The Uber-isation of healthcare: wearables, artificial intelligence and bionics

The Knowledge Summit 2016 granted delegates an eagle-eye view into a future where technology fundamentally transforms entire sectors, industries and the way of life as we know it. Ahead of the new year, Natasha D'Souza shares how digital health will shape the future

Organised by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation (MBRF) - a member of the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives - the three-day Knoweldge Summit culminated with a series of panel discussions on how technology is reshaping a range of industries, namely healthcare, education and media.

During a panel discussion, titled Knowledge and the Future of Health and moderated by Dr Jamal Mohammed Al Kaabi, Director of the Social Development Sector at the Executive Council of Abu Dhabi, delegates learned of the astonishing advancements we can expect from medical science and the practice of healthcare.

A smartphone-driven future

Dr. Daniel Kraft, a physician-scientist, inventor, entrepreneur, innovator and chair of medicine at Singularity University, highlighted the phenomenon of “Uber-isation” referring to how transportation app Uber disrupted the taxi industry purely due to the use of smartphone technology.

“Uber did not invent GPS, or online payment, or anything else that makes it function,” explained Kraft. “Uber simply leveraged existing technologies and connected the dots. Smartphones today are healthcare platforms, connecting the dots between doctors, patients and pharma-providers. In the US, there are five Uber-style on-demand healthcare apps. You press a button, a doctor shows up,” he said.

Kraft dived into how wearables and monitoring apps,  which represent a new field of preventative medicine, have undergone a significant evolution themselves. “Today it’s not about external wearables so much as insidables,” stated Kraft, citing the example of contact lenses that measure blood sugar. “There are ‘trainables’ to correct things like posture; ‘shockables’  that provide direct input; “hearables”, “ringables” and so much more.”

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The healthcare panel at the 2016 Knowledge Summit

AI will play a crucial role

Kraft believes that “intelligent streamlining” will be crucial in order to harness key information from the ocean of health data that can be integrated with our healthcare records. This record should be solely owned by the individual and provide individuals with their own “check engine” light, such as advising people to watch their weight or take medication, said Kraft.

Ultimately, Kraft believes advanced artificial intelligence will monitor all these data streams, and make accurate diagnoses on an individual’s behalf. “Artificial intelligence won’t replace doctors, but it will augment them,” he assured.

Stem cells and the future of biotechnology

Mohamed Ghoneim, Professor Emeritus of Urology at Mansoura University, Egypt emphasised how healthcare has advanced greatly from the discovery of DNA in the ‘50s, through to the first genome sequencing in the late 1990s, to the present day, where gene therapies and gene splicing now offer real treatments to conditions ranging from haemophilia to type 1 diabetes.

In Ghoneim’s view, experimenting with stem cells is especially promising to accelerate progress in areas such as the ageing process. “Individual pluripotent stem cells reverse any human cell back into embryonic cells,” he said. “Then, you can do what you like with them.”

The evolution of healthcare legislation

With such mind-boggling advances portended in healthcare, legislation must be up to speed, said Hugh Herr,  director of the biomechatronics research group at the MIT Media Lab. Herr’s revolutionary work in the emerging field of biomechatronics – technology that integrates living tissue and synthetic devices – led him being recognised as the “Leader of the Bionic Age” in 2011 by TIME Magazine.

A double amputee himself, he is responsible for breakthrough advances in bionic limbs, having “hacked” his own body to give him capabilities far beyond normal people. “Technology has freed me from the shackles of disability. I now climb better than I did when I had legs,” he says. “Other climbers have threatened to chop their own legs off to compete better with me!”

Herr reflected that society may be unprepared for this new frontier in medicine, where individuals may turn to bionics to extend normal human capability. This will “fundamentally change what it means to be human”, he said. “Regulation will struggle to keep pace with advances, not just in terms of licensing new drugs and technologies, but also on the ethical conundrum these developments will present.