It turns out that a couple of years ago, the Watson team at IBM thought it would be a good idea to teach Watson the entirety of the Urban Dictionary, in order to give him a more natural, true-to-human-language lexicon. But, since Watson isn't a person and evidently doesn't know how to censor himself in the workplace, he started using curse words in replies to researchers. And it would seem that some of the subtleties of language such as slang, modern acronyms (OMG), "mash-up" terms ("blog" or "twitterverse") and derivatives ("tweeps", "pokes") are beyond Watson's abilities to correctly integrate.
So the researchers went in and wiped the Urban Dictionary from poor Watson's hard drive. Now he'll never be cool!
Cerego is a new online resource that claims it will help you learn topics better and retain the information longer, using lessons gleaned from neuroscience and cognitive research. The platform offers users online sessions that act as "electronic flashcards" in over fifty topics including statistics, the periodic table and American Sign Language. The system is designed to reach all types of learners - those who learn best via text, image, repetition, or verbally. They call themselves a "memory management tool", attempting to optimize memory for "better learning".
Algorithms in the system actually learn with you, as well. It tracks your status as you progress through lessons, providing users with a strength score, based on such factors as your overall performance on an item.
The folks at Cerego are also interested in partners, either from the learning engine side (developing the platform that dynamically provides lessons to users), from the individual side (developing the progressive profile of a user), or to develop new lesson modules.
You can learn more about the capabilities of Cerego, along with the science behind it, in this super-cool video:
One of the criticisms of gamification is that it is sometimes used to turn things into games that have no business being so. Not every activity, task or website can successfully be gamified, and some companies are realizing this quickly after implementing their own attempts. Take MLB.com, for instance: in 2011, they introduced "badges" that users of the site could collect by watching videos or games online, and ended up abandoning the idea less than one year later.
But then there are the areas or industries that people never thought could be gamified, and yet are flourishing. An example of this is Fold It, an interactive program where interested players can attempt to "solve puzzles for science". Fold It describes the purpose of the game:
We’re collecting data to find out if humans' pattern-recognition and puzzle-solving abilities make them more efficient than existing computer programs at pattern-folding tasks. If this turns out to be true, we can then teach human strategies to computers and fold proteins faster than ever!
Anyone can download the Fold It program and start playing: after going through some practice puzzles and learning the rules, you will begin attempting to fold proteins. Yep, that's right - real proteins that exist in nature. The point is to fold the protein in the most efficient manner (proteins understand how to do this quite well, humans... not so much), by avoiding empty spaces, hiding the water-hating sidechains, and keeping those sidechains away from each other.
The more scientists can understand about the way proteins fold (and thus, the way they work), the better they can utilize them in treating or curing many diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer's and HIV/AIDS. The more we know about how proteins act in regards to these diseases (and in our bodies in general), the better we can develop vaccines and medications to fight them. Yet another purpose to understanding proteins is finding more efficient ways to break down certain plant/organic materials to create better biofuels.
I am positively agog at the concept behind this site and how successful it is. It combines so many things that people care about and enjoy: puzzles, science, collaboration, competition, challenge, and of course - a form of philanthropy. This is gamification not just for a good cause, but for a vital cause. After reading through the site quite extensively, I'm not sure that you even need that strong of a science background to play: anyone who enjoys spatial puzzles or problem-solving should be able to pick up on the idea pretty quickly, particularly after doing the tutorials and practice puzzles.
I strongly recommend checking out Fold It and reading about what they're doing - it's fascinating and inspiring innovation!
Make a three-minute phone call and lend your voice to help diagnose and fight Parkinson's with the Parkinson's Voice Initiative.
The team, consisting of members from MIT and Oxford, hope to create a cost-effective and scalable screening system for Parkinson's disease, using voice recordings to match up with known vocal symptoms.
Learn more about the initiative here or call 1-857-284-8035 from the US to add your voice recording to the database now.
This very interesting and timely opinion piece from David Shaywitz in The Atlantic weighs two of the main foci of the health care industry: innovating and developing new treatments, and ensuring the optimal delivery of already-existing treatments.
These two competing goals are referred to as potential health (identifying the most optimal outcome possible) and attained health (how close one is able to get to that goal). Shaywitz suggests that an influx of attained health proponents are beginning to make themselves heard, and are saying that health care as an industry needs to spend more time and resources improving delivery systems, deciding how to best use existing technologies and treatments, emphasizing best practices and measurement, and developing and analyzing metrics such as KPIs (Key Performance Indicators).
Whereas potential health proponents believe in continuous improvement and innovation, and the ongoing search for better treatments and technology (as opposed to the consistent use of sub-optimal ones). They are concerned with the potential of over-standardizing medical care, at the detriment of patients (of whom there is endless variety and complexity) and the patient-doctor relationship, which is often under-valued.
These are both extremely valid points of view, which raise many strong issues and concerns about the current state of health care. For example, attained health proponents are worried about our obsession with pushing the envelope of medical care - of seeing how far we can go, what we are capable of, and where the boundaries (if any) lie. However, there is disagreement about how much true value is provided in some of the treatments and technologies we currently are developing and using (for an example, check out this Frontline episode on palliative care and end of life decisions; many of the doctors interviewed seem unsure if they are actually helping their patients by artificially prolonging the lives of those who are critically or chronically ill).
And yet everyone agrees that we need innovation, discovery, research and biotechnology development. Many delivery systems, tests and procedures, medications and preventative measures could be improved: made less invasive, with fewer side effects, easier for patients to understand or use, or more long-lasting. No one can argue that the discovery of penicillin and the widespread use of vaccines have greatly improved public health and increased life expectancies.
The challenge for the industry is to figure out how to foster both of these perspectives, with prioritization and consideration paid to the potential and issues of both, by those who are best able to address them. As Shaywitz points out at the end of the piece, there are companies built around either attained or potential health, with many more possible entreprenurial, research, clinical and educational prospects that can weigh in on either side with expertise and skill. But having these different points of view in mind when developing or changing care systems, making health care decisions (as a physician, patient or caregiver), and writing or implementing policy would certainly be a good start to balancing the two.
The New England Journal of Medicine has gone back every ten years to 1900 and taken a close look at the top ten causes of death in the United States. The differences seen in the interactive graph between 1900 and 2010 are stark and fascinating. It speaks to drastic changes in our lifestyles, life expectancies, disease treatments and prevention, and what it is that medicine is most burdened by.
In 1900, many people died from things we consider minor or cured now: the flu, GI infections, diphtheria and tuberculosis. In comparison, cancer and heart disease are killing many times the number of people now, and there are relative sudden increases in diabetes and nephropathies. Accidents, which disappeared off the graph for decades, are also back in the top ten causes of death.
Another trend is the overall decrease in total deaths among every 100,000 people, and the increase in life expectancy. This more than likely helps to explain the increase in deaths related to cancer - more people are living longer lives, leading to increases in cancer diagnoses and deaths (in addition to Alzheimers, which appears on the graph for the first time in 2000).
This information makes it very easy to see the successes in medicine - how vaccines, antibiotics and testing have eradicated many previously fatal conditions, and how 20th-century research in pediatrics has helped to eliminate many diseases of early infancy. (And a national concentration on vehicle safety has removed car accidents off the graph since 1990.) It also makes it easy to predict where future funding for research will go. Many theories are going to be created to explain the changes in the graph, over the last thirty years in particular: that our more sendentary lifestyles and higher-calorie diets contribute to increases in heart disease and diabetes. That poor air quality has lead to a drastic increase in chronic airway diseases. And what about suicide coming into the top ten in 2010, for only the second time in 110 years?
There are many ways to break down and analyze the information provided here. I think this selection from the article sums up how we should optimally use the data (emphasis mine):
"...disease is never static. Just as organisms evolve to keep up with changing environmental conditions (the “Red Queen Effect”), medicine struggles to keep up with the changing burden of disease. Since therapeutic innovation takes time, the burden shifts even as solutions appear. By the time antibiotics and vaccines began combating infectious diseases, mortality had shifted toward heart disease, cancer, and stroke. Great progress has been made to meet these challenges, but the burden of disease will surely shift again. We already face an increasing burden of neuropsychiatric disease for which satisfying treatments do not yet exist. In many respects, our medical systems are best suited to diseases of the past, not those of the present or future. We must continue to adapt health systems and health policy as the burden of disease evolves."
The famed Broad Street Run in Philadelphia is being held on May 6th, 2012. The American Cancer Society has announced that it will use the Run to recruit people for the third round of their Cancer Prevention Study (CPS-3). Philadelphia will be the first community the ACS will reach out to en masse in this way, and they hope to recruit 1300 volunteers between the ages of 30 and 65 for the longitudinal study. Close to 30,000 people will be running in the race, with many thousands more attending or working as volunteers, so they will likely reach their goal.
The study will follow 300,000 adults for 10-20 years, in order to learn more about the risk factors associated with cancer. Volunteers will have to donate blood, and then fill out questionnaires every few years for one or two decades. The first and second versions of this study verified that both smoking and obesity are risk factors for cancer, and the hope is that the CPS-3 will teach us even more about what causes cancer and who is at risk.
The ACS will be reaching out to other communities in the US at similar events and functions this year.
Did you know there was such a thing? I didn't until yesterday, but it looks really cool! One of their current exhibits is about Surgicogenomics, and an upcoming show focuses on the public perception and dichotomies surrounding plastic surgery. They have collections of medical artifacts, fine art and manuscripts; and a robust education program featuring self-guided tours, amputation demonstrations, and lessons on various surgical instruments.
The descriptions of the IMSS remind me a bit of the famed Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, which (if you've never been, and you should go!) is full of all kinds of medical history, oddities, ephemera and accoutrement - currently including Einstein's brain!
I plan on checking out the IMSS next time I'm in Chicago, particularly because of my increasing interest in the connection between medicine and the humanities.
Federal investigators have released a new report stating that only about 1 in every 7 hospital errors are reported. Adverse events ranging from infections to excessive bleeding to even death are supposed to be reported through systems present at almost every hospital in the US. The systems often allow for anonymous reporting, in order to encourage hospital staff to cooperate. However, as it states in the article: "organizations that inspect and accredit hospitals generally "do not scrutinize" how hospitals keep track of medical errors and other adverse events". And if the accrediting bodies do not scrutinize the process (and results thereof), there isn't much incentive for staff to report. It also states in the article that no new federal regulations regarding this are expected.
The National Science Foundation has released the 14 winners of the "Digging into Data" challenge. The 14 winning projects all involve innovative ways to use data analysis and natural language processing (NLP) to enhance research in the humanities and social sciences. Those interested in large-scale data mining and investigation should read through the winning projects, as they all sound extremely interesting. I think my favorite might be the analysis of newspaper reporting on the 1918 flu pandemic (and not just because most of the PIs are from my alma mater!), in order to see how such reports affected public opinion and the idea of "authority" during the outbreak. I will be eagerly anticipating their results. The 14 winning research projects are sharing nearly $5 million in funds.
Dr. Matheson Harris has written a brief and clear tutorial for patients (with some help from the Chicago Tribune) on how to spot a good doctor (and a bad one!) and how to be a good, educated patient. I really like a lot of what is said here, and agree with the vast majority of it; though it might be a little harsh to tell patients not to go see a doctor who can't see them within a few days. I think it greatly depends on the type of doctor you're seeing, and what the appointment for. I make my dermatology appointments a year in advance because it is so hard to get an appointment at the practice (widely considered one of the best in the nation). And many women in the state of Pennsylvania can tell you about the difficulties in getting an OB-Gyn appointment due to the shortage of those specialists. But the gist of the advice and guidance here is very strong, and all patients should read and take it to heart.