Shining light on healthcare at home

An illuminating dispatch from Girton Labs in Cambridge happily mixes many of my interests in one fascinating story. By combining infra-red sensors with communications hardware in an LED lightbulb, inventor Lyndsay Williams claims that dangerous domestic situations can be detected in plenty of time to prevent disaster.

An illuminating dispatch from Girton Labs in Cambridge happily mixes many of my interests in one fascinating story. By combining infra-red sensors with communications hardware in an LED lightbulb, inventor Lyndsay Williams claims that dangerous domestic situations can be detected in plenty of time to prevent disaster.

For example, SenseBulb is intended for installation in the kitchens of Alzheimer's patients, with its four sensors monitoring the cooker, toaster, back door and fridge. If things get dangerously hot or cold, the system can alert a carer who can sort things out. It dispenses with the need for cameras, which are very intrusive, and should be cheap to produce -- there's a target price of £20, although how much the rest of the system costs isn't mentioned -- and easy to deploy. And it uses 20 percent of the power of a tungsten bulb.

This is all top-notch stuff. It shows exactly the right mix of appropriate technology, awareness of the complex issues and practical approach to real problems that is going to be the hallmark of effective health technology over the next few years.

As I've banged on at length before, the mix of an aging demographic and ever more effective health services is creating an enormous problem for the near future; society won't be able to afford to maintain its elderly population in the quality of life they have every reason to expect.

The only answer is to find a way to couple Moore's Law to healthcare, driving its costs down and its effectiveness up in exponential ways. That a successful effort to do this will also create enormous economic opportunities and give millions of people many years of extra, independent life are two positive side-effects.

A £20 light bulb that means you don't burn your house down or get raided by the local scrotes is right in line for being a part of this solution. And it is just one part -- the only sensible way forward is to see the whole solution as one massively-integrated information gathering and decision-aiding network, involving professionals, families and patients alike. Fortunately, we're getting good at that sort of thing.

Oh, and bonus marks to Mrs Williams for noting that the infra-red sensors are similar technology to those used in heat-seeking guided missiles. That gives me an excuse to mention the Sidewinder AIM-9, which is also a fine example of appropriate technology solving a complex problem in a notably elegant way. The Germans experimented with infra-red guidance in WW2, but couldn't make it reliable - acquiring the target, analysing the signals and working out an efficient intercept trajectory in a very dynamic 3D environment needed a lot of electronics - and back then, a lot of electronics really was a lot.

The Sidewinder development team solved all that by a spinning mirror which bounced the infra-red light from the target into the detector; all the electronics had to do was measure the length and timing of the pulse and steer the missile so that the pulse was as long as possible and arrived when the target, missile and mirror were properly aligned.

That alignment was made accurate by tiny wind-powered gyroscopes in the fins at the end of the missile; they span up extremely quickly in the airstream, and if the missile rotated around its axis they put pressure on the control surfaces to correct the motion. Such stabilisation was self-correcting, self-powering and needed a tiny handful of moving parts; the electronic guidance at the front of the missile was similarly simple and was about as complicated as a domestic radio receiver.

You can even employ Cold War logic to say that, like Mrs Williams and her SenseBulb, the inventors of the Sidewinder were also concerned to give people a long and productive life - even if they were slightly more selective about which people those were, and a bit less careful about the health and safety of the others.

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