Mind-reading exoskeletons, digital tattoos, 3D printed drugs, RFID implants for recreational purposes: mindblowing innovations are coming to medicine and healthcare almost every single day. We shortlisted some of the greatest ideas and medical technology developments that could give us a glimpse into the future of medicine, but we found so many that we had trouble fitting them into one article.
Here is a curated list of 5 spectacular medical technology innovations, from augmented reality to artificial intelligence and tissue engineering:
1) Mixed reality opens new ways for medical education
Augmented, virtual, and mixed reality are all technologies opening new worlds for the human senses. While the difference between these technologies might seem arbitrary at first, it greatly determines how they could be used in healthcare. While AR lets users see the real world and projects digital information onto the existing environment, VR shuts out everything else completely and provides an entire simulation, and mixed reality is able to interact with the world while projecting information into it. Thus, AR can be used by surgeons for projecting potentially life-saving information into their eyesight during operations, VR can be used in psychiatry to treat phobias efficiently, and mixed reality is able to bring revolutionary novelties to medical education, or pre-operative surgical planning, among others.
For example, the Microsoft HoloLens opens up radically new ways for medical education as it is able to project the human body in its full size in front of med students. Thus, the organs, veins or bones will be visible accurately in 3D, and future medical professionals will be able to analyze their shape, remember their characteristics more vividly than it is possible when studying from a book. There are already some universities who plan to introduce the new technology: Case Western opened its new health education campus in collaboration with the Cleveland Clinic in 2019, where students study anatomy from virtual reality rather than cadavers.
2) Brain-computer interfaces bring hope for the paralyzed
Research has geared up lately in the area of brain-computer interfaces (BCI). Dr. Gary Marcus, at New York University and Dr. Christof Koch at the Allen Institute for Brain Science told The Medical Futurist that brain implants today are where laser eye surgery was decades ago, but the field will advance significantly in the upcoming years. Imagine a retinal chip giving you perfect eyesight or the ability to see in the dark, a cochlear implant granting you perfect hearing or a memory chip bestowing you with almost limitless memory. What if you could type into a computer with only your thoughts or control your entire smart house by sending out the necessary brainwaves?
Although that’s really galactic leaps away, the first neuroprosthetics is already on the market: you can purchase cochlear implants, and retinal implants – the latter was approved by the FDA in 2013. Moreover, implants for people with Parkinson’s disease send electrical pulses deep into the brain, activating some of the pathways involved in motor control. Rarer, but also in use, are brain implant therapies for people paralyzed by spinal cord injury or other neurological damage. A chip inserted into the brain reads off electrical signals that are translated by a computer to restore some movement and communication. Couple it with an exoskeleton, and magic will truly happen: lately, it made headlines that a 30-year-old paralyzed man, Thibault, was able to move all four of his limbs with the help of a ‘mind-reading’ exoskeleton. We expect more similar stories to come.
3) Might we all end up being recreational cyborgs?
There are already famous examples of real-life cyborgs, and I am truly convinced that such creatures will not only populate the terrain of sci-fi movies, but they will be everywhere around us in the very near future. The ‘cyborg-craze’ will eventually start with a new generation of hipsters who implant devices and technologies in their bodies just to look cooler.
Advances in future medical technology will not just repair physical disadvantages such as impaired eyesight but will also create superhuman powers from having the eyesight of an eagle to possessing the hearing of a bat. Hearing aids powered with artificial intelligence, earbuds making you multilingual, or RFID chips already point to that direction. While a patient wearing implanted defibrillators or pacemakers can also be added to the group of cyborgs, I expect to see more cases when patients ask for the implantation of a certain device without having medical problems.
4) Gamification in health insurance is not a game
In November 2017, Qualcomm and United Healthcare announced that they have integrated Samsung and Garmin wearables into their national wellness program. It enables eligible plan participants to earn more than $1,000 per year by meeting daily walking goals. I believe this is just the beginning of a beautiful friendship between health insurance companies, wearable manufacturers, and the principle of gamification. The latter indicates playful incentives, which could motivate and slightly nudge people into the desired behavior – such as a healthy way of life in the case of health insurance companies.
However, the question is how far health insurance companies should push such gamified solutions. Will they leverage data on accomplished or unaccomplished daily fitness goals to increase premiums for high-risk patients or to reduce their business risks by alerting patients about bad lifestyle choices? What will happen to the patients’ private data? Should we prepare for Dr. Big Brother? How will the relationship between employers, employees and health insurance companies change in the light of easily obtainable personal fitness and health data? As more and more corporations offer health insurance packages with gamified tracking options to their employees, these ethical questions will become increasingly important, and we should offer fair and balanced responses – as soon as possible.
5) Artificial food as the hope against food shortages
Synthetic tea? Lab-grown meat? Artificial milk? Nutrients and vitamins in a protein shake? Sci-fi movies like the Matrix, Star Trek or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy showed us a glimpse of the future of eating disconnected from Mother Earth. Some innovative solutions are already here, promising an option for alleviating the overstraining of natural resources and still providing food for millions of humans.
For example, researchers of the Cultured Beef Project remove muscle cells from the shoulder of a cow and feed the cells with a nutrient mix in a Petri dish, and then they grow into muscle tissue. From a few starter cells, one can derive tons of meat. The Netherlands-based company, Mosa Meat introduced their first hamburger in London in 2013, and they promise to bring artificial beef to the masses in the next 3-4 years. Two Israeli start-ups, SuperMeat in Tel Aviv and the Modern Agriculture Foundation (MAF) in Ramat Gan joined the quest to mass-produce cultured meat, working on cultivating chicken meat in their laboratories, while Silicon Valley-based Finless Foods is promising to produce real fish meat out of stem cells to create more sustainable seafood.
Another San Francisco-based company, JUST Inc., formerly known as the controversial food enterprise, Hampton Creek, is developing cultured foie gras, synthetic chorizo, and artificial nugget. Its researchers are also working on cultured meat, and they promised to introduce their version at the end of this year. A Japanese company, Integriculture Inc., could mean a competitor for JUST in the field of cultured foie gras. CEO Yuki Hanyu says their lab-grown product could hit the shelves within the next four years. What do you say? Would you be open to trying artificial nuggets with synthetic foie gras?