The business of life

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Published: November 27, 2014 12:02:58 AM

It’s a huge market but, in the short term, smart spoons and in-eye glucometers will do better than world-altering projects such as driverless cars and Google Glass

Megasthenes had famously commented that Indians are “denied the pleasures of the symposium”—the European tradition of elevated conversation over a leisurely shared meal—since they prefer to eat alone, at different hours, whenever they are hungry. So it is wonderfully ironic that a person of Indian origin has created a spoon that helps people with tremors concentrate on the company rather than the difficult physical act of getting food from the plate to the mouth. With the backing of Google, Anupam Pathak’s Lift Lab is now taking orders for its Liftware spoon, a portable electronic device which compensates dynamically for tremors in the hand holding it and allows nothing to spill. Priced at $295, it returns the pleasures of the symposium to those with Parkinson’s disease or “essential tremor”. Until recently, the condition’s name was prefixed by the word “benign”, indicating that it does not proceed from a known pathology. However, it was recently removed, acknowledging that the tremor is not at all benign in its social effects.

One more irony: $295 is the precise price of the Le Burger Extravagant, the world’s most expensive burger, which was unveiled in New York a couple of years ago. In comparison with Pathak’s invention, which is good for many, many sociable meals, the exclusive burger seems like an obnoxious excess. One last irony: Pathak’s spoon is the culmination of work funded by the US Department of Defence that he had done for his doctoral thesis at the University of Michigan. The project was intended to stabilise infantry rifles in combat by compensating for the tremor caused by battle fatigue. It seems to be the logical next step after gyro-stabilised gun platforms like the TALON, which allow soldiers to fire accurately from gunships and small boats.

Like many lesser companies, Google is turning to life-enhancing technologies like this spoon. It had diversified out of its communications and search niche earlier this year with the buyout of Nest, an intelligent home product company which makes networked thermostats and smoke and carbon monoxide alarms. In June, Nest acquired Dropcam, which specialises in plug and play webcams that you can monitor remotely. These were Google’s first ‘real-world’ products, if such a term can be coined, other than Glass. Sebastian Thrun’s driverless car, a project which got off to an early start and has picked up so much media mileage, is still years away, pending rigorous testing and standardisation of the transport environment. The University of Michigan at Ann Arbor is building a 30-acre fake city centre to test driverless cars, Nevada has innovated driverless transport laws and a modified Toyota Prius is being tested there, but much more needs to be done to convince users and administrators before they can be released into the wild.

That is also the problem with the biological “moonshots” being incubated by Google X, the somewhat secretive lab for future science. Typically, users, prescribers and regulators of life science products want to know precisely what they are getting into before they take the plunge. The projects of Calico, the Google-promoted company which is investing in the prolongation of life—and, more immediately, the acceleration with which age-related technology can be brought to market—are not widely discussed. However, Google has been openly hopeful about its nanoparticles diagnostic project, which pre-emptively seeks signs of disease.

Roughly speaking, the particles consist of cores of magnetic material covered by a sticky layer, to which are attached molecules which can bond with the products of problematic human processes and thereby signal their presence. The particles can be swallowed and, as they course through the bloodstream, they can be attracted and measured by a magnetic cuff over the veins at the wrist for indicators like excess sodium or chemical markers of morbidity, including vascular disorders and cancer. While promising, such products will find it even harder to get past regulators than driverless cars.

However, Google has already released information about two projects. One, like the compensating spoon, is a simple device which can take the pain out of diabetes. A contact lens with a glucometer and wifi embedded, it senses sugar levels in tears at very short intervals. It makes the traditional glucometer and its painful pricks redundant, and also provides a continuous glucose curve through the day, which has better diagnostic value and can be correlated with specific events and activities. The fact that tears contain measurable glucose has been known since the 1930s, but this is the first lens suitable for mass production, and has been licensed to Novartis. For now, simple but life-altering technologies like the contact lens and the spill-proof spoon appear to be better bets for companies trying to break into the huge health industry, which is going to get bigger as the very same companies strive to develop longevity products. Technologies like nanoparticles could eventually be world-altering rather than life-altering, but early adoption is improbable.

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