Nathan, a man living with paralysis, had the opportunity to shake hands with President Obama; using a robotic arm, Nathan could actually feel the handshake. As Justin Sanchez of DARPA explained on November 5 at Techonomy 2017, this marvelous feat was enabled by brain-machine interfaces, a manifestation of the fascinating connection between technology and neuroscience. When I first arrived at Half Moon Bay on Sunday, I didn’t know what to expect from the sessions (I was mostly awed by the presence of leading technologists in the room!); however, I left that room with a keen appreciation of this intersection of technology and healthcare that remained a prevalent theme throughout the opening sessions of Techonomy 2017. Aligning most directly with two of Techonomy’s core beliefs, as stated by the company’s CEO David Kirkpatrick, technology for applications in healthcare represents tech as both a force for good and as a tool for education and health.
Dr. Dean Ornish of Preventive Medicine Research Institute continued the conversation on tech and healthcare with his discussion of lifestyle medicine, in which he described the importance of making simple lifestyle changes to “slow, stop, or reverse the progression” of diseases. Ornish also emphasized treating the causes of diseases, rather than only working on treating the effects of diseases, to increase the viability and durability of healthcare. Through lifestyle and preventive medicine, he hoped to change the focus of healthcare from a “fear of dying” to a “joy of living.” In other words, healthcare that is not only centered on “living longer, but living better.” Incorporating technology into his perspective on human lifestyles, Ornish claimed that an innate desire for connection drives people to sites like Facebook, but such sites also have the potential to cause loneliness in individuals. For this reason, he underscored the need for technology to unite us, not isolate us.
Several other instances of the intersection of tech and healthcare, in a wide range of applications, were sprinkled throughout the opening sessions. Rohit Prasad of Amazon mentioned that Amazon’s Alexa technology had unexpected positive consequences for autistic individuals. In later talks, speakers discussing the food industry dealt with using technology for increased food safety. Jeff Welser of IBM expressed concern over the issue of foodborne illnesses and suggested the use of metagenomics to trace the microbiome on food products and potentially improve human health. Concluding the opening sessions, Denise Morrison of Campbell Soup Company expressed a similar desire to maintain safety in the food industry. Her discussion of personalized nutrition illustrated the recurring relationship between technological innovation and improved healthcare.
Nathan had his very sensation returned to him by advanced brain-machine interfaces. Autistic individuals benefited from Amazon’s Alexa voice recognition technology. Using technology to increase food safety promises improvements in human health. The possibilities created by the intersection of tech and healthcare seem endless and have immense potential to revolutionize society for the better.
With this immense potential, however, comes immense responsibility—an idea that constitutes one of my central takeaways from Techonomy 2017. Mary Lou Jepsen of Openwater stated that responsibility is essential in the use of artificial intelligence and that open discussions are needed to define this responsibility. I believe that the stimulating conversations in Techonomy 2017 embodied the diversity of backgrounds and perspectives required to ensure that tech is used responsibly as a force for social good, and I am excited to have received the opportunity to hear an intriguing array of viewpoints from speakers in various disciplines. I’m still in awe at the leading technologists in the room, all collaborating to establish that, in this era of rapid, beautiful, and revolutionary technological change, we must never fail to consider the ethical, legal, and social implications of technological developments.