Tech Talk iconTech Talk

$34 Diagnostic Tool for STDs Plugs into Smartphone, Rivals $18,000 Lab Equipment

Public health workers in Africa place HIV and syphilis at the top of their lists of diseases they see among pregnant women, and a new tool recently tested in Rwanda may help ease their diagnostic burden. The portable device, which plugs into a smartphone’s audio jack, performs three tests (one for HIV, two for syphilis) using just a fingerprick of blood, and displays results in 15 minutes.

In their report, the inventors estimate the tool’s cost at $34 plus the cost of a smartphone. They say it provides comparable results to gold-standard lab tests, whose cost they estimate at $18,450 plus the cost of a computer. 

“Lots of newborns are dying every year from congenital syphilis,” says Samuel Sia, one of the device’s inventors and an associate professor of biomedical engineering at Columbia University. “Should we be looking at new drugs for syphilis? No, it’s a diagnostic issue,” Sia says, noting that treatment for syphilis typically requires only one dose of penicillin. 

As for HIV, global health agencies have recently rallied around the goal of ensuring that at least 90 percent of people living with HIV know their HIV status. Right now that figure stands at less than 50 percent. Knowing one’s status is the obvious first step to getting access to anti-retroviral drug treatments. 

The new dongle draws all its power from a smartphone via its audio jack. It performed 41 tests when attached to an older Apple device; Sia says a new smartphone could perform many more before depleting the phone’s battery. His team ensured that the dongle would be low-power by doing away with the pump that often drives blood samples through microfluidic testing devices. Instead, the health care worker depresses a button to activate a vacuum chamber that sucks the sample through microfluidic channels, where reagents react to the presence of HIV or syphilis biomarkers. The dongle draws power only when it performs the optical assessment of the reactions, and when it transmits data back to the phone for read-out.   

Spectrum recently reported on dedicated diagnostic devices that are portable, cheap, and rugged enough to bring lab testing to remote African villages. Sia says his team initially built its own hardware and software, “but then we realized it was a losing proposition.” They decided to work off existing smartphone technology instead. 

That may be a good bet. Africa has been called “the mobile continent” in recognition of the many ways cheap mobile phones are transforming society. According to an Ericsson research report, Sub-Saharan Africa will have about 930 million mobile phones by 2019, three-quarters of which will be smartphones. 

However, the dongle will have to prove more useful than even cheaper paper-based diagnostic tests (based on the same principle as a home pregancy test), which are already widely available for HIV testing. Sia argues that his device is more accurate and reliable, and can also be used to conduct many lab tests at once from a single fingerprick of blood. He also sees value in the digital record of the tests that the phone can transmit to the cloud for integration into an electronic medical record. “It’s all part of leveraging the smartphone platform,” he says.  

Vie for the Tech-Prediction Prize

When we first wrote about the prediction-market collaboration between IEEE Spectrum and SciCast, one reader pointed out:

Competition works great when the outcome includes a desirable prize for the winners. What is the prize for winning on SciCast? Bragging rights on [a] little known website?

He has a point—cash and bling do concentrate one’s self-interest wonderfully (to misquote Samuel Johnson)—and SciCast is quite aware of the power of prizes.

As SciCast principal investigator, co-founder, and George Mason University professor Charles R. Twardy commented, SciCast runs periodic tournaments that offer cash prizes for the most accurate forecasts. “Right now,” he says, “we're in the middle of a 4-month accuracy contest. The Top 15 [forecasters] will receive $2250 in Amazon gift cards. The next 135 will receive $225.”

The competition is still going on, and runs through February. SciCast is eager to enroll Spectrum readers (and Spectrum would like to see its readers shine). At this point, the 15 top prizes are probably out of a newcomer’s reach…but $30,375 worth of $225 prizes is still achievable—especially when one considers that IEEE participants have already shown themselves to be among the most active and enthusiastic futures traders on the site.

Competition questions at are marked with a gold “Au” icon. You can find all 80-odd listed at the contest URL. There are six pages of rules and disclaimers that competitors should look at. (And how often will one see contest rules that include Bayesian double summations?)

The contest questions roam all over the fields of science and technology, including topics in:

  • Linguistics: How many languages will the Ethnologue language catalog’s 18th edition report as spoken by no one as a first language? (Today’s consensus: 200 to 224)
  • Epidemiology: How many cases of flu will be reported during the U.S. 2014-2015 flu season? (Current forecast: 440,000)
  • Physics: Will a lab experiment demonstrate Breit-Wheeler conversion of light into matter by the end of the year. (The forecasters say there’s just a 6 percent chance.)

But the biggest tranche of questions fall squarely in the EE’s wheelhouse:

  • Who will win the DARPA Robotics Challenge this coming June? (MIT leads, but there’s no clear favorite.)
  • How many teams will be awarded a full prize in the final round of the Qualcomm Tricorder X-Prize competition? (The majority opinion is 3.)
  • Will LG unveil a smartphone with a 4K display in March? (Today’s line gives it a 22 percent chance.)
  • Will an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) break the 14-day world endurance record before the end of 2015? (SciCast handicappers say there’s a 42 percent probability that it will happen.)

There’s a lot more. So, for fun and possible profit, take a look at the SciCast competition questions, sign up, and make your predictions.

Eye-Tracking Tech Could Spot Concussions Quickly

Though the sight of Cliff Avril leaving last night’s Super Bowl might make it seem like there is a gold-standard for diagnosing concussion, experts say there really isn’t. But there may be soon if researchers in New York  and Texas are right. They’ve come up with a way to diagnose concussions and other brain injuries using eye-tracking technology.

Read More

China's New Rules Ask Tech Firms to Hand Over Source Code

China plans to unveil new cybersecurity rules that require tech companies to hand over source code and build back doors in hardware and software for government regulators. The rules only apply to companies selling computer products to Chinese banks, but they have already sparked anxiety on the part of Western tech companies about being trapped between either giving up intellectual property or not doing business in China.

The new rulespart of cybersecurity policies intended to protect China’s critical industriesfirst appeared in a 22-page document at the end of 2014, according to a New York Times report. Such rules have not been officially announced yet. But the U.S. Chambers of Commerce joined a number of other foreign business groups in sending a letter [pdf] to the Central Leading Group for Cyberspace Affairs, chaired by President Xi Jinping, that called for “urgent discussions” about the policies. Tech giants such as Microsoft, Cisco, and Qualcomm have also independently voiced their concerns.

Under the bank rules, tech companies would have to hand over source code, set up research and development centers in China, and build hardware and software back doors that would permit Chinese officials to monitor data within their computer systems.  

The New York Times also detailed a separate Chinese antiterrorism law being drafted that would require companies to store all data about Chinese users on servers physically located in China. The law would also ask companies to hand over encryption keys and enable Chinese officials to check content for terrorism-related activities.

China’s new policies come in the wake of revelations from former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, about the NSA’s efforts to infiltrate Chinese tech giant Huawei. Documents leaked by Snowden include an NSA list of programs designed to install back doors in Huawei’s software and hardware that the U.S. spy agency could exploit for intelligence-gathering purposes.

Snowden’s revelations eventually prompted China to set up its Central Leading Group for Cyberspace Affairs. Chinese officials have also set the goal of reducing their reliance upon foreign tech firms and boosting the presence of domestic tech firms.

U.S. tech companies fear that China’s new rules would force them to give up intellectual property to Chinese state-supported companies and possibly compromise the security of their own computer systems and products. Companies also fear that if they don’t comply with the rules and if the Chinese government expands such rules beyond the banking sector, they could potentially be shut out of the Chinese market.

The letter to Xi puts their worries in the context of the Chinese market:

An overly broad, opaque, discriminatory approach to cybersecurity policy that restricts global internet and ICT [information and communications technolgy] products and services would ultimately isolate Chinese ICT firms from the global marketplace and weaken cybersecurity, thereby harming China's economic growth and development and restricting customer choice.

The history of the United States-China cyber detente also makes it difficult for U.S. companies to trust Chinese officials with their intellectual property and access to their computer systems. The United States has long accused China’s government and military of corporate espionage against U.S. companies and government agencies. Last year, the U.S. Department of Justice charged five Chinese military hackers with stealing a variety of trade secrets from U.S. businesses.

How to Detect Your Kid's Epileptic Seizure From Miles Away

People living with epilepsy know that a seizure can strike any time, and they go through their days with this uncertainty: They could be walking down a city’s bustling streets or at home all alone when a seizure strikes.

This SmartWatch connects these people to their networks of caregivers at moments of crisis by detecting the shaking limbs associated with convulsive seizures and sending out automatic alerts. “For both the patient with epilepsy and the caregiver, this product gives incredible peace of mind,” says Anoo Nathan, CEO and founder of Smart Monitor, the startup behind this device. 

The SmartWatch currently pairs with Android phones that run its app; the user must have that phone nearby so it can send out the alert via text message. The alert can also include the epileptic person’s GPS coordinates. Nathan says the iPhone-compatible version will debut in late March. 

About 2.7 million people are living with epilepsy in the United States, and some one-third of those people can’t completely control their seizures with medication. Spectrum just featured the most cutting-edge alternative to pharmaceuticals: A smart brain implant that fires an electric pulse when it detects signs of an oncoming seizure, hopefully preventing the seizure entirely. (One woman with a brand new brain implant described to Spectrum her adjustment to her cyborg life: Lying awake one night she wondered, “Did my head just beep?”) 

For some people who aren’t good candidates for surgery, however, and whose seizures can’t be stopped by medication, the SmartWatch could help. The wristwatch constantly registers the user’s motions, and its algorithms crunch the data to look for a pattern of movement indicative of a seizure. Because it responds to movement, the watch can only help patients who suffer from convulsive seizures, not those who experience “absence seizures” in which they seem to zone out and lose awareness of their surroundings. 

Nathan is careful to say that the device isn’t yet FDA-approved to “diagnose seizures,” but it can “detect abnormal motions.” The company is collecting results from ongoing clincial trials, she says, and aims to get that FDA approval down the road. 

Nathan says she originally imagined parents using the SmartWatch to keep an eye on their kids, and indeed, 60 percent of users currently wearing the watch are under the age of 21. However, she says she’s been pleased to find that it can help adults, too. She cites one customer in his 40s who was able to move out of his parents house and into an apartment near friends. “This product provides him with a degree of autonomy and independence he never had before,” says Nathan.  

The SmartWatch also collects the user’s seizure data so the user and physicians can review it, providing a record of what happens between doctor visits. While this seems a valuable contribution to the fast-growing mobile health market, we can’t help wondering if this device will survive the introduction of another smart watch that’s gotten a little press, and generated a tiny bit of excitement: the Apple Watch, due for release in April. If some developer comes out with an seizure-detecting app for the Apple Watch, will it shake the SmartWatch right out of business? 

FCC Redefines Broadband: Lack of Competition Now Obvious

Just last week, broadband Internet access in the United States was looking pretty good: 99 percent of Americans had access to broadband speeds [pdf] (even if they weren’t yet taking advantage of them). In addition, competition seemed if not fierce, at least existent: nearly 75 percent of consumers had at least two broadband providers to choose from.

Now, neither statistic is true.

Read More

A Möbius Strip Made of Light

Most nerdy kids, of the type that would grow up to read IEEE Spectrum, were excited when they first learned about the Möbius strip, a three-dimensional shape with only one surface. Many immediately fashioned their own, by cutting a thin strip of paper, twisting it, and joining one end to the other to make a continuous surface. Now scientists have figured out how to make a Möbius strip out of light.

The researchers, from Canada, Europe, and the United States, were able to twist the polarization of a light beam in order to form a 3-D structure out of an electric field that had the same topology as a Möbius strip made of matter would. Lightwaves consist of both an electric and a magnetic field, which oscillate perpendicular to each other. Polarization refers to the direction in which the electric field oscillates.

Read More

Identifying Credit Card Users With a Few Bits of Data

Anonymized credit card data can easily be used to identify credit card users, more evidence that anonymizing data does not protect privacy as well as often thought, scientists now find.

Personal information often gets anonymized by stripping it of names, home addresses, phone numbers and other obvious identifying details. Such data often get shared, and underlie popular services such as Google’s real-time traffic monitoring, which shows conditions on major thoroughfares in more than 50 different countries.

However, anonymized data can still reveal a great deal about individuals. For example, computational social scientist Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye at MIT and his colleagues recently found that anonymized cell phone data could be better at identifying users than fingerprints. At most, 11 randomly chosen interactions with cell phone networks were needed to identify a person by the routes he or she regularly traveled, while identifying someone by a fingerprint requires at least 12 reference points.

Read More

To Predict Flu Outbreak, Just Google It

By combining insights from Google Flu Trends with data from the CDC, scientists now say they can predict the spread of flu a week into the future in the United States.

Each year, 250,000 to 500,000 people die of influenza worldwide, with 3,000 to 50,000 of those fatalities happening in the United States. These deaths are largely preventable by using flu shots, but the CDC must have up-to-date knowledge about where influenza is happening to make sure these vaccines get to where they are needed.

The CDC continuously monitors both the number of doctor visits attributed to flu-like illness as well as the number of patient samples that test positive for influenza. However, it can take a long time to collect and analyze all this activity, resulting in data that is typically up to two weeks out of date once it’s made available.

Read More

Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.


New York State Gets Behind Oxyfuel Carbon Capture

In a somewhat startling development, New Yorkâ''s governor David Paterson announced on June 10 that the state will support construction of an experimental â''oxyfiredâ'' electric generation plant, in which coal will be burned in an atmosphere of almost pure oxygen, so that nitrogen emissions are eliminated and carbon capture simplified. Swedenâ''s Vattenfall and Franceâ''s Alstom are completing a similar demonstration plant in eastern Germany, as described in the â''winners & losersâ'' January issue of Spectrum, and Babcock & Wilcox has had a serious oxyfuel R&D program in the United States. But oxyfuel has not been the mainstream approach …

Load More