Looking Beyond Gadgets

Just this year alone, we've seen several tech companies jump into medical research. From Sean Parker's $250-million contribution to fighting cancer to the birth of Google's Life Sciences research division, innovators around the world are teaming up to help humans live longer. The latest to join in were Mark Zuckerberg and wife Priscilla Chan, launching the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, a $3-billion program which aims to prevent, manage, and cure all diseases.

"The technology industry has entered the field of medicine and aims to eliminate disease itself," writes renowned expert Vivek Wadhwa, fellow at Stanford University's Rock Center for Corporate Governance, director of research for the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke, and a distinguished fellow at the Singularity University.

"It may well succeed because of a convergence of exponentially advancing technologies, such as computing, artificial intelligence, sensors, and genomic sequencing. We’re going to see more medical advances in the next decade than happened in the past century," Wadhwa believes.

Technology and Medicine

Innovation will be the key, and Wadhwa notes that things like wearable tech that monitors our health and genome sequencing are among the most interesting—and revolutionary—developments today. These will allow us to enter into a new era of personalized health. In so doing, it will utterly transform our lives and longevity—allowing us to predict and prevent disease as never before.

He also asserts that notable advances, like the human genome project, which has made advances in biotechnology and synthetic biology possible, are leading a new generation in medicine. Of course, Wadhwa also mentions CRISPR. Thanks to the state-of-the-art genetic editing tool, we have "the most amazing — and scary — genetics technology of all."

What other transformative advances are taking place?

Wadhwa pointed to microbiomes, calling them the "the next big medical frontier." He states that these bacterial systems in our bodies affect us far more than we know, and we are finally coming to understand them. "[I]in reality, there are 10 times as many microbes in our body as cells. This is a field that I am most excited about, because it takes us back to looking at the human organism as a whole. The microbiome may be the missing link between environment, genomics, and human health," Wadhwa explains.

He sums the exciting possibilities, stating, "There are also advances in 3D-printed prosthetics and bionics. One company, UNYQ, for example, is 'printing' new limbs for people with disabilities. Ekso Bionics has developed robotic exoskeletons to help the paralyzed walk again. Second Sight is selling an FDA-approved artificial retinal prosthetic, the Argus II, which provides limited but functional vision to people who have lost their vision due to retinitis pigmentosa, a retinal ailment. I expect that, by 2030, we will have developed enhancements that give us perfect vision, hearing, and strength as seen in the 1970s television series, 'The Six-Million Dollar Man.'"

So exciting times are ahead, but of course, it will take time to get there. Still, this next decade has much in store.

Yes, it will take time for the inventions to get from the lab to people in need, and the technology elite will have these before the rest of us. But this will only be for a short period, because the way the tech industry builds value is by democratizing technology, reducing its cost and enabling it to reach billions. This is why I am so excited that companies such as IBM, Facebook, and Google are taking the mantle from the health-care industry.

The next big break in medical research will be brought to us by these emerging technologies. "These companies have a motivation to keep us healthy: so that we download more applications rather than remain hooked on prescription medicines," Wadhwa aptly concludes.

He discusses the matter more in depth in his upcoming book The Driver in the Driverless Car: How Technology Choices Will Create the Future.

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