What is a 'human'?, Laser ultrasounds that can look inside your body / Humans + Tech - Issue #9

+ World's first tooth-on-a-chip, Cars are spying on us, AI doctors.


This is the last issue of the year. It’s been wonderful curating these newsletters for the last nine weeks and I hope you’ve enjoyed them. Please reply with any suggestions on how I can make them better for you.

I hope you have fun plans for ringing in 2020 :)

Here are the articles from this week:

  1. 👀MIT engineers create laser ultrasounds that can look inside your body without you even feeling it [Gizmodo]

  2. 😷World's first tooth-on-a-chip may advance the field of dentistry [New Atlas]

  3. 👱‍♀️It's time to expand our understanding of what a 'human' is, biomedical experts warn [Science Alert]

  4. 🤖The AI doctor will see you now [Wired]

  5. 🚘Cars are secretly spying on us [Futurism]

1. MIT engineers create laser ultrasounds that can look inside your body without you even feeling it

Andrew Liszewski, writing for Gizmodo:

In a paper published yesterday in the journal Light: Science and Applications, the engineers at MIT explain how they developed a system that mimics the capabilities of an ultrasound machine, but using lasers that, at least in its current form, work from a distance as far as half a meter away from a patient. Lasers can be as innocuous as a pointer that projects a red dot on a slide show, or as dangerous as a tattoo removal gun that can fry a digital camera. The MIT researchers settled on a wavelength of 1,550-nanometers, which is readily absorbed by water but is also safe for human skin and eyes.

The good part about this technique, once it’s improved further, is that it can be used by people at home too. Here’s the downside:

At the same time, the new technique raises some concerns as it means a person could theoretically be physically examined without any actual physical interactions, and potentially without their knowledge. The idea of walking through a laser filled tunnel that analyzes your body inside and out sounds like science fiction turned fact, but as this technique is further improved and refined, there’s seemingly the potential for it to become a way for someone to assess your health without you even knowing about it.

How soon before these are installed in public places such as airports to evaluate people? What happens when health insurance companies get a hold of your data from these devices or can evaluate your health without your knowledge? Do current privacy laws even address scenarios like this? The technology is not far off, so we have to start addressing these issues immediately.

Go to article

2. World's first tooth-on-a-chip may advance the field of dentistry

Ben Coxworth, writing for New Atlas:

We’re seeing an increasing number of organ-on-a-chip devices, in which small pieces of living biological tissue are used to replicate the functions of actual organs. Now, scientists have created the first-ever tooth-on-a-chip, which mimics a tooth with a cavity.

“Years from now, dentists could extract a tooth from a patient, load it into this device, observe how a dental filling material interacts with the tooth, and pick a material that’s best for that particular patient,” says the lead scientist, Assoc. Prof. Luiz E. Bertassoni. “It opens up a new window into the complexity of dental care that could change the way we do dentistry quite significantly.”

A paper on the research was published this week in the journal Lab on a Chip.

It’s truly impressive that we can test treatments like this outside the body before using it. And more importantly, the ability to be able to customize treatments for each individual.

Go to article

3. It's time to expand our understanding of what a 'human' is, biomedical experts warn

Peter Dockrill, writing for Science Alert:

The lines are blurring, any which way you look. Thanks to the incredible pace of scientific progress, the very definition of what it means to be ‘human’ is becoming an increasingly open question.

In a world where living beings like genetically edited babies and human-animal hybrids are made to exist, the questions aren’t only ethical, two biomedical experts argue in a new paper – they’re legal, too.

“Determining whether some ‘thing’ is now some ‘one’ carries with it profound implications for the rights and obligations the law recognises for ‘humans’.”

Knoppers and Greely – two legal researchers who specialise in issues surrounding bioscience technologies – say biotechnology advancements like revived brains being brought back to life from the dead, along with synthetic humans, chimeras, and the seemingly endless possibilities of CRISPR, all challenge existing legal definitions of ‘human’.

It sounds like science fiction, but we are at that point in our evolution where this is a question that needs to be answered.

There’s going to be no easy or direct answer, and it’s going to require lots of thought, discussions, and consideration.

Read the article, give it some thought, and let me know your opinion in the comments. I’m curious to see different perspectives on this.

Go to article

4. The AI doctor will see you now

Tom Simonite, writing for Wired:

When MIT professor Regina Barzilay received her breast cancer diagnosis, she turned it into a science project. Learning that the disease could have been detected earlier if doctors had recognized the signs on previous mammograms, Barzilay, an expert in artificial intelligence, used a collection of 90,000 breast x-rays to create software for predicting a patient’s cancer risk.

Barzilay calculates the software could have flagged her own cancer two years before it was diagnosed by conventional means. “The AI was able to detect smaller details than the human eye could pick up,” she says.

I recently posted about AI being able to diagnose ADHD better than humans. And, I also shared an article about Portal – a platform being used in rural areas to help doctors diagnose patients. There are many positives to gaining the assistance of AI in diagnosis. However, we should be aware of the negatives as well.

One is increased collection of data on patients and their conditions. All that information could be tempting to health insurers or government agencies, which might not always have a patient’s interest as their first priority.

AI systems that can predict a person’s health far into the future—even before birth—raise even trickier questions. Researchers have shown that algorithms can process genomic data to predict individual characteristics, such as a person’s height or risk of certain diseases. Indicators of intelligence or other traits could be next, tempting parents, armed with techniques like IVF and gene editing, to shape—and not just learn—their offspring’s destiny.

Interesting times ahead. That’s for sure.

I encourage you to click through to the article and listen to the podcast episode on Sleepwalkers, linked within.

Go to article

5. Cars are secretly spying on us

Dan Robitzski, writing for Futurism:

Your car is likely capturing hundreds of data points about you and your driving, and secretly sending it to the manufacturer.

Hacking into a 2017 Chevrolet for The Washington Post, tech writer Geoffrey Fowler learned that the car had been tracking his location, monitoring activity on the cell phone he had connected, and collecting other data points that it sent straight to General Motors. It’s a disturbing revelation that serves as yet another reminder that digital privacy is a myth.

The onboard computers were handling 25GB of data every hour!

Aside from creepy business practices, the hush-hush data collection poses a security risk: hacking into the Chevy revealed the travel patterns of the car’s owner, along with the phone numbers and addresses of people who the owner called. Meanwhile, General Motors denied any wrongdoing, pointing toward dense fine print in the customer contract.

Time to bring back the Model T, I say.

Go to article

I’m really looking forward to sending out the tenth issue of Humans + Tech in the new year.

Here’s a quote to think about as we go into the new year.

“In a culture where people judge each other as much by their digital footprints as by their real-life personalities, it's an act of faith to opt out of sharing your data.”
― Julia Angwin, Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance

I wish you a happy, healthy, and brilliant 2020.