The week of November 1, 2015

On the cutting edge of medicine

By Jesse Hicks

One of the more utopian visions of the Internet is to see it as an abstraction: William Gibson’s cyberspace, somewhere behind the screen and yet connected to every other screen, a billion windows opening onto space that we all share—disembodied, but in a non-creepy way. In its most extreme, sci-fi vision, this leads to something like transhumanism, whose adherents believe in transcending the body through technology. At the more mundane level, it leads us to seeing the Internet as this somehow other place, the not-quite IRL world we inhabit with our “real” bodies.

But—obviously—we all still inhabit bodies, these obsolete pieces of meat that still fail our more idealized selves. And we still have to negotiate those failures, which is a roundabout way of talking about human health. In this issue of the Kernel, we’re looking at how science and technology are affecting our collective health, whether that’s through cutting-edge research enabled by the Internet, a sci-fi health diagnostic device that promises to put a doctor’s knowledge in the palm of your hand, or smartphone apps that already claim to benefit your health—but not without controversy.

How science, technology, and the Internet are changing medicine

First, Chris Stokel-Walker profiles one man on a quest to build a real, working tricorder. If you’re somehow unfamiliar, the tricorder, introduced on the original Star Trek, is a handheld sensor that with a quick scan (no blood sample needed!) and some futuristic sound effects could quickly and painlessly diagnose any medical ailments. According to the show’s lore, the device isn’t invented until 2266. But inventor Jonathan O’Halloran doesn’t want to wait that long. He and his company, QuantuMDx, have spent nearly a decade prototyping a gadget that’ll let anyone, anywhere, get rapid medical analyses. Quicker analysis means better treatment, and in his vision of the future, epidemics like the Ebola outbreak still ongoing in South Africa can be better managed—potentially saving countless lives.

If you’re familiar with face blindness, there are probably a couple of reasons why. One might be that you’ve heard Brad Pitt say he suffers from it—that he has prosopagnosia, a rare condition that makes it almost impossible for him to remember people’s faces. Or maybe you’ve taken the Cambridge Face Memory Test, one of the first neuropsychological tests to appear online. As Cynthia McKelvey recounts, face blindness was long considered a rare affliction, thought to be brought on by brain damage. But a man named Bill Choisser created a website documenting his experience of the condition and invited others to share their stories. That spurred more research, which pushed forward our understanding. As McKelvey explains, that was just one example of how the Internet is helping to advance research into little-known psychological conditions.

But it’s not all advancing knowledge on the Internet. As Olga Lexell shows, there’s still a lot of digital snake oil being sold. She looks at the world of unregulated hypnosis apps, where bold, pseudoscience-y claims can be made with little accountability. It’s truly a caveat emptor world, but what are the consequences when buyers are on their own when evaluating apps that may affect their health? As she concludes, there are no easy answers, and the problem isn’t likely to go away anytime soon. So think twice before loading up that free self-hypnosis app.

Enjoy the issue.

Illustration by Max Fleishman