On a brisk early spring evening, guests gathered to listen, learn and discuss the future of wearable technology at the beautiful hilltop residence of the Belgian Ambassador. Led by a well-versed panel—Lea Shanley (NASA), Andrea Ippolito (Department of Veterans Affairs), Gajen Sunthara (Department of Health and Human Services)—that brought together expertise from the private sector, the public sector and academia, guests were treated to an informed dialogue on the current uses, progression, and future development of wearable technology. The insightful line of questions put forth by the evening’s moderator John Paul Farmer, the Director of Technology and Civic Innovation at Microsoft, was both challenging and revelatory and all in attendance were privileged to a ‘peek-behind-the-curtain’ perspective on the future uses and coming innovations of wearable tech. Topics varied from the advancement of augmented reality and its uses in surgery to the strides in preventative healthcare from macro-data collection and analysis. For the enraptured audience assembled in the drawing room of the residence, the juxtaposition of discussing nanotechnology capable of changing the world against the backdrop including the rhythmic ticking of the 18th-century horologe was a vibrant reminder of how far and how fast the wave of technological evolution has washed over societies near and far.
The main area of discussion regarding wearables pertained to their immediate and prevalent impact in the arena of healthcare and wellbeing. According to the panelists, many in the tech-community have put their weight (and their funding) behind the conviction that wearables will change the way people behave, both on an individual as well as societal level. Although still in its infancy, our guests firmly believe that the pervasiveness of wearable technology will accelerate rapidly in the coming years as institutions, both public and private, work together to appeal to a wider consumer base by expanding both the form and function of wearables. More specifically, Mr. Sunthara brought attention to the work being done at the Department of Health and Human Services regarding the considerable amounts of health information now being collected and analyzed through wearables such as FitBit, in an effort to best equip medical professional with the tools to reshape how live data is used.
Furthermore, as wearable tech gains momentum, the expanded uses will encourage more and more people to do as their peers and take a good, long swig of the wearable-tech ‘Kool-Aid’ (calories and sugar intake tracked by your wearable), resulting in a greater number of lifestyle-conscious citizens. One roadblock, as explained by Dr. Ippolito, is the current lack of “clinical outcomes” resulting from wearables. With a professional and academic background at the intersection of engineering and medicine, Dr. Ippolito described her desire to see wearables increase in prevalence from a preventative medicine perspective and hopes they will be prescribed by clinicians in the future to encourage mindfulness and healthy habits.
Although the main attraction was undoubtedly the panelists it must be noted that any orchestra is lost without its conductor. To this end, Mr. Farmer navigated the panel expertly through the canyons and ravines of the conversation surrounding wearable technology, straddling the line between technical discussion on real-world uses and development of wearables, while never relinquishing the awe and attention of the gallery. As the evening progressed, Dr. Shanley echoed the sentiments of her counterparts in regards to the implications for the medical community of wearables, but touched on another focus of developers: the environment. From pollution to humidity and temperature, technology is being integrated with and created for wearables, with the goal of collecting a massive number of air-samples from a multitude of different regions. By aggregating mountains of relevant data on weather patterns or carbon-dioxide levels, scientists can manipulate and digest the information to prescribe effective techniques for ecological preservation and the advancement of environmental safety measures.
So, in spite of the obvious upsides of wearables, why haven’t they taken off yet? Mr. Farmer put forth to the panel the question of how the beneficiaries of this tech will help shape the development and application going forward. As explained, the advancement of wearables isn’t solely a scientific pursuit – the general public must work hand in hand with those developing this technology to ensure that it remains effective in improving livelihood. A point aptly was driven home by Dr. Shanley in a simple yet resounding statement; people will care about wearables because “[p]eople care about health, the environment and general wellbeing.” Further, Dr. Ippolito likened the current investor enthusiasm and buzz surrounding the technology to the early stages of mobile phones, and the then-unimaginable implications of what in only a dozen years has become a trillion-dollar industry. Mr. Sunthara succinctly brought to a close the importance of inter-cooperation between users, the private sector, and the government in pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with wearables by expounding the need for a universal data-language. By standardizing the way information is gathered through wearables, it opens the door to a variety of uses across all industries and countries.
In Mr. Farmer’s final act as moderator, he presented the panelists with what will surely be the thorniest criticism of wearables to come – the question of privacy rights and security. How will private companies and government organizations use the enormous amounts of forthcoming data, and how will they be held responsible for doing so in a safe and legal manner? On this subject, the three panelists displayed a united front in their unwavering determination that any collection and use of this data must be predicated on transparency, complicity and security. Dr. Ippolito and Dr. Shanley reiterated the fact that the scientific community is steadfast in their resolve to ensure that personal liberties are not infringed upon, and information is used only in accordance with the rules set forth in the contract. Taking another tack, Mr. Sunthara described the security methods currently being employed to safeguard against abuse of wearables-collected-data.
In the Q&A portion of the hour-long session, guests got the chance to probe our panelists on issues of safety and energy use, the cultural implications of this tech, as well as discussing and proposing ideas for future uses of wearables (including a hip-implant airbag, and glasses that remember names of people you’ve met.) The formal panel and discussion part of the evening ended on a jovial note, and I’m sure I speak for all of those in attendance in saying I left the info session with a greater understanding and appreciation of, and genuine excitement for, the future of wearable technology. Nevertheless, the key sentiment most guests will walk away from the evening with was an electric and burgeoning sense of awe that was palpable in the room at the panel’s conclusion. As guests slowly made their way to the connected ante-chamber to rehash the marvels of modern science, through a sea of warm greetings and cold drinks, the almost imperceptible ‘pings’ of the timeworn grandfather clock could be heard interspersed with the revelries – faintly ringing in a new era of technological majesty.
Contributed by IFE Fellow George De Nevers Milanović
— Alexandra Nemeth (@AlexandraNemeth) March 24, 2015
ABOUT THE PANEL:
John Paul Farmer served as Senior Advisor for Innovation in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. In this role, he has focused on the President’s innovation agenda, spearheading government innovation through the Presidential Innovation Fellows program while promoting policies that support entrepreneurship and economic growth in the private sector. Previously, John served in the Administration as Senior Advisor for Healthcare Reform, developing the Multi-State Plan program to provide greater consumer choice via the Health Insurance Marketplaces, implementing the Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan program for those with serious health conditions, and integrating the Blue Button Download My Data technology into the digital health records of millions of Federal employees. Before his appointment, John worked in the investment management industry at Lehman Brothers and Credit Suisse, launching new business initiatives, identifying investment opportunities, and assessing a broad range of risks during the global financial crisis. He also played professional baseball in the minor league systems of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Atlanta Braves, compiling a .344 career batting average. He is currently Director of Technology & Civic Innovation at Microsoft.
Andrea Ippolito is a Presidential Innovation Fellow working with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Andrea is a Ph.D. student in the Engineering Systems Division at MIT, co-founder of Smart Scheduling, Innovation Specialist at the Brigham & Women’s Hospital Innovation Hub, and co-leader of MIT’s Hacking Medicine. Recently, she served as a Product Innovation Manager at athenahealth and completed her M.S. in Engineering & Management at MIT. Prior to MIT, Ippolito worked as a Research Scientist within the Corporate Technology Development group at Boston Scientific. She obtained both her B.S in Biological Engineering in 2006 and Masters of Engineering in Biomedical Engineering in 2007 from Cornell University. Her major skill area is systems engineering combined with her knowledge surrounding innovation in healthcare and her infectious energy. Andrea Ippolito is originally from the Boston, Massachusetts area.
Lea Shanley is a Presidential Innovation Fellow working on Crowdsourcing initiatives at NASA. Trained as a geospatial data scientist and policy expert, her research has focused on improving government services and empowering communities through open and participatory innovation, new technologies and social media. Previously, she directed the Commons Lab of the Science and Technology Innovation Program at the Wilson Center. She is one of the chief organizers and co-founders of the Federal Community of Practice on Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science, a groundbreaking effort to enable federal agencies to engage the public in collective problem-solving. In 2009, Lea was an AAAS Congressional Science Fellow in the U.S. Senate, crafting legislation on satellite Earth observations, oceans, and hazards. Lea also helped launch the new Citizen Science Association and Wisconsin Geographic Information Coordination Council. She conducted her Ph.D. research in Environmental Monitoring at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and holds an MS in astronomy and BS in physics.
Gajen Sunthara is a Presidential Innovation Fellow working on the MyData Initiative (Blue Button) at the Department of Health and Human Services. Previously, Gajen served as a Principal Software Architect at the Innovation Acceleration Program at Boston Children’s Hospital. He also volunteers as a Mentor for both InciteHealth at the Center for Primary Care at Harvard Medical School, as well as for Hacking Pediatrics in collaboration with MIT H@cking Medicine. Gajen has a B.Sc. in Computer Science from Wentworth Institute of Technology and a Master’s in Information Technology from Harvard University. Gajen’s master thesis focused on using Google Glass to develop a novel application called “GlassSurgeon” which enhances a surgeon’s workflow and improves patient safety by leveraging natural language processing and hands-free features that access real-time clinical information systems. Combining expertise in laboratory medicine and in-depth understanding of clinical and patient workflows through technical leadership in R&D, devices, software development and architecture, he aims to achieve his professional goal of implementing innovative technologies within the healthcare setting.