Friday, June 2, 2023

Irish Prof proffers vision of tech healthcare

Technology will transform how healthcare is provided in the coming decades on a scale and in a fashion we can barely imagine at this point in time – Michael McHale looks to the future with Prof Aaron Quigley in a talk in UCD

Professor Aaron Quigley is looking to the future. In 27 years’ time – 2050 – Ireland and the rest of the EU aims to be carbon neutral. Many predict major advances in artificial intelligence, robotics, and the digital world that will transform our everyday lives.

But while these ideas may seem far away, Prof Quigley points to the major changes that have taken place in the last 27 years as proof of what is possible.

“When you go back and look at the Irish healthcare system back in 1996, what didn’t we have?,” he asked an audience gathered to hear him speak at a UCD event last month. “We certainly didn’t have telemedicine at home. We didn’t have the proliferation of broadband. We didn’t have the mobile technologies that we do today.”

Prof Quigley doesn’t believe that all our healthcare problems will be solved by technology in the next 27 years, but he is confident of key advances being made. In January, the Dubliner was appointed Science Director at Data61, the data and digital specialist arm of Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).

In March he returned to Ireland to speak about some of his work and its potential impact on global health, as part of the UCD Institute for Discovery’s ‘Human Health Impact and Technology’ series of public talks.

During his presentation in the university’s O’Brien Centre for Science, Prof Quigley discussed some of the projects that CSIRO is working on that could transform the lives of patients, while improving the training and daily working lives of healthcare professionals.

One of these projects is the use of tiny radar sensors to categorise objects. ‘Radar Cat’ has the potential to detect objects by how they interact with these sensors when placed close to them. By creating a device – or incorporating one into a smartphone – that has been trained to detect a huge number of different objects, the technology has the potential to aid people with sight impairments to enjoy a better quality of life.

Prof Quigley also spoke about the use of the smartphone camera to detect our environment and react accordingly. While most phones today have a front and back camera, new devices are emerging that will use omni-directional cameras to give a 360-degree view, opening up new possibilities in environmental detection.

“You can use it for detecting danger around you, because suddenly the camera is looking at the physical environment around you, doing context sensing and knowing more about the world.”

Other applications could include its use in office meetings, creating a more responsive ‘smart home’, and using it while driving so that the camera’s detections interact with the car.

While for many, the existence of such cameras recording movements in everyday life will feel like a step too far in terms of a breach of privacy, for others it opens up an opportunity to sense deteriorations in our health at an earlier stage, improving overall health outcomes.

Devices like the omni-directional camera and wearable technologies like smartwatches have the potential to detect the slightest of changes in human movement such as gait, allowing for earlier intervention.

Already many of these devices record sleep, heart rate, steps taken, calories burned and include prompts to stand, move and exercise.

Prof Quigley hopes that embracing this kind of technology, and others that follow, will ‘encourage people to take more ownership of their own health’.

“These sorts of interfaces can give us a certain amount of agency over our own health, empowering the individual to have an understanding of how they can change their behaviours to improve their health.
They can do this by making small changes over a period of time, to avoid the situation where you need to rely on the healthcare system.”

While such new technologies give the public more ownership over their own health, other devices are being developed to aid healthcare professionals in their work, and improve health outcomes after medical interventions. For example, by developing an interface that can detect breathing in situations where speech is difficult – such as when a surgical mask is being worn – it may be possible to control a computer. This could be particularly useful in environments when maintaining sterile hands is paramount, or when hands are already in use, such as in a surgical procedure.

Currently, some of Prof Quigley’s colleagues are working on ways to detect breathing, speech and environmental noise, transferring those findings into a processing unit, and using processing techniques to recognise short or long breaths, and different patterns of breathing. The scientists were then able to build and test a device to use to detect inhalations and exhalations that could control a computer.

As well as such interfaces, the use of head-mounted displays and augmented reality – something that is already available to consumers – is likely to open up greater opportunities for healthcare professionals. CSIRO has been looking at the plethora of devices already available, and investigating ways in which the pixels each digital item generates can be combined to work and interact together.

“There’s going to be intersections between the pixels that we have. Some of them are going to be projected in front of us, some of them are going to be on our wrist, and some of them are going to be in our hand.

“So can we combine all those together? Can we marry them so that the head-mounted display takes advantages of the multiple fidelities that we have available so that we can have multiple interactions.”

One of the most exciting areas of technology is the prospect of creating ‘digital twins’ of complex objects or organisms to run simulations and identify the likely reactions. Prof Quigley also spoke of work done by the UK’s Turing Institute – developing a digital twin of the heart – that could prove hugely beneficial in the training of surgeons, and improving heart surgery itself.

“The definition, typically, of a digital twin isn’t just something that looks like the physical object, but actually there are sensors that are connecting between the physical object and the digital representation.

“As the physical object changes, the digital representation also changes – so they’re talking about sensing the heart movement at a distance, but also putting sensors into the heart during surgery.”
Such a process would allow actions to be carried out on the digital twin as they would in the physical heart, and showing the responses.

Work is also underway on developing a lung digital twin, with Prof Quigley believing that a full twin of the human body could be available for future surgeons. Such a leap in digital medicine would allow healthcare professionals to try out new techniques on the digital human body, and test their impacts without posing a risk to their patients.

While such advances may seem distant, the transformations that technology has brought to our everyday lives over the past 27 years highlight the scale of what may be achieved for the next 27.

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