Robots Test Healthcare Waters in Japan, US

Posted January 10th, 2014 at 2:26 pm (UTC-4)
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Decades ago, the notion of robots assisting people was mostly the stuff of science fiction stories – harbingers of things to come.

Well, that day is here. Robots have been in use in auto manufacturing, rescue and demining operations for some time. But they are now beginning to be utilized the healthcare sector in the United States and Japan.

The Japanese government, according to the Japan Daily Press, is leading the way with financial assistance to companies that develop low-cost robots to care for the elderly and offset the country’s deficit in nursing care workers – a shortage shared by countries like India and the United States.

In the U.S., John Williams, who coined the term “Assistive Technology” while working in the field for 33 years, says the medical profession recognizes that robots can have a major role in meeting healthcare labor shortages, but is reluctant to move wholesale into robotics; and some healthcare workers fear robots might take over their jobs.

During the weekend, a rehabilitation nurse teams up with a primary care physician using VGo from his home during the weekend to assess a patient’s recovery and discuss her progress. (Sharon T Simpson/VGo Communications)

During the weekend, a rehabilitation nurse teams up with a primary care physician using VGo from his home during the weekend to assess a patient’s recovery and discuss her progress. (Sharon T Simpson/VGo Communications)

Nevertheless, a “dozen to two dozen companies” are manufacturing robots in the U.S., said Williams, although they are unable to meet the growing need. One of them is VGo Communications, which produces a robot called the VGo, which is used in both homes and hospitals for post-operative care, elderly and pediatric care.

“Last I heard,” he said, “they had manufactured about 800 robots and … a number of them are used in hospitals.”

So, what exactly is a VGo?

Bernard Terry, VGo Communications’ Vice President of Sales, says the four-foot-high VGo robot, which has audio and video capabilities, is ideal for people who are seated, bed-ridden, or use wheelchairs.

The robot allows a person using a PC or laptop or tablet to be in two places at once. After logging in to a secure site, the person can access and manipulate a remote VGo anywhere in the world and send it to a given location. “The VGo,” says Terry, “is the device which is visiting on your behalf. It is your avatar.”

After a car accident, two physicians are providing practical and emotional support to a patient facing a long recovery. (VGo Communications)

After a car accident, two physicians are providing practical and emotional support to a patient facing a long recovery. (VGo Communications)

So to visit a patient at a remote location, Terry would use a VGo to be “virtually” on the scene without making the trip himself. “If I am inspecting a wound or if I …  [want] to back up a little to see the range of motion, or if I want to move in a little closer … to see the wound, I can do that all the time in a remote control situation,” he said.

Williams, who took a VGo for a test drive, had the device tour a conference room and talk to people. “I could see everything that was happening,” he said. “And I could talk to the person. And the person could hear me and I could hear them.”

“At one point,” said Williams, “I stopped controlling it and I turned it over to the manufacturer who was about 400 miles away. And he could control it also.”

Up to six people can manipulate the same robot. “You can have somebody in China control the robot, let’s say – in Washington, DC,” added Williams.

Several VGo robots are in use in Asia and Greece. One “is on a remote island off the coast of Australia – 1,000 miles out to sea,” said Terry, where the VGo “acts as the entire clinical team.”

That allows the doctor to come in person once a month and use the VGO to connect with his patient the rest of the time to provide clinical and practical support, such as how to use certain devices, and emotional support if a patient is anxious or in pain.

What’s the cost?

Cost is a factor, cautions Williams. He recommends assessing patients’ needs before buying a robot, and learning how to operate it and accept it “as an equal.”

But for the VGo technology, Terry says the unit used to cost between $75,000-120,000, but now hovers around the $6,000 mark.

VGo is not the only robot in town. Others include Toyota’s Partner Robot, and El-E – the Elevated Engagement robot developed at Georgia Tech’s Center for Healthcare Robotics in Atlanta. And Williams envisions a day when robots will be just another appliance in the smart homes of the future.

Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

Tech Sightings, January 9, 2014

Posted January 9th, 2014 at 4:11 pm (UTC-4)
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The Digital Divide isn’t Racial – it’s Economic

A new study by the Pew Internet & American Life Project finds there’s no difference in Internet usage between whites and African Americans at the same income level, although college education appears to reduce the gap for people under 50.

Best of CES 2014

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Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

Tech Sightings, January 8, 2014

Posted January 8th, 2014 at 2:30 pm (UTC-4)
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2014: The Year Connected TVs Go Simple

Sony, LG, Hisense, and TCL enjoyed the CES spotlight for a deceptive innovation in TVs: Keep them simple, stupid. This may be the year Internet-connected TVs come into their own, but is that enough?

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SingTel Unveils Prepaid Facebook Mobile Plan

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Chinese E-Commerce Giant Alibaba to Ban Bitcoins on Its Sites

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Android Heads to Desktops as Reliance on Internet Grows

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Intel Promises All Chips Will Be Conflict Free

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Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

Tech Sightings, January 7, 2014

Posted January 7th, 2014 at 3:29 pm (UTC-4)
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These Gamers are Raising Money for Charity at Mind-Blowing Speed

Awesome Games Done Quick, the biggest speedrunning event of the year, kicked off Sunday at noon. It’s a unique spectacle in eSports, and not just because speedrunning is a bit of a niche phenomenon. Instead of cash prizes, the competition raises money for charity every year. And this year will smash the record  for giving.

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World’s Second Bitcoin ATM to Open in Hong Kong

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CES 2014: Intel Stresses Need for ‘Natural’ Computing with RealSense

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China Suspends Ban on Video Game Consoles After More than a Decade

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Apple’s Next China Move: An official Store on Alibaba’s Tmall

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Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

Is There a Future for Decentralized Digital Currency?

Posted January 3rd, 2014 at 3:53 pm (UTC-4)
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Signs on window advertise a bitcoin ATM machine in a Waves Coffee House in Vancouver, British Columbia , Canada, Oct. 28, 2013. (Reuters)

Signs on window advertise a bitcoin ATM machine that has been installed in a Waves Coffee House in Vancouver, British Columbia , Canada, Oct. 28, 2013. (Reuters)

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you probably heard some of the recent fuss surrounding Bitcoin – with some saying it is too volatile for currency, or it’s a scam or a fad, while others insist it’s the future of currency.

For better or worse, the world’s first decentralized digital currency – meaning it does not need a bank or other intermediary to carry out transactions – is growing in popularity worldwide, particularly in India and China.

That it is not issued by a major financial institution is reason enough for some people to embrace it.

Its popularity in China in particular might be due to the fact that some in Asia were not aware of Bitcoin when it launched in 2009. But once they heard about it, they jumped in, creating “what would look like a big surge in popularity,” according to Jerry Brito, senior Research Fellow at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center.

Bitcoin may also provide a way for buyers to evade China’s capital controls controls and send their bitcoins overseas to then convert into another currency before putting them in a bank.

“There’s no Bitcoin company. There’s no Bitcoin building. There’s no Bitcoin server,” said Brito. “It is completely decentralized. It is a peer-to-peer network. So there’s no one person, no one company that controls it.”

Centralized digital currencies are issued by companies or institutions that decide how much money to create and whether they want to inflate it. “They are a central bank. And … using dollars, you buy that currency and then you can use it to trade with other people,” said Brito.

Bitcoin is “a giant ledger where all kinds of actions are reconciled,” said Brito. The public ledger, which is distributed on the networks among all users, keeps record of all transactions.

That is a concern for critics who say Bitcoin is a haven that crooks and drug dealers could use to transact without having to go through financial intermediaries.

But Bitcoin’s biggest problem is its volatility, which raises doubts about its future as currency. Brito says the reason is that it is a “very illiquid market,” with very few people doing transactions.

“As a result, any sufficiently large transaction can send the price moving quite a bit,” he said, although the price should stabilize as more people adopt Bitcoin.

Digital currency clearly has some advantages, particularly for countries with high inflation. “If we ever see a country’s people begin to use a cryptocurrency over their national currency, I imagine it will be in such a situation,” Brito said.

But he dismisses the notion that digital currencies could threaten the currencies of major industrialized countries. “I can buy euros with dollars or yens with euros, and the price for each of these different currencies fluctuates in the market, depending on supply and demand,” he said. “You will see the same thing with digital currencies.”

And the two will co-exist for some time as more businesses warm up to Bitcon transactions. In time, Bitcoin could become the means for people with no credit cards or centralized digital currency to make digital payments.

Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

Tech Sightings, January 2, 2014

Posted January 2nd, 2014 at 2:30 pm (UTC-4)
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Mobile is the Future of Payments — Here’s How Much Runway There is for Growth

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Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

Tech Sightings, January 1, 2014

Posted January 1st, 2014 at 4:58 pm (UTC-4)
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How Mobile Technology is Changing Medicine As We Know it

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The Bumpy Road Ahead for Android Tablets in 2014

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Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

Tech Sightings, December 31, 2013

Posted December 31st, 2013 at 4:27 pm (UTC-4)
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How to Get the Most Battery Life from your Android Device

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How Technology Can Halt Climate Change

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Social Media as a Megaphone to Pressure the Food Industry

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India’s Aircel Goes 4G with China’s ZTE

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SD Cards Hacked

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Can Apple Teach China about Quality?

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Facebook Dominates in US Rush to Social Networking

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Students Create 3D Grass Printer

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Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

Game Changers: Playing for a Better World

Posted December 27th, 2013 at 2:30 pm (UTC-4)
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Gamers have heard it all before: games are a waste of time! They are bad for your health. They promote violence, etc., etc. But the fact is some are also catalysts for positive change. And that’s exactly what Games for Change is about.

Games for Change is a non-profit hub that promotes video games as tools for social good, learning and behavior modification. It works with partners and donors to produce projects like Facebook’s Half the Sky Movement: The Game, a spin-off of the movement by the same name inspired by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn‘s best-selling book Half the Sky. Around it were created several games and a TV series.

Radhika talks to her husband in this Facebook screenshot of  Half the Sky Movement: The Game (courtesy: Games for Change)

Radhika talks to her husband in this Facebook screenshot of Half the Sky Movement: The Game. (Courtesy: Games for Change)

“It tells the story of an Indian woman. Her name is Radhika and … she fights with her husband about the right to take care of her girl that is sick,” said Games for Change President Asi Burak. “And he’s telling her, ‘look we have no money to do that.’ And then she basically … starts her own business and … starts to really, you know, fight for herself. And over time she becomes so powerful that she helps others.”

It is a story of empowerment Burak tells TECHtonics. The game raises awareness and motivates people to take action or make donations to help others. So when Radhika collects books for her kids’ school, for example, the player can give books in the real world or, when he/she has enough game points, “we tell you that now because of what you did, Johnson & Johnson is going to give a surgery to a woman in need,” he said.

The game initially targeted the United States. But Games for Change soon started seeing “a lot of people playing from Egypt; and one of our biggest cities is Cairo, and from Turkey, you know Istanbul,” Burak said. “So it kind of matches the people that … are very active on social networks.”

That includes women around 25 years old, who make up a quarter to a third of the players.

Nine Minutes sums up the 9-month pregnancy cycle in nine minutes for pregnant women and their spouses (courtesy: Games for Change)

Nine Minutes sums up the 9-month pregnancy cycle in nine minutes for pregnant women and their spouses. (Courtesy: Games for Change)

Taking that momentum further, Games for Change journeyed to India and East Asia to get a first-hand look at the problems people face and came back with ideas for three games for low-end phones. These ideas were not only developed because of the needs of people on the ground, but were “tested with them, and they helped us to write the script,” said Burak. “It was a very, very tight collaboration because at the end of the day they are the experts.”

The first fruit of their labor was Nine Minutes – a game that puts pregnant women, or women that want to be pregnant, and their spouses through the 9-month cycle of pregnancy in nine minutes. It is “almost like dos and don’ts of what you should pay attention to,” said Burak.

For the second game – Worm Attack, which helps kids aged 7-12 understand intestinal worms and how to use medicine to treat them – Games for Change partnered with Deworm the World, the organization “giving the pill to millions of kids in both India and Kenya,” Burak said.

Family Choices follows a girl as she grows up and faces choices on early marriage, education and the like. (Courtesy: Games for Change)

Family Choices follows a girl as she grows up and faces choices on early marriage, education and the like. (Courtesy: Games for Change)

The third – Family Choices – a game about the choices a girl faces as she grows up, from early marriage to education – shows players “that those decisions are far from being easy and straightforward,” Burak explained.

Games for Change is partnering with film producers Show of Force to lead a new USAID-funded phase of the Half the Sky Facebook project. The project aims to translate and adapt to Hindi and Swahili both the game and the TV series. The group will also work with marketing companies and local NGOs to distribute the older components in India and Kenya. That will give Games for Change the opportunity for a “real evaluation of the impact and … what happens when a large population is seeing all the components together,” said Burak. “Is it really making a difference?”

Games for Change will have the opportunity to assess its impact. The new project gives it continuity that has been missing from previous endeavors – one-time projects that go out “in the world and you are never able to continue,” as Burak puts it.

Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

Tech Sightings, December 26, 2013

Posted December 26th, 2013 at 2:30 pm (UTC-4)
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China Approves Pilot to Open Mobile Telecoms Market, Boost Competition

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From Twitter to Tinder: Social Media’s Biggest Hits and Misses of 2013

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Reserve Bank of India Cautions Users on Risks Associated with Virtual Currencies Like Bitcoin

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Don’t Blame Social Media if Your Teen is Unsocial. It’s Your Fault

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Teens in the UK Are Calling it: Facebook is Dead and Buried

This year marked the start of teenagers adopting other social networks instead of Facebook as their parents signed up for Zuckerberg’s site in droves. In a European Union-funded study on social media, the Department of Anthropology at University College London is running ethnographic studies in seven countries to find out how teens were perceiving Facebook.

What Japanese Game Developers Resolve for 2014

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How to Mind Your Digital Manners in the New Year

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 Are Samsung Smartphones Seriously Vulnerable to Security?

 A researcher at Israel’s  Ben-Gurion University’s Cyber Lab alleged that a critical security vulnerability was discovered earlier this month, which would allow outsiders to breach the smartphone’s security and access supposedly secure user data. Samsung announced that similar allegations have been made before, and that the problem is not as serious as the researcher claims.

Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.