If I were to use the term "virtual surgery", you might jump to the conclusion that I'm talking about a doctor performing an operation from a remote location. Nope. That's telepresence and that's not what I'm talking about. Fly-through surgery is probably a better way to describe what we're considering here. Surgeons are using computers to construct and display virtual representations of the human organs they will operate on and then navigating these models much as a fighter pilot navigates a flight simulator or an 8-year-old navigates with Mario through Nintendo's new three-dimensional worlds.
In a dramatic example of how computing technology is contributing to improvements in health care, surgeons are now using computers to tame massive amounts of image data in order to perform diagnoses and improve surgical techniques. Surgeons are increasingly using helical computer tomography (CT) scan images rather than the traditional slice-by-slice images. The only problem is that helical scans can generate as many as ten times the number of images as the old CT methods. Now, doctors are using computers to process the data and create a virtual model of the patient's body or organs. The surgeon can explore the model thoroughly before beginning surgery in order to find the best possible plan of attack. Some systems are sophisticated enough that the surgeon can tour an internal organ in the same way that an architect's client can perform a walk-through of a virtual model of a proposed building. The computer can also feed the results to a heads-up display that allows the surgeon to view the virtual model while performing the operation.
The technology is already approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Radiologist Dr. David Vining of the Bowman Gray School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, is using the technology to examine patients for early signs of cancer polyps in the colon. Patients come in for a noninvasive one-minute CT scan (a process they universally find much preferable to the bowel cleansing, sedation, and colonoscope involved in the traditional procedure) after which Vining performs a fly-through of the virtual model that the computer creates from the data. The data can be massaged to produce false color representations of particularly suspect areas or conditions. Although the hardware for the system costs $300,000, the procedure itself may soon cost as little as $500, compared with the $900 to $1500 cost of the traditional colonoscopy. Vining uses the technology for diagnosis of lung conditions too.
Dr. Patrick Kelly, the chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery at New York University Medical Center uses Compass, a system he helped develop, to assist in performing brain surgery on some 350 patients a year. Some doctors claim that surgeons who depend on computer technology will lose some of the skills and expertise that older doctors have had to develop and refine through experience. A New York Times CyberTimes article (http://www.nytimes.com/library/cyber/week/1025surgery.html) cites Dr. Richard Fraser, chief of neurosurgery at New York Hospital, who believes that increasing dependence on computing technology will render such systems essential for the upcoming generation of surgeons. Young surgeons will come to depend on the computer to identify the location and extent of a tumor, for example, rather than developing the ability to identify it visually during surgery. The CyberTimes article also has some nice images generated by these systems.
The hardware, you ask? Silicon Graphics or Sun workstations with at least a 200-megahertz processor and a gig of RAM. No standards have yet emerged for modeling CT data, but Vining plans to distribute the software developed at Bowman Gray for free on the Internet. Medical Media Systems in New Hampshire offers to take raw data and create a 3-D model for doctors so they don't have to invest in the hardware.
This isn't a terribly new technology. But what are some other applications that may emerge as the cost of the computing technology necessary for it continue to drop? The doctors start with an excess of data about an existing structure. What other kinds of structures are amenable to the treatment? Think macro, think micro. What about massive amounts of unorganized data that currently have no structure? Bruce Sterling's cyberspace, a navigable virtual data structure, was one of the original expressions of the concept, but what will happen when the means to achieve such structures become readily available? Will we use them to organize the world's data, or will we use them for something much more mundane?
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200,000 Micro RPM
Researchers at Sandia National Laboratory (http://www.sandia.gov/) have built, using basic IC-fabrication technology, a micromachined engine that can drive multiple gears at 200,000 revolutions per minute (rpm). This microengine is the first that does more than sit there and spin--it can drive other micro devices. Also for the first time, the actuators were batch fabricated of polycrystalline silicon in a single wafer with the rest of the components so that the entire device can be manufactured in quantity, much as integrated circuits (ICs) are currently produced--no assembly required. The actuators are based on a design by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley.
The actuators, each moving in a vector perpendicular to the other, use a slider-crank mechanism to impart a rotating motion to the output gear. The horizontal actuator is connected to the output gear (off center) with a horizontal drive shaft. The vertical actuator moves the horizontal actuator's drive shaft up and down as the horizontal actuator is moving forward and backward. When not driving any gears, the engine can do 300,000 rpm, which is evidently a record for an electrically driven machine.
Potential application areas include electrical and optical switches, micropositioners, medical tools, and switching optical components. But a fair amount of work remains in order to find ways to hook the engine up to larger, practical output devices and to control the engine--a process that will likely require connections to ICs.
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Co-Operant Mobile Robotics
The Mobile Robotics group at the University of Salford (England) is developing robots that communicate and cooperate wih each other. The group has built Fred and Ginger, two identical robots with sensing systems that allow them to avoid obstacles and balance industrial pallets. Fred and Ginger can pick up a pallet together and navigate a room that has various objects scattered about.
The rearchers are modeling their efforts on the behavior of insects such as ants and bees, which demonstrate significant cooperative behavior despite simple levels of intelligence. The result is a control architecture to implement cooperation based on behaviors--task-achieving behavior results from combinations of predefined behavioral responses to sensory input. The researchers have developed a mathematical model and simulation of the system that they hope will lead to a theoretical framework of co-operant behavior.
Funding for the research comes from the Application of Computing to Manufacturing Engineering (ACME) Directorate of the Science and Engineering Research Council (SERC) and three industrial partners. The Mobile Robots Research Group is part of Salford's Control & Instrumentation Group, which has close ties to the National Advanced Robotics Research Centre on the Salford campus.
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Genetics Institute, Inc. (GI), a private company that developed (and patented) an inside track on identifying a certain class of human proteins (secreted proteins), is providing researchers access to its protein bank containing more than 5000 human proteins. Researchers can obtain free access to the bank by agreeing to turn over commercial rights to any drugs that result to GI. Researchers could collect royalties. For commercial enterprises, GI will charge a modest fee for access to the protein bank in return for half the profits of resulting products. Genentech and Chiron have already signed deals with the company.
The company developed and patented a process that allowed its researchers to identify and isolate genes that have unique DNA sequences necessary for creating signal peptides, which are an integral part of secreted proteins. All the proteins in the bank are secreted proteins, which allow cells to communicate with each other. Hormones and growth factors are secreted proteins. Access to the protein bank may help some researchers avoid the gene-sequencing process, allowing them immediate access to proteins they've been trying to isolate.
Sceptics claim that the most valuable secreted proteins have already been isolated and patented by companies such as Amgen and Genentech. GI hopes that by making its library available to researchers, it will reduce the cost of exploring the effects of an increasing number of proteins and stimulate the creation of new gene therapies.
The company's progress will be interesting to watch in terms of how issues of intellectual property play out in new business models for the biotech and pharmaceutical industry.
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Mathematically Precocious Pranksters
In the past several years, retired astronomer Gerald S. Hawkins, formerly of Boston University, has been deriving geometric theorems expressing specific numerical relationships among the areas of circles and triangles. He started work on the theorems after seeing photos of some of the infamous crop circles in southern England. Crop circles are very large geometric patterns imposed in the dead of night on wheat fields with a very light touch--wheat stalks are bent but not broken. Pranksters have taken responsibility for some of the geometric patterns; others remain unclaimed.
One of the crop-circle patterns Hawkins worked with, for example, is an isosceles triangle with a large circle (outside the triangle) whose outline intersects the triangle's points and a smaller circle (inside the triangle) whose outline tangentially touches each of the triangle's sides. Hawkins developed a Euclidean proof that the area of the smaller circle is exacly one-quarter the area of the larger circle.
During his musings, Hawkins proved five theorems, one of which derived from the other four. Finding no published reference to the general theorem, Hawkins challenged the readers of Science News and The Mathematics Teacher to develop the general theorem from the other four. No takers emerged. Well, at least not in the magazines. One of the patterns that turned up in the wheat fields of England this summer "showed knowledge of this fifth theorem," according to Hawkins.
Helluva way to conduct mathematical research if you ask me. But then when you're dealing with timeless constructs like Euclidean geometry, who needs the paper and pen let alone the Internet?
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Some companies are experimenting with combining changing price lists with corporate email showing customer/prospect requests. They could also be combined with projects up for bid from publications like Commerce Business Daily (for government projects) and onsale.com and other Web-based transactional services.
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