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Elder care, wireless AI, and the Internet of Medical Things

This article is part of a VB special issue. Read the full series: AI and the future of health care


As we age, we gradually agree to medical exams and medications that would have been unthinkable in our youth, until we become senior citizens — the point at which we frequently engage with doctors, and our health becomes a subject of constant concern. We’ve been trained to accept this as the cycle of life, but it’s increasingly clear that the next generation of seniors will have better experiences: Advancements in artificial intelligence and wireless technologies will enable massive streams of biometric data to be harvested and processed from wearables, internet of things (IoT) sensors, and chip-laden pills, prolonging and saving lives.

At a time when there’s potential danger to seeing patients in person, and health care facilities are wary of becoming overwhelmed because of COVID-19 cases, these technologies are not merely beneficial, but incredibly important.

Smarter sensors, software, and services will enable health monitoring to be less invasive and more automated than before, reducing the need for human caregivers while restoring dignity that seniors have lost over the years. Ten years ago, monitoring a senior for hip-breaking falls might have been impractical without the aid of a relative or personal nurse, but falls can now be detected and addressed immediately with smartwatches; similarly, wearables targeting everything from swallowing problems to incontinence are now available from health startups. The next steps will be monitoring without wearables — wireless devices that reduce or eliminate human involvement in the monitoring process — and medically specific internet of medical things (IoMT) sensors that are specially designed to record human biometrics.

One example: Origin Wireless has developed a “wireless AI” solution that uses Wi-Fi signals to map closed spaces. The wireless radio waves create an invisible “wave pool” in a room, and Origin’s Remote Patient Monitoring system uses AI to monitor the pool for ripples that signal disruptions. Without requiring either a camera or motion sensors, Origin RPM knows when a person abruptly shifts from standing to laying on the floor, and can trigger an alert to local caregivers or off-site family members. More subtle changes in the data streams can even indicate granular changes in a person’s activity, breathing, and sleeping. Japanese startup SakuraTech is using millimeter wave signals to wirelessly monitor up to four heart and respiration rates at once, promising to work through common impediments such as clothing and blankets, sending data to the AWS cloud for constant remote monitoring.

Without machine learning, interpreting room-scale, volumetric masses of wireless data in this way would be impractical — akin to a sonar system constantly seeing objects moving in the ocean without identifying their intent. But trained AI can understand the layout of a room as visualized with radio waves, then determine dangerously atypical patterns in the people who live in that room, all without violating personal privacy. Unlike AI image segmentation, Wi-Fi and millimeter wave scanning work like radar, and their data can be used to recognize patterns without the need for photo or video recording.

Another company, Essence Group, recently introduced 5G PERS, a senior independent living solution that enables activity monitoring, fall detection, and voice connectivity. 5G PERS uses a collection of traditional IoT motion sensors for monitoring, but uniquely relies upon 5G cellular connectivity rather than Wi-Fi or 4G for infrastructure. Because it connects the IoT sensors to the cloud over a cellular connection, PERS 5G can operate in homes where seniors don’t have Wi-Fi routers — the solution is standalone, so it can be installed and then remotely monitored without depending on the senior to maintain separate hardware or services.

General-purpose IoT sensors have used cameras and movement detectors to enable everything from smart refrigerators to industrial quality assurance systems, but medically focused IoMT sensors wirelessly connect to health clouds for individual biometric monitoring and data storage. Since they’re designed specifically for tracking specific human life signals, IoMT sensors can be far more “personal” than ever before: Their tiny chips can enable exterior motion tracking in always-on wearables or internal monitoring using ingestible wireless pills such as HQ, Inc.’s CorTemp — a core temperature probe that remains inside your body for 24-36 hours.

While medical technologies keep improving, there’s no guarantee that they’ll be immediately or widely adopted. Proteus Digital Health successfully completed clinical validations last year for ingestible microchips that monitored adherence to medication schedules, but ultimately filed for bankruptcy. The problem wasn’t the practicality of the chips, but rather that they would double or triple a medication’s monthly cost. History suggests that the chip prices will continue to drop over time, giving the technology a greater chance of mass adoption and increasing the number of data streams from monitored patients.

The trend is clear: IoMT sensors will only become more powerful, easier to use, and ubiquitous. New 5-nanometer chip fabrication has already yielded atomic-scale transistors that can be powered by barely any energy, and even smaller 3-nanometer chips will be commercially available next year, making microchipped pills literally easier to swallow. At the same time, mobile AI chips are nearly doubling in performance each year, such that tomorrow’s client devices could have AI capabilities superior to yesterday’s cloud and edge servers. Remote monitoring tasks that may have been too challenging two years ago will seem wholly within the power of even common smartphones two years from now.

Society’s biggest challenge may be to make seniors comfortable with adopting these new technologies, as it may be easier for older users to shrug off wearables, room-scale monitors, and ingestible chips as “unnecessary” than accept them as the new normal. But as the tech keeps shrinking, it’s likely to fade into the background of our lives, eventually solving problems before we — or other human monitors — even realize what’s happening. That means today’s and tomorrow’s seniors can realistically look forward to a new era in medicine where we depend less on doctors yet benefit every day from more comprehensive health care, ultimately living longer and better than ever before.

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