The body elec­tric Ros­alind Pi­card on wear­able tech­nol­ogy

Ros­alind Pi­card lec­tures on wear­able tech­nol­ogy

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - Casey Sanchez I For The New Mex­i­can

Each year, around 50,000 of the three mil­lion Amer­i­cans liv­ing with epilepsy will die from pro­longed seizures, from a con­di­tion called SUDEP — the sud­den, un­ex­pected death of some­one who was other­wise healthy — or from other seizure-re­lated ac­ci­dents such as drown­ing. About a third of those who die from SUDEP will show signs of hav­ing had a seizure close to the time of their demise. “There’s a point when it looks like the seizure has ended, when it looks like you might go to sleep. That’s when you can stop breath­ing,” said Ros­alind Pi­card, a co-founder of Em­pat­ica, a tech start-up that de­vel­ops tech­nolo­gies for mon­i­tor­ing the hu­man ner­vous sys­tem in real time. “We now know peo­ple are much less likely to die if some­one is around you dur­ing a seizure and af­ter­wards. Some­one touch­ing you dur­ing this time frame can stim­u­late deep brain ac­tiv­ity and pull you out of dan­ger.”

Pi­card hopes to save lives with Em­brace, her com­pany’s sig­na­ture wear­able med­i­cal de­vice. Worn over the wrist or an­kle, the sleek bio-mon­i­tor­ing in­stru­ment — which many mis­take for an Ap­ple Watch — is paired with a smart­phone, alert­ing both the wear­ers and their care­givers at the first sign of a seizure. As re­vealed ear­lier this year, through a beta-test roll­out of the de­vice to fam­i­lies af­fected by epilepsy, Em­brace of­fers the pos­si­bil­ity — not a guar­an­tee — that the user can be alerted to a seizure be­fore it starts.

“A lot of peo­ple find out about our de­vice through word of mouth. A con­gress­man asked me to come down and talk about if for a con­gres­sional brief­ing. The Epilepsy Foun­da­tion and fam­i­lies who lost loved ones to seizures talk about Em­brace,” Pi­card told Pasatiempo. Un­der the um­brella of the Santa Fe In­sti­tute’s com­mu­nity lec­ture se­ries, Pi­card will de­liver a talk en­ti­tled “Sur­prises at the In­ter­sec­tion of Hu­man Emo­tion and Wear­able Tech” at 7 p.m. on Tues­day, Aug. 30, at the Len­sic Per­form­ing Arts Cen­ter.

Em­brace looks and func­tions like a Fit­bit, mon­i­tor­ing pulse, ac­tiv­ity, and sleep length and qual­ity. What makes Em­brace a game changer are high-tech sen­sors that can pick up deep brain ac­tiv­ity that’s even be­yond the reach of a tra­di­tional elec­troen­cephalo­gram. The de­vice does so by sens­ing and record­ing elec­tro­der­mal ac­tiv­ity (EDA), es­sen­tially skin con­duc­tance as me­di­ated by sweat — a real-time record of the deep brain sig­nals un­leashed as we ex­pe­ri­ence fear, anx­i­ety, ex­cite­ment, and arousal. (Em­pat­ica also makes the E4, a su­per­charged ver­sion of Em­brace with ad­vanced sen­sors for clin­i­cal use.)

Mea­sur­ing EDA isn’t new. Since it was first dis­cov­ered in the late 19th cen­tury, the bio­elec­tric sig­nal has al­lowed sci­en­tists to de­velop the lie-de­tect­ing poly­graph and the heart-track­ing elec­tro­car­dio­gram. Over the past decade, as the sen­sors that de­tect EDA have be­come smaller and cheaper, ev­ery­day users have de­vel­oped the abil­ity to track emo­tional and neu­ro­log­i­cal states, a do­main once con­fined to clin­i­cal re­searchers. An e-di­ary app that comes with the Em­brace de­vice al­lows users to mon­i­tor and con­tex­tu­al­ize their ac­tiv­ity, their rest states and the fluc­tu­a­tions of their au­to­nomic ner­vous sys­tem.

Un­like the hel­mets and elec­trodes tra­di­tion­ally as­so­ci­ated with mon­i­tor­ing epilep­tic seizures, Em­brace’s sleek pro­file of­fers anonymity, es­pe­cially in an era when so many oth­ers are wear­ing Fit­bits and smart­watches.

“No­body wants to ad­ver­tise that they have a med­i­cal con­di­tion. It’s why we de­signed it to look cool and el­e­gant,” said Pi­card, who noted that ear­lier this year Em­brace re­ceived the Red Dot Award for Prod­uct De­sign. “Peo­ple ask me all the time if it’s an Ap­ple Watch. We want peo­ple to be able to wear this beau­ti­ful, well-de­signed time­piece that mon­i­tors their health.”

Like many emerg­ing bio­med­i­cal de­vices, Em­brace is not cur­rently ap­proved for med­i­cal use by the FDA, and is still un­der­go­ing tri­als. In­stead, it is be­ing mar­keted as a sort of ro­bust smart­watch that tracks EDA. The Epilepsy Foun­da­tion has re­mained en­thu­si­as­tic about Em­brace. Through a match­ing do­na­tion pro­gram with the crowd­fund­ing plat­form Indiegogo, the foun­da­tion has do­nated 1,500 of the de­vices to fam­i­lies that would not other­wise be able to af­ford the $199 price tag.

Pi­card imag­ines fu­ture it­er­a­tions of the de­vice could be use­ful to peo­ple deal­ing with post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der, Parkin­son’s dis­ease, anx­i­ety, de­pres­sion, and other men­tal health con­di­tions. One of her stu­dents bor­rowed two Em­brace sen­sors and put one on each of her autis­tic brother’s arms. “Dur­ing one of his melt­downs, the sen­sor re­ally went off on one arm and the other had ab­so­lutely no re­sponse,” Pi­card said. The episode par­tially in­spired a re­cent re­search pa­per, “Mul­ti­ple Arousal The­ory and Dai­lyLife Elec­tro­der­mal Ac­tiv­ity Asym­me­try,” which looks at how emo­tional arousal does not al­ways travel equally across the two halves of the hu­man body.

Em­brace is the most cur­rent it­er­a­tion of a se­ries of EDA-quan­ti­fy­ing de­vices de­vel­oped over the past few years by Pi­card and the re­search team she heads. She is both founder and di­rec­tor of the Af­fec­tive Com­put­ing Re­search Group at the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy’s Me­dia Lab — a depart­ment she not only founded in 1996 but also lit­er­ally wrote the book on. Af­fec­tive Com­put­ing (MIT Press, 1998) es­tab­lished the field’s bona fides and the ra­tio­nale for pro­gram­ming com­put­ers to per­ceive and in­ter­pret hu­man emo­tion. At the time, Pi­card said, most

com­puter pro­gram­mers saw emo­tion as largely op­posed to the ra­tio­nal de­ci­sion-mak­ing process that guided com­puter logic. But, the com­puter sci­en­tist ar­gued, the lat­est sci­en­tific find­ings had re­vealed that emo­tion was cen­tral to hu­man cog­ni­tion, per­cep­tion, and ra­tio­nal de­ci­sion mak­ing. “[If] we want com­put­ers to be gen­uinely in­tel­li­gent, to adapt to us, and to in­ter­act nat­u­rally with us, then they will need the abil­ity to rec­og­nize and ex­press emo­tions, to have emo­tions, and to have what has come to be called ‘emo­tional in­tel­li­gence,’ ” Pi­card writes in the preface of Af­fec­tive Com­put­ing.

Al­most two decades later, Pi­card’s re­search fo­cus has be­come in­creas­ingly main­stream. Her ideas, once con­fined to re­search sym­posia, have borne fruit for her as a prac­ti­cal in­ven­tor. An in­ter­ac­tive so­cial-cue reader she de­vel­oped for pa­tients on the autism spec­trum made The New York

Times Mag­a­zine’s 2006 list of Best Ideas. In 2011, Pop­u­lar Sci­ence named her Af­fec­tive Mir­ror, a com­puter-based agent that mir­rors a per­son’s emo­tional state and fa­cial ex­pres­sions, one of the year’s top 10 in­ven­tions.

Some find it ironic and per­haps a bit trou­bling that the tech world seems poised to play such a large role in map­ping the hu­man emo­tional world. “Most of us in tech­ni­cal fields can­not claim any spe­cial emo­tional com­pe­tence, my­self in­cluded,” Pi­card writes in her prophetic 1998 book. “If we spent more time with ma­chines that paid at­ten­tion to our af­fect, that placed im­por­tance upon it and helped it to be com­mu­ni­cated, then per­haps we might im­prove some of our af­fec­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tion abil­i­ties, even slightly.”

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