheimer first described what he called “a peculiar disease,” and while scientists are pretty certain about what causes it—a buildup of amyloid protein plaques in the brain—they still don’t have an answer for how to prevent or cure the unrelentingly grim condition.
Last year, the pharmaceutical company Baxter International said it was discontinuing the testing of a drug called Gammagard after it proved ineffective in slowing the mental decline of Alzheimer’s patients. That followed the failure in clinical trials of an Alzheimer’s treatment developed by Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson, and another by Eli Lilly and Company.
This is the kind of news Baby Boomers on the cusp of old age hate to hear. Already, more than 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s, and that number is expected to jump another 40 percent by 2025 and triple by 2050.
But there may be a glimmer of light. A team of Swiss and Polish researchers say they might have come up with a way to attack the clumps of amyloid proteins that disengage the brain. Their technique involves using multi-photon lasers that are able to distinguish the destructive proteins in the brain from the healthy ones.
The researchers found that while healthy proteins are optically invisible—meaning the laser light passes right through them—the amyloids absorb some of the light.
Eventually, they believe, doctors will be able to use lasers to not only detect the bad protein cells, but to actually remove them and cure the patient. “Nobody has talked about using only light to treat these diseases until now,” said Piotr Hanczyc at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden. “We have found a totally new way of discovering these structures using just laser light.”
Currently, doctors use chemicals or surgery to remove amyloid proteins—but that can damage healthy tissue. The laser treatment, which Hanczyc feels could also help people suffering from Parkinson’s disease, could greatly limit that risk.
It sounds promising, but Alzheimer’s is one tenacious foe.
When genes break bad
Still, there’s a bit more positive news on the Alzheimer’s front. Based on the largest ever genetic analysis of the disease, scientists from the U.S. and Europe have identified 11 more genes linked to Alzheimer’s, doubling the number now known to be connected to the disorder. As recently as 2009, only one Alzheimer’s gene had been identified. That study, published in the journal Nature Genetics late last month, was based on a DNA scan of more than 74,000 elderly people in 15 countries.
The more genes associated with a disease, the more potential targets for a drug to attack. As Gerard Schellenberg, a professor of pathology at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the study’s researchers, recently told the Washington Post, “Not all are good drug targets, but the longer the list of genes that you know are implicated in a disease, the more likely you are to find one that might be a good candidate for a drug.”
This too sounds promising. But Schellenberg also pointed out that it could take another 10 to 15 years to develop an effective Alzheimer’s drug therapy from what they’ve learned.
With luck, it will be worth the wait.
Here are more recent developments in laser research:
- Imagine a deer in these headlights: Engineers at BMW have developed headlights that are able to convert intense blue laser beams into tightly concentrated—but non-laser—cones of white light. The car company says those lights will make it easier for drivers to pick out objects in the dark and should reduce eye fatigue.
- That’s right, drones with lasers: DARPA, the research arm of the Department of Defense, is funding research to find a way to arm drones with lasers. The immediate goal is to give drones a way to protect themselves against surface-to-air missiles, but some experts believe this is the first step toward using drones as an anti-missile system.
- Get real: UK scientists have developed a technique using laser printing to help detect fake merchandise. Each printed laser can be designed to give out its own unique optical signature. Because lasers can be printed on all sorts of surfaces—such as plastic, paper, metal and glass—the technique could be used to authenticate many kinds of products.
- Taking the long view: University of Michigan engineers have invented a laser that can identify the chemical composition of an object from as far as a mile away. This could help military aircraft locate different types of targets, but also could be adapted for more benign uses, such as allowing full-body screening systems at airports to better identify hidden objects.
- Well, it’s about time: Meanwhile, scientists at Stanford were able to user lasers to surgically make holes thinner than a human hair in the heads of live fruit flies, allowing researchers to see how the flies’ brains work. The researchers also successfully tested this technique on worms, ants and mice.
Video bonus: Here’s a clip of a U.S. Navy ship using lasers to shoot a drone out of the sky.
Video bonus bonus: Before they fade from pop culture history, here’s one last look at the laser cats that had their fleeting moment of fame on “Saturday Night Live.”
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November 1, 2013
All of us have had a teacher who had eyes in the back of his or her head. Even while facing the blackboard, they saw everything—every note being passed, every answer being copied, every face being made.
Or at least it seemed that way. All they really had to do was guess right a few times about what was going on behind their backs and, well, that is how classroom legends are made.
But what if you took all the guessing out of the picture? What if cameras focused on every kid in the class? That’s what a New York company named SensorStar Labs has in mind, although the point would not be to catch miscreants, but rather to help teachers determine when they’ve lost the class.
Here’s how it would work. Using facial recognition software called EngageSense, computers would apply algorithms to what the cameras have recorded during a lecture or discussion to interpret how engaged the students have been. Were the kids’ eyes focused on the teacher? Or were they looking everywhere but the front of the class? Were they smiling or frowning? Or did they just seem confused? Or bored?
Teachers would be provided a report that, based on facial analysis, would tell them when student interest was highest or lowest. Says SensorStar co-founder Sean Montgomery, himself a former teacher: “By looking at maybe just a couple of high points and a couple of low points, you get enough takeaway. The next day you can try to do more of the good stuff and less of the less-good stuff.”
No doubt some parents are going to have a lot of questions about what happens to all that video of their kids’ faces. But Montgomery is confident that most will agree to let their children be videotaped when they see how much it helps teachers polish their skills.
He’s convinced that in five years, teachers all over the country will be using it. First, though, he has to prove that the SensorStar algorithms can truly interpret the workings of young minds based simply on eye movement and facial expression.
That, of course, assumes teachers will jump right on board. Which is hardly a sure thing, given the response last year to a report that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is helping to fund the development of sensor bracelets that could, in theory at least, track a student’s engagement level.
The wrist devices are designed to send a small current across the skin and then measure subtle changes in electrical charges as the nervous system responds to stimuli. These bracelets have been used in tests to gauge how consumers respond to advertising, and the thinking goes that if they can tell you how excited someone gets while watching a car ad, they can give you a sense of how jazzed a kid can get about fractions. (Or not.)
Not so fast, snapped skeptics. They were quick to point out that just because a second grader is excited doesn’t mean he or she is learning something. And while the bracelets’ boosters argue that their purpose is to help teachers, critics say that no one should be surprised if the sensors eventually are used to evaluate them. Some teachers suggested that they might have to work random screams into their lesson plans to keep the excitement level high.
Ultimately, it comes down to whether, like Bill Gates, you believe that accumulating and analyzing data from classroom behavior is the key to applying science to the learning process. Or, if you think that teaching is more art than science, and that the connection between teachers and students is too complex and nuanced to be measured through a collection of data points.
Who’s your data?
- And you will not eat a salad your first six months in college: More and more colleges are using predictive analysis to give students a good idea of how they’ll fare in a class before they even sign up for it. By using data from a student’s own academic performance and from others who have already taken the class, advisers can predict with increasing accuracy how likely it is that a particular student will succeed or fail.
- Please like this investment: Last week Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg made his first investment in a startup company—he joined a team of investors putting $4 million in seed money behind a Massachusetts company named Panorama Education. It crunches data from surveys it does for schools from K to 12, ranging from subjects such as why some promising students end up failing to why bullying is particularly prominent among ninth grade boys.
- Acing the tests: A smartphone app called Quick Key has an optical scanner that can quickly grade SAT-style bubble answer sheets. Then it uploads the results to teachers’ electronic grade books and analyzes the data.
- Apple-picking time: Earlier this week, Apple CEO Tim Cook announced that iPads make up 94 percent of the tablets now used in schools. The company’s sales have slowed in the consumer market, so it’s been making a big push into education by offering discounts for bulk purchases.
- And they probably drew outside the lines: A new study from Michigan State University found that people who were involved in artistic activities while they were in school tended to be more innovative when they grew up—specifically that they were more likely to generate patents and launch businesses as adults.
Video bonus: Bill Gates offers his take on how he thinks teachers should be given feedback.
Video bonus bonus: Here’s a different twist on facial recognition in the classroom.
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October 15, 2013
There are those who believe that negotiation is an art, an intricate weaving of flattery, bombast, bluffing and accomodation that only a relative few truly master. And then, there are proponents of the science of negotiation, specifically what researchers have learned about why it seems impossible for some people to agree, how perception of power can make a big difference and what little things can make a deal go your way.
Here are 10 studies on negotiation and influence that scientists have published in the past year:
1) I never get tired of being right all the time: Researchers at Duke University found that people on the far edges of the political spectrum—both left and right—tend to be guilty of “belief superiority,” That means that not only do they believe that their position is right, but also that all other views are inferior. Based on surveys of 527 adults on nine hot-button issues, the researchers determined that hardcore conservatives felt most superior about their views on voter identification laws, taxes and affirmative action, while diehard liberals felt most superior about their views on government aid for the needy, torture and not basing laws on religion. The scientists did note that the tendency for people with extreme views to be overly confident is not limited to politics.
2) I am tweeter, hear me roar: An analysis of tweets during American sporting events, such as the Super Bowl, concluded that people who were more opinionated in their tweets not only ended up with more followers, but were also believed to be more trustworthy. Using a word filter that allowed them to review more than a billion tweets, researchers from Washington State University found that being confident was more important than being accurate when it came to a tweeter’s popularity.
3) The lame game: According to a study at Stanford University, making weak arguments for a cause may actually be more effective in encouraging someone to become an advocate than presenting them with a strong argument. The researchers suggested that people who already believe in a cause are more likely to lend support when they hear weak arguments for that cause, because they feel that, by comparison, they have more to offer than the advocates they are hearing.
4) Sorry seems to be the smartest word: One way to get people to trust you more is to apologize for things for which you have absolutely no blame. That’s the finding of researchers from the Harvard Business School, who believe that saying you’re sorry for bad weather or hideous traffic or the loss by a local sports team can cause people to find you more credible. Instead of making you look weak, the study found that so-called “superfluous apologies” can help you seem empathetic and leads people to trust you more.
5) The “I’s” don’t have it: New research at the University of Texas contends that people who use “I” a lot tend to be less powerful and sure of themselves than those who limit their use of the pronoun. According to researcher James Pennebaker, frequent “I” users subconsciously believe they are subordinate to the person to whom they’re talking. He says “the high-status person is looking out at the world and the low-status person is looking at himself.”
6) The eyes don’t have it: While negotiating, it may not be such a good idea to look the other party straight in the eye, after all. A study published earlier this month in Psychological Science says that making eye contact may actually make people who disagree with you less likely to change their minds. Researchers found that the more time viewers spent looking at speakers’ eyes, the less likely they were to shift to the speakers’ point of view. Eye contact seemed to be effective only when a viewer already agreed with a speaker.
7) Keeping it unreal: And if you’re in negotiations with someone who has more power than you do, you may not even want to talk face-to-face, according to a study presented by British researchers earlier this year. In two different studies in which the same negotiation was conducted face-to-face, and then in a sophisticated 3-D virtual simulation, those with less power performed better in the virtual negotiations.
8) Avoid rounding errors: Two professors at Columbia Business School found that if you make a very specific offer, as opposed to one rounded up to a number with zeroes, you’re more likely to end up with a better result. The researchers said that if someone makes an offer of say, $5,015, instead of a nice round $5,000, they are thought be more knowledgeable about the value of an object.
9) Make him an offer he can’t forget: Research at Johns Hopkins University provides a bit more advice—make the first offer. Studies by researcher Brian Gunia show that that makes your counterparts focus on your offer, even when they know they’d be better off if they ignored it. When managers took part in a hypothetical negotiation, those who made the initial offer nearly doubled their take-home value compared to those who let the other person start the bidding.
10) Charm-schooled: Using “feminine charm” can help women show confidence, and that benefits them in negotiations, according to a study at the University of California, Berkeley. Researcher Laura Kray found that women who said they used more social charm were rated more effective by their negotiation partners. However, men who said they used more social charm were not regarded as more effective. According to Kray, friendly flirtation in these settings is not sexual, but instead seen as authentic, engaging behavior that reflects warmth.
Video bonus: Yes, it’s a Heineken commercial, but it’s about a ploy where men, gunning for some sports tickets, try to convince women to buy furniture.
Video bonus bonus: While we’re passing out advice, wouldn’t it be great to win every argument even if you’re never right? Pick a strategy.
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October 11, 2013
It’s hard to imagine that technology could be a friend to Obamacare, given the dismal performance of its official website last week. But it turns out that the high-speed crunching of a huge amount of information—aka Big Data—could ensure that one of the principle tenets of health care reform, known as “accountable care,” can become more than a catchy phrase in a policy paper.
U.S. hospitals have begun shifting their way of doing business. It’s long been the case that the payments hospitals received from Medicare largely were based on the tests their doctors ordered and the procedures they performed. So, strangely enough, the sicker a hospital’s patients were, the more money it tended to receive. But the Affordable Care Act is designed to change that, instead providing incentives that reward positive results. And, that seems to be prompting hospitals to move from focusing solely on treating sick people to helping patients take better care of themselves in the outside world. They want their ex-patients to stay ex-patients.
It’s crunch time
Case in point is Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. Not long ago it hired a 30-year-old named Jeff Hammerbacher to try to work wonders with the hospital’s new supercomputer. His previous job was as Facebook’s first data scientist, so you know he knows how much wisdom can be gleaned from mountains of information—if you have computers powerful and fast enough to make sense of it.
So far, the hospital has developed a computer model that crunches all the data it has on past patients—from why they were admitted to how many times they’ve been there to everything that happened during their stays—and from that, it’s able to predict which ones are most likely to return. But instead of just waiting for those patients to come back, Mount Sinai, like more and more hospitals, is turning proactive, reaching out to those frequent patients with follow-up calls to make sure they get to their doctor appointments or avoid the bad habits that end up sending them to the hospital. In one pilot program, Mount Sinai was able to cut re-admissions in half. If you don’t think that hospitals can put a serious dent in health care costs by slashing the number of repeat patients, keep in mind that nationwide, 1 percent of patients accounted for nearly 22 percent of health spending in 2009.
Methodist Health System in Dallas is going down a parallel track. It’s been analyzing patient data from 14,000 patients and 6,000 employees to identify people who are most likely to need expensive health care in the future, and it’s reaching out to help them take preventative measures before they develop costly ailments.
Here are a few other recent findings that have come from hospitals crunching Big Data:
- A health care provider in Southern California using data on the behavior of staff doctors found that one physician was using a certain antibiotic much more often than the rest of the staff—potentially increasing the risk of drug-resistant bacteria.
- At Memorial Care Health System in California, hospital management has begun tracking how doctors there perform on such things as immunizations, mammograms and blood glucose control in diabetic patients. That and other doctor data helped reduce the average patient stay from 4.2 days in 2011 to four days in 2012.
- Use of full-time nurses, rather than contract or temporary ones, coincided with higher patient satisfaction scores, according to Baylor Health Care System.
- Researchers in Ontario are working with IBM on a system to detect subtle changes in the condition of premature babies that could tip off the onset of infection 24 hours before symptoms appear.
- In another case, data analysis was able to determine which doctors were costing the most money by ordering procedures and other treatments. Hospital administrators reviewed the results with the costly doctors and suggested ways they could cut back on duplicate tests and unnecessary procedures.
Ultimately, hospitals hope to get to the point where, based on analysis of all the data of every patient who’s ever walked through their doors, they’ll have a very good idea of the risk facing each new patient who arrives.
To your health
Here’s a smattering of other recent research on hospital treatment:
- With luck, you’ll forget about the ICU: Researchers at Vanderbilt University found that 75 percent of people who spend time in a hospital’s intensive care unit suffer some level of cognitive decline. In some cases, according to the study, they can experience Alzheimer’s-like symptoms for a year or longer after leaving the hospital.
- Still need a reason to stay out of hospitals?: According to a recent report in the Journal of the American Medical Association, treatment of infections people develop in a hospital adds $9.8 billion to America’s health care costs every year. The Centers for Disease Control has estimated that one out of every 20 patients gets an infection while in the hospital. About a third of the cost comes from infections following surgery—they add an average of $20,785 to a patient’s medical bills.
- Here’s another: A study published in the recent issue of the Journal of Patient Safety estimates that as many as 210,000 to 440,000 patients each year who go to the hospital suffer some type of preventable harm that ultimately contributes to their death. If that’s the case, it would make medical errors the third-leading cause of death in America, behind heart disease and cancer.
- Must be the food: After crunching results from 4,655 hospitals, a health care economist from Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia found that the best hospitals, in terms of medical results, generally don’t receive the highest satisfaction rankings from patients. Instead, the top hospitals, which often are bigger and busier, tend to get only lukewarm ratings from people who spend time in them.
- But they found no link between moon cycles and back hair: Believe it or not, researchers at Rhode Island Hospital contend that their analysis showed that cardiac surgery, specifically aortic dissection, is less likely to result in death if performed in the waning of a full moon. They also said that patients who had the surgery during a full moon tended to stay in the hospital for shorter lengths of time.
Video bonus: Here’s another way Big Data is being used to predict human behavior, in this case, what we’re likely to do when we enter a store.
Video bonus bonus: And, in advance of Halloween, a little macabre hospital humor.
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October 4, 2013
You have to hand it to Google.
Yes, Google Glass is one nifty technology, but wearing glasses with a little camera attached seems to reek of geek, the kind of gadget that would appeal most to men and women who, as young boys and girls, wanted so much to believe in X-ray glasses.
Yet twice now, Google Glass has managed to crash one of America’s biggest glamor parties—New York’s Fashion Week. Last year, all of the models in designer Diane Von Furstenberg’s show strutted down the runway accessorized by Google. And, a few weeks ago, at this year’s event, anyone who was anyone—top models, fashion editors, reality show judges—was walking around shooting pictures and videos with their clever camera glasses.
Still, if Google Glass is to go mainstream, it needs to move beyond the air kiss crowd and geek buzz. That part of the plan starts tomorrow in Durham, North Carolina, the first stop in what Google says will be a national roadshow. With Google Glass expected to hit the market by early 2014, it’s time to start letting the general public see what all the chatter’s about.
The camera never blinks
So, it’s also time to begin taking a closer look at what it might mean to have a whole lot of people walking around with computers/cameras attached to their heads.
There’s obviously the matter of privacy. Google Glass wearers will have the ability to shoot a steady stream of photos and videos as they go about their daily lives. A group of U.S. congressmen raised the issue to Google earlier this year, as have privacy commissioners from Canada, the European Union, Australia, Israel, Mexico, Switzerland and other countries.
Google’s response is that the camera will not be that surreptitious since it will be voice-activated and a light on the screen will show that it’s on. Google also insists that it won’t allow facial recognition software on Google Glass—critics have raised concerns about someone being able to use facial recognition to track down the identity of a person they’ve captured in photos or videos on the street or in a bar.
Others are worried about so much visual data being captured every day, particularly if Google Glass hits it big. The video and images belong to the owner of the glasses, but who else could get access to them? Google has tried to assuage some of those fears by pointing out that all the files on the device will be able to be deleted remotely in the event that it’s lost or stolen.
Thanks for sharing
Then there’s this. In August, Google was awarded a patent to allow for the use of something known as “pay-per-gaze” advertising. In its application, the company noted that “a head-mounted tracking device”—in other words, Google Glass—could follow where the person wearing it was gazing, and be able to send images of what they saw to a server. Then, any billboards or other real-world ads the person had seen would be identified and Google could charge the advertiser. As noted in the New York Times’ Bits blog, the fee could be adapted based on how long the ad actually held the person’s gaze.
Here’s how Google proposed the idea in its patent: “Pay-per-gaze advertising need not be limited to online advertisements, but rather can be extended to conventional advertisement media including billboards, magazines, newspapers and other forms of conventional print media.”
Since it became public, Google has downplayed the patent—first filed in 2011—saying it has no plans to incorporate the eye-tracking capability into Google Glass any time soon. “We hold patents on a variety of ideas,” the company responded in a statement. “Some of those ideas later mature into real products or services, some don’t. Prospective product announcements should not necessarily be inferred from our patents.”
There are other ways advertising could be integrated into the Google Glass experience. Digital ads could pop up in a person’s glasses based on what they may be looking at. Say you’re walking down the street and suddenly an ad for the restaurant down on the corner shows up on your display screen. That could get real old real fast—but it’s not that improbable. Or maybe you’d see virtual ads—for which advertisers pay Google—which would replace real-world ads that appear in your line of vision.
No doubt, though, Google Glass will provide us with plenty of ethical dilemmas. When, for instance, will you be justified in telling someone to please remove their camera glasses? And will there be places and situations where glasses in the filming position are universally seen as bad form—say, at dinner parties, or stops at public bathrooms or in the midst of messy breakups?
But there’s another aspect of Google Glass—or most wearable tech, for that matter—that’s particularly intriguing. It has to do with the power of real-time feedback to change behavior. Studies have shown that nothing is more effective at getting people to slow down their cars than those digital signs that tell you how fast you’re going. It’s feedback to which you can immediately respond.
So, will a steady stream of data about our personal health and exercise make us take our bad habits a lot more seriously? Sure, you can forget the occasional crack from your partner about your weight gain. But a smart watch reminding you all day, every day? What about prompts from your smart glasses that give you cues when you start spending money recklessly? Or flagging you on behavior patterns that haven’t turned out so well for you in the past? Can all these devices make us better people?
Sean Madden, writing for Gigaom, offered this take: “This is social engineering in its most literal sense, made possible by technology, with all of the promise and paranoia that phrase implies.”
Wear it well
Here are other recent developments on the wearable tech front:
- Remember when all a watch needed to do was tick: Samsung has jumped into the wearable tech business with the release of its Galaxy Gear smart watch, although some critics have suggested that it’s just not smart enough.
- If teeth could talk: Researchers at National Taiwan University have designed a sensor that when attached to a tooth can track everything your mouth does during a typical day—how much you chew, how much you talk, how much you drink, even how much you cough.
- How about when you need more deodorant?: A Canadian company is developing a machine-washable T-shirt that can track and analyze your movement, breathing and heart activity.
- Don’t let sleeping dogs lie: Why shouldn’t dogs have their own wearable tech? Whistle is a monitoring device that tells you how much exercise your dog is getting while you’re at work. Or more likely, how much he’s not getting.
Video bonus: Here’s a Google video showing how Glass can keep you from ever getting lost again.
Video bonus bonus: With luck, advertising on Google Glass will never get as bad as it plays out on this video parody.
More on Smithsonian.com
First Arrest Caught on Google Glass