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A Prescription for Drug Companies on Social Media

Drug companies are struggling to find ways to legally engage with consumers on social media, reports Nature Biotechnology. There are strict rules about how drug manufacturers can advertise their products, but when it comes to online patient forums and social media comments, things get murky. 

For instance, if a patient leaves a comment on a pharmaceutical company’s YouTube video complaining about a rash, does that count as an adverse event that the company must report to federal regulators? What happens when participants in a clinical trial use online forums to share information about their drug’s effectiveness—could that mess up the study?

Guidance from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been variously described as non-existent, unclear, and overbearing, and the uncertainty has forced some drug companies to shy away completely from social media. In fact, half of the 50 largest pharma companies are not actively engaged on social media, according to a report by the IMS Institute of Healthcare Information, Nature Biotechnology reports. 

Among the companies that have wandered into the ring, some have gotten themselves into trouble. Zarbee’s Naturals, a dietary supplement manufacturer that sells products for congestion, cough and allergies, got rebuked by the FDA for some of its tweets. Seemingly innocuous messages such as, “Try @Zarbees #naturalremedies for cold and cough season” and “RT@MomCentral have you tried #ZarbeesCough for cold and cough relief?” did not sit well with the FDA. The tweets suggest that the supplements are drugs—a no-no according to federal regulations. The company also caught flak from the agency for how it handled a consumer’s comments on Facebook. Someone posted: “Love Zarbee’s, this is the only medicine we use for our 2 year old. Colds and congestion clear up in 2 days.” Zarbee’s “liked” the comment—also a no-no, according to the warning letter FDA sent to the company.

One of the trickiest areas is “pharmacovigilance”: the rules requiring drug manufacturers to tell the FDA about adverse events—side effects—reported by doctors, patients, or sales reps. “With social media, anybody can publicly complain in just 140 characters,” says Nature Biotechnology. “It’s not yet clear under what circumstances companies are supposed to be monitoring these reports, so many of them are choosing the simplest option: ignore.”

Another tricky area is in clinical trials. Many trials are supposed to be kept blind, meaning that the patients and/or their doctors don’t know if they are getting the drug or the placebo—a practice that prevents bias in the experiment. A couple of years ago, during a phase-two trial for an experimental drug for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), patients unmasked the experiment by talking about their experiences online. Roughly 27 percent of the patients in the trial were active on PatientsLikeMe, an online forum that allows people to share and track their symptoms. When some of them mentioned an unusual side effect called neutropenia, it became obvious which patients had received the active drug.

The FDA released preliminary guidance documents in the summer of 2014 with the aim of clearing things up, but many in the industry say the documents are overbearing and vague, Nature Biotechnology reports. “The guidelines suggest,” says the article, “that products with ‘complex indications or extensive serious risks’ should not be discussed at all in platforms with space limitations, such as Twitter.”

Ten days after the guidance came out, the FDA did a curious thing. One of the agency’s Twitter accounts, @FDA_Drug_Info, tweeted “#FDA approves #Afreeza to treat diabetes” with a link to further information about the drug’s risks. But according to the FDA’s guidelines, it’s own tweet would get a drug company in hot water. 

The public comment period on FDA’s guidance documents has ended, but the agency has not given a timeline for when the final versions will be published. 

Intel Pledges $300 Million To Make Its Workforce More Diverse

Intel plans to spend $300 million over the next five years to improve the gender and racial diversity of its U.S. workforce. The announcement from CEO Brian Krzanich came during a keynote address at last week’s Consumer Electronics Show.

The crowd at CES was predominantly male—and mostly white and Asian—as this New Yorker article points out. That’s a reflection of the engineering and computing employee base in Silicon Valley. Spurred by Google’s May 2014 disclosure, several other companies, including Apple, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Yahoo also divulged their diversity numbers in the summer of 2014. Less than 20 percent of the tech workforce at these companies is female, and a very small percent are black or Hispanic. Detailed demographics are at GigaOm. IEEE Spectrum has published a similar breakdown for employees at startups.

Intel, which has been publishing its diversity statistics for many years, has comparable numbers despite efforts to improve them. Per The New Yorker, Intel’s 50,000-plus US workforce is 24 percent female, 4 percent black, and 8 percent Hispanic.

Krzanich hopes to change that with Intel’s new Diversity in Technology Initiative. The company’s goal is to make its workforce and senior leadership less male and less white to more closely reflect the diversity of the talent pool in the United States. More specifically, it hopes to increase the population of women, blacks, and Hispanics at Intel by at least 14 percent by 2020. Intel has invited the entire tech industry to join the movement.

It’s a vexing problem, but $300 million is a lot of money. Exactly how Intel plans to spend that cash is unknown. The company has said that it plans to fund engineering and computer science scholarships for women and underrepresented minorities; individual awards could be as much as $200,000. Intel plans to emphasize the hiring and retention women and minorities in its workforce, even tying managers’ pay to achieving diversity goals. And it will fund programs that improve the representation of these groups in the tech and video-game industries.

Intel in particular, and Silicon Valley in general, have their work cut out for them. For starters, they need to boost the number of women and underrepresented minorities graduating with engineering and computing degrees. Women earn just 14.5 percent of the computer science bachelor’s degrees in the U.S.; blacks earn 4.5 percent, and Hispanics earn 6.5 percent, according to GigaOm.

The upshot: In addition to scholarships and better hiring practices, the tech industry needs to fund efforts aimed at attracting women and minorities to STEM disciplines. And they need to begin capturing their minds and hearts at an early age—preferably while young learners are still in elementary school. But even more importantly, the industry needs to figure out how to keep women and underrepresented ethnicities in the fold; many women leave the tech industry because of rigid parental leave policies and a female-unfriendly environment.

Can efforts by big names like Intel and Google make Silicon Valley more diverse? One can only hope.

Photo: Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

CES 2015: Industrial Augmented Reality Takes Center Stage

Just a couple of years ago, we were hoping that Google Glass might be the spark that transformed augmented reality from a laboratory curiosity into a consumer product. But the reception for Google Glass turned out to be lukewarm, and it never really seemed to take off.

This bad news for AR seemed to be confirmed at this year’s CES—the 160,000 or so attendees are generally the very embodiment of early adopters, and are particularly heavy users of any mobile technology that will give them an edge. Yet over the entire week, I have spotted a grand total of four Google Glass wearers (and one may have been the same guy twice). And unlike the glut of companies making me-too versions of wearable activity trackers or 3-D printers, I came across only one company making a product directly comparable to Google Glass: Topsky Technologies, which makes a US $400 Android-based wearable computer.

But CES also showed another side of the AR ecosystem, one targeted at industrial and military users—and one that appears to be much healthier. Osterhaut Design Group showed a $5000 industrial headset that got a good response. Unlike Google Glass, it doesn’t try to tuck its display away in the upper corner of the wearer’s field of view; the binocular system delivers graphics front and center. Flipping down a sunglasses-like visor blocks the wearer’s view of the outide world and converts the headset into a reasonable VR headset.

Simarly, Epson was showing off the developer version of its Moverio BT-200 Smart Glasses. Most importantly, Epson didn’t just bring the glasses; they also brought a bunch of third-party developers with working demos of augmented applications. While some developers were showing game and entertainment applications, the most impressive demos were from APX Labs, Augumenta, NGrain, and Scope. All were aimed firmly at enterprise or government users.

APX Labs featured Skylight, a geographically aware system that can help workers out in the field. In the demo at the booth, arrows popped up to indicate the direction of distant wind turbines. Once I was looking in the direction of a turbine, I could call up data on the turbine’s performance, and even call up video showing the turbine’s current state.

Augumenta has eliminated the need for voice commands (always tricky in noisy environments) with a system that can recognize hand gestures. I used it to play Rock, Paper, Scissors against the computer, but ultimately the technology will allow a wearer to see a keyboard or industrial controls overlaid on the palm of one hand and “press” them using a finger from the other hand.

At Ngrain’s demo, a scale model of a generator sat on the table. Once I put on the glasses, I could look at the model and highlight a particular part, causing a 3-D representation of that piece, overlaid on the generator, to pop up. This allowed me to see surfaces otherwise blocked by other components. The 3-D models tracked—albeit with some jitter—the changing perspective of the model as I turned and moved my head.

Finally, Scope showed a pump from a UAV. Looking at the pump through the Moverio glasses allowed me to watch a series of instructions for performing maintenance, with virtual tools such as a wrench overlaid on where they would be used on the real pump, plus an animation of the required motion.

Will these developments trickle over to the consumer side of augmented reality? A range of steady customers, willing to pay premium prices for functionality they can’t get any other way, may well provide the broad base needed support the development of the technology. Osterhaut is planning to offer a consumer version of its glasses for around $1000 sometime this year.

SpaceX's Plan to Land a Reusable Rocket on a Drone Ship

Update, 10 January: The Falcon 9 booster rocket recovery plan failed. The rocket hit the floating landing platform too hard. "Close, but no cigar," Elon Musk tweeted. The landing platform was not seriously damaged, he added. SpaceX plans to try again.

An upcoming SpaceX resupply mission for the International Space Station will have one very special twist that could change the economic equation for future rocket launches. The pioneering aerospace company hopes to achieve a precision landing of the first stage of its Falcon 9 heavy rocket on an unanchored drone ship platform in the Atlantic Ocean.

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Robotic Cameras Learn To Follow Basketball

We’re getting used to the idea of robots taking our jobs in fields like manufacturing, but should a courtside cameraman for the NBA be worried? Until recently, that seemed like a safe gig to stay in human hands. But last weekened, Disney Research scientists reported that they’ve made strides in teaching automated cameras to track the action of a basketball game the same way a human camera operator does. 

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Stretchy Electrodes Enable Long-Lasting Brain Implants

If you need a piece of hardware attached to the delicate tissue of your brain or spinal cord, wouldn’t it be preferable for that piece of hardware to actually be soft, yielding, and flexible?

That kind of thinking led researchers at a Swiss technology institute to develop a new material modeled on dura matter, the protective membrane of the brain and spinal cord. Their “e-dura” contains stretchy electrodes that can both stimulate and record from neurons. When implanted in mice, the e-dura caused less damage and inflammation than today’s rigid implants. Researchers say their biocompatible material could be the key to long-lasting neural therapies. 

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Computers Conquer Texas Hold'em Poker for First Time

All your poker chips may soon belong to the computers. A new algorithm has taken the first big step in figuring out poker, the globally popular card game played by more than 150 million people, by solving a two-player version known as heads-up limit Texas hold’em.

It’s been almost two decades since the IBM computer called Deep Blue beat the world chess champion Garry Kasparov. Since that stunning moment in 1997, computer algorithms have solved games such as Connect Four and checkers by analyzing all the possible plays and figuring out the perfect strategy for each move starting from the beginning of each game. Future programs might even master the ancient game of Go. But computers face a different challenge in consistently winning at poker, because each player has two hidden cards that represent information hidden from the opponent. By solving an “imperfect-information game” such as poker, computer algorithms could also potentially handle real-world scenarios with similar levels of uncertainty.

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CES 2015: Ultrahaptics' Ultrasonic Tactile Display for Virtual Controls

At Volkswagen’s CES press conference on Monday, the company introduced the Golf R Touch, a concept car with a cockpit that relies (only a little bit ironically) on touchless gestural interfaces for control. If we’re going to have to use mid-air, hand-wavy interfaces in near the future—whether for cars or wearables or around the home—an important issue to consider (as with any user interface) is tactile feedback. For example, when you press a virtual button in mid-air that doesn’t feel like anything, how do you know that you’ve actually pushed it? Easy: ultrasonic forcefield technology. And it’s amazing.

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CES 2015: CoolChip's Kinetic Cooling Engine—Part Fan, Part Heat Sink, Totally Awesome

Nearly four years ago, I wrote an article about a prototype CPU cooler from Sandia Labs that used an innovative design. Even calling it a prototype might have been optimistic; research project would probably have been more accurate. But at CES this week, a company called CoolChip demonstrated a working commercial prototype, and a consumer version is just months away.

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Text-a-Doctor App Gets Big Venture Capital Boost

Wouldn’t it be great if you had a good friend who was a doctor and didn’t mind telling you (for free) whether a set of symptoms warranted an office visit? A rising text-a-doctor app called First Opinion aims to make that friend available to users globally. The app is raising some skeptical eyebrows in medical circles, but it’s also raising considerable funding from the venture capital community.

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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 …

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