When you look backwards, it suddenly becomes clear that technology is developing at a dazzling pace. The iPhone is ten years old this year. If you’re as old as this writer, and can remember being impressed by a Nokia 3210, ten years feel like a terrifyingly short time.
But in that time, smartphones have gone from being impressive devices to make calls and send messages with, to the one central supercomputer that our lives need to power VR and other experiences.
And that was just in a decade. It’s clear now that that technological development is now going to be is faster, and more dramatic: so much so that big developments are already here - it’s just that we’re so used to technology doing amazing things, we overlook anything that is not eye-popping.
And so it is with technology that affects our health and bodies. The big leaps don’t have to be miracle cures. Joe Sparrow finds out how there are plenty of lives being changed – right now – using tech that’s not particularly revolutionary in itself, except in the ways it is being used...
Many of the truly big uses of world-altering tech won’t come from faster processors or smaller devices: they’re coming in the form of tech we already understand, applied better. Working smarter, not harder. More effectively, not faster. Simpler, not more complex. And some are so ingenious, your faith in humanity will be restored.
Parkinson’s disease, which effects over six million people worldwide, is a tricky disorder. It’s hard to treat it effectively and it comes with myriad symptoms which affect each person slightly differently.
A big part of the difficulty a person with Parkinson’s faces is the awful frustration which comes from losing fine motor functions and their body not being able to do what they want. Depression is extremely common. It's easy to empathise: if small joys like being able to eat are taken away, quality of life is diminished and all then drugs in the world can't bring that back.
While the vast sums poured into medicinal treatments are incredibly important, there are things that can be done in smaller, more localised and life-restoring ways. Take Liftware. Owned by Google, whose co-founder Sergy Brin has a parent with Parkinson's, Liftware are a company that make spoons and forks. It doesn’t sound like much, but this special cutlery can make life happy again.
Simply put, the spoon senses the Parkinsonian tremor, and cancels it out. When the hand wobbles up, the spoon moves down. People who couldn’t feed themselves can now slurp minestrone again. It’s faintly miraculous technology, but not as miraculous as the feeling of being able to enjoy a family meal on your own terms again.
There is even more complex cutlery too: one spoon, for people with limited hand movement, senses movement so that it’s always upright. It's just as impressive and impactful.
This kind of thinking and implementation is ingenious in its simplicity and combining of existing tech. And what's fascinating is that micro-motors, gimbals, and motion sensors have been around for a while. It’s just that now we’ve figured how to fit them all together.
Better than the real thing
VR is great. MONTAG has written breathlessly about the transformative effects of messing around in VR, and it is, plain and simple, great fun.
VR is now being used for loads of interesting stuff beside the seemingly endless stream of space-based VR games. Training surgeons to do complex surgery, firefighters in otherwise dangerous situations, and showing nuclear engineers which buttons to not press under absolutely no circumstances whatsoever are all great examples of using VR in positive ways.
(Using it to help show a bunch of CEOs what it’s like to be homeless, not so much.)
But #branding missteps aside, VR is now enabling some very nuanced examples of “training”, except instead, the “virtually cutting things open and poking around inside” part can focus on something a bit less tangible: the mind.
If something bad happens to you, you probably won’t want it to happen to you again. That’s how the brain, quite sensibly, works: if you were bitten by a dog as a child, you might flinch when you see a dog as an adult because your brain recognises a threat.
This example might just be considered an inconvenience. But the problem is potentially debilitating. As a society, we send people into war zones to do and witness terrible things. And when they come back to the real world, they can bring what they saw and did with them in the form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
This means that they have learnt to associate certain images, sounds, actions, movements or physical feelings with extreme mental trauma. It’s crippling and debilitating and it’s invisible to the outside world. The PTSD sufferer truly suffers, as they relive awful moments, or struggle to block them out.
VR takes them back there. That might sound like the worst thing to do, but the immersive power of VR means that a person battling PTSD can be guided carefully into a virtual version of the specific scenario that haunts them, and they can be emotionally and psychologically guided as they re-live it.
Eventually their hyper-sensitivity to otherwise innocuous situations outside of the extreme environments they experienced is reduced.
The technology can help anyone with PTSD: rape survivors who can’t face a part of town where an assault happened can also regain the strength that was robbed from them.
These applications of VR are as uncomplicated and manageable as they are sensible and effective. Why talk out a very specific trauma when you can be carefully taken back there and explore it?
Mosquitoes kill more people per year than every other living thing put together. The Debug project – also funded by Google – has an enormous ambition: to get rid of them. Debug's novel approach is almost too simple: hey, fewer mosquito bites means fewer illnesses, so why not just reduce the number of mosquitos?
Turns out it is actually that simple. It’s just that making it happen is a big supply-chain problem. However, if you’ve ever ordered anything from Amazon, you’ll know that humanity is pretty good at arranging that kind of thing now.
Here’s how it works: A percentage of male mosquitoes naturally carry a specific bacteria. When they mate with female mosquitos, the bacteria stops the resulting eggs from hatching. If there are enough of these sneaky male mosquitoes, over time, the population could decrease. Also, the male mosquitos also don’t bite (but don't let the men’s rights activists know).
So Debug will breed Mosquitoes en masse, and then the bacteria-carrying mosquitoes will be separated from the rest, then released to do their sexy work in the wild.
It’s a result of the most boring and tiny picking-and-packing job in the universe: only good old-fashioned physical selection will work. The task is too big (and boring) a job for humans, so small robot labs will breed mosquitos, pick out the useful ones, and zap the bad ones. Then swathes of these buzzy secret agents will be released into the wild again and again until the number of mosquitoes is usefully controlled - possibly right down to zero.
It sounds almost too simple. It’s true that there’s a way to go, but Debug will run trials soon and it should work: after all, mosquitoes like to breed and much as they like to bite.
Everything's a remix
The one thing that unites all these ideas is that the concepts are simple, the theories are old hat, and the technology already exists.
The brilliance is in the execution, and it’s an important part of the future of technology and how we all use it, whether making music, or designing a device that brings relief to millions: everything is a remix now. The parts all exist.
The world is a giant LEGO set, and finally, we can play with it properly.