May 14, 2021 -- The pace of medicine and communications is advancing so fast that soon a daughter will receive an alert when her mother's behavior shows hints of future Alzheimer's disease. A smartphone will be able to anaylze a person's data on blood pressure, sleep patterns, and oxygen levels and send information to a designated doctor when a pattern of concern emerges.
With emerging technology, patients will own that information, can choose who to share it with, and systems will be protected against interruptions, outside threats, and system failures.
To get there, the U.S. National Science Foundation is partnering with two federal departments and nine private connectivity giants — including Apple, Google, IBM, and Microsoft — to award $40 million in grants to the researchers with the most promising ideas for transforming the way information is communicated.
The program is called RINGS or Resilient & Intelligent NextG Systems. Medicine is one of the sectors — along with education, transportation, public safety and defense, and others — that will benefit from the winning ideas. RINGS is setting up to fund 40 ideas at $1 million each over 3 years. Full proposals are due by July 29.
The National Science Foundation wants to dramatically increase the speed of progress. Typically, researchers apply for federal grants and some get funding and publish; industry eventually takes notice and buys up the successful technology.
“It used to take 20 years for research to go from concept to practice," Thyagarajan Nandagopal, PhD, acting deputy director of the National Science Foundation Division of Computer and Network Systems, told Medscape.
The hope is that with partners invested up front, buyers will already be in place, eager to get results and ready to launch the winning technology.
"The researchers don't have to go sell these ideas to the companies," Nandagopal explains.
NextG will come after 5G, the latest wireless data networks, but experts have purposely avoided calling it 6G because it might end up being completely different from the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth platforms we see today, not just an updated version, he says
"The space is changing," he points out, "and we anticipate more interest in things to come that may not be the traditional networks that we know of today."
NextG, Not 6G
Critical in the next generation is that devices monitor patients 24/7 and that patients control their data and choose who to share it with. Doctors or loved ones designated to receive certain data can set up filters so that they only receive information, for example, when blood pressure levels in the patient pass a certain mark, for instance.
Phones will act as agents and fuse the data received from insulin pumps, heart monitors, and smart watches instead of tracking those functions individually. But to preserve privacy, that fusion will happen on the patient's smartphone — the base station — and the information will not travel "to the Amazons, the Apples, and the Googles," Nandagopal says.
"This is your data. You own it and your device takes care of this," he explains. "That level of smartness doesn't exist today; that's something that we hope we can enable with this kind of research."
NextG connectivity is vital as people increasingly will be wearing embedded monitors or activation devices.
The way it looks now, "unless all of the data is owned by one entity, you don't have a good picture of what is going on," he says.
Voice assistants — evolved versions of Alexa and Siri — will be incorporated into medical information. Relatives could receive information that an elderly person has increasingly used their devices to help them locate their keys, for instance, or are asking the same questions repeatedly of the voice assistant.
Personal devices will be able to compare the information to patterns from people asking similar questions and be able to identify the beginnings of cognitive decline.
Early research shows that the type of search you do on Google can predict signs of dementia 3 to 4 years in advance, Nandagopal says.
"We're going to see an increasing integration of technology into our bodies, not to mention using these technologies in our homes. We will have devices that monitor our sleeping to look for apnea, monitoring the elderly for risk of falls."
NextG technology must also have a safety and reliability level not yet seen, he says, and be resilient to hackers.
With new technology providing 24-hour monitoring, more older adults will be able to live in the environment they choose, and relatives who live elsewhere will be assured that their health and safety are being monitored.
But that peace of mind evaporates if a system goes down for even 5 minutes, Nandagopal says.
RING partners include the Department of Defense, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Apple, Ericsson, Google, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Nokia, Qualcomm Technologies, and VMWare.