The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Sidhant Gupta, a medical devices researcher at Microsoft’s headquarters in Seattle, Washington. Gupta discussed the transformative potential that sensing technologies could have on healthcare, as well as how he takes inspiration from science fiction to explore new technological concepts.
Joshua New: I got a chance to hear you speak at Microsoft’s Creativity Conference where you discussed the concept of ubiquitous sensing without ubiquitous sensors. What does this mean, and why do you think it is worth exploring?
Sidhant Gupta: What I mean by sensing everywhere without sensors everywhere is enabling smart computing throughout our environments without us realizing that there are computers everywhere and in our way. In my opinion it is imperative that for technology to empower people to be productive, the technology itself needs to get out of the way! For instance, consider the experience of starting your car. There are at least a dozen computers that make a modern car run safely, however we seldom think of driving a car as “interacting with a computer.” We simply take intended actions and these hidden computers do their job without exposing themselves to the user. By developing sensors that become one with the environment we enable technologies that disappear and become part of the man-made environment of life. They become part of our life.
New: One such method of sensing without putting sensors everywhere is detecting the contents of a room based on how a WiFi signal flows through the space. Could you elaborate on this?
Gupta: We started looking at WiFi as a sensing modality when we had the (obvious) realization that WiFi signals penetrate walls, human bodies, and other objects making them available everywhere in a given environment. We then wondered what if we can somehow use this to detect human presence and motion in a room. It turns out that WiFi signals change when objects move in an environment. In particular, this change is due to the Doppler effect. A common example is the change in the pitch of a vehicle’s siren as it approaches, passes, and then moves away from a listener. By sensing this Doppler shift in the WiFi signals using a custom wireless router, we can detect not only human motion but also gestures that a user can perform. For example, a user could perform a swipe gesture to change the song playing on their computer whether they are in their living room, on the patio, or taking a shower! Since publishing this particular research, we have showed that it is also possible to remotely monitor a human’s breathing rate using similar RF signals.
New: At Microsoft, you work on medical devices. What does the proliferation of inexpensive sensing technologies mean for healthcare?
Gupta: Smaller, efficient, and more accurate sensing technology has already resulted in better medical devices in a clinical setting (better, faster ultrasound imaging; surgical robot; etc.), however their proliferation and consumerization would have an immense impact on preventive healthcare. The recent burst of fitness devices like the Fitbit, Microsoft Band, and others are only the tip of the iceberg. I believe we will soon see medical grade devices that monitor, track, and inform patients without requiring being tethered to a bench-top medical machine. We are inching closer to making the Star Trek “Tricorder” a reality. In the immediate future we will see big leaps in our understanding of diseases and factors that contribute to it, and advancements in medical sciences as a result of researchers able to make use continuous-sensing wearable medical devices that record biomarkers previously only possible in a lab setting. This is important because, unlike today’s technology where researchers have to bring people into labs, they will be able to run very large population studies with cheap, reliable, and accurate wearable medical sensors.
New: In 2012, you were named one of Forbes’s “30 Under 30” disruptors in technology and many of your research projects demonstrate some truly novel methods of solving problems. Why do you think you have been able to be so innovative?
Gupta: I would say it is primarily because I have had the privilege to be surrounded by some really smart people who all share my passion to work on addressing real-world problems and needs. In addition, I have worked in environments where science came first, and then business. In other words, I was seldom asked “what is the economic value” for a project or idea I was working on. By not having to immediately explain the economics, I was free to explore ideas that sounded stupid and impossible or seemed ridiculously ambitious. Another key reason was being able to borrow and intermix knowledge from multiple domains of science. When faced with a hard problem, I looked to other fields–mechanical, biomedical, physics, earth sciences, and so on— for inspiration and “tips and tricks” to problem solving. I have a philosophy that nature has solved most of the engineering problems that we encounter today and that by looking around hard enough, we will get a good hint and possibly a solution.
New: You have discussed how you see technology in science fiction movies and wonder how you can make it a reality. What concepts or devices that have only been possible in science fiction would you like to tackle next?
Gupta: One of the science fiction technologies that has really consumed the past few years of my pondering time is super high resolution medical imaging—when you have the resolution and fidelity to the extent where you can zoom down to a single-cell level and see it in real-time. Fidelity so high that you can save a 3D snapshot of a human body with all the details to replicate (think cloud backups for human body). Such a device would allow pointing it at a patient such that you can choose to not only look at any layer (tissue, muscle, skin etc.), but also zoom in to the point that you can see individual cells—and all of this at a high frame rate. One could imagine tracking every single cancerous cell in real time and eliminating it or a sports injury doctor showing you exactly where the inflammation is. Technology like this has made its way in many science fiction movies and TV series in various incarnations, such as the medical pod in Elysium and the medical scanner in Stargate SG-1.