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The genius behind creating things too impractical to buy

How do companies keep getting you to buy the "latest and greatest" iteration of the product you already own? By testing the boundaries.

David Eagleman: The future is very hard to see—where the world is going. And most ideas die. And even really good ideas don’t last.

So just as an example, if you look at the Blackberry phone market share you’ll see that they were doing really well for a while and then they just tanked out. Why? Because they had a good idea, which was the physical keyboard on the phone, but that didn’t last. They held onto a good idea a little bit too long.

And this is something that creative companies need to be aware of all the time, is this constant updating. In other words they’ve got some great thing that’s working but it’s not going to last and they need to keep updated.

And this is why companies put out their “new and improved” models all the time.

We’re now on the iPhone 10 and it’s going to keep going because you can’t put out something great and then say, “all right, I think we’re done.” So the challenge for companies is that it’s hard to know what’s going to stick. And this is because if you do something that’s too close to what you’ve done before, your audience will be bored. If you do something that’s too wacky, then no one’s going to follow you there.

And so companies need to figure out how to feel out the border of the possible. And this is something that good companies work on all the time. The solution is to proliferate options. The solution is to put out lots of options, and those options should actually be at different distances from community standards.

Just as an example, fashion designers do this all the time. They have their next model of clothing and it’s great, it’s pretty similar to what came before. And they do wackier and wackier stuff all the way out to haute couture, where it’s not actually intended that anyone is going to wear this wacky outfit but it’s a way of “feeling out” the border of the possible. In the same way car designers do this.

So Mercedes Benz is constantly upgrading and updating its sedans. But they also like all car companies make these concept cars that are completely wacky.

So Mercedes recently put out this thing called the “biome concept car” which is the idea of a car that is grown from seeds and the fuel runs through the car body, and the tires and everything is powered by the electric, by the solar panel sunroof at the top, and the whole thing is biodegradable. Now Mercedes has no plans to actually build the biome concept car. It only lives on the computer.

But this is a way of taking a throw into the far distance to figure out what’s on the distant horizon, to figure out if you can move in that direction or not.

And all good companies have ways of doing that. Fisher Price is constantly updating its strollers and toys or whatever. But it has also this future of parenting line where they think about the impact of technology on childrearing of the future with very wacky things and projected images all around for your child and so on.

So even a company like Lowes—they sell tools and so on. That’s the standard stuff. But they have this essentially a “holodeck” where you step in and you get to design your room and so on. You put on these VR glasses and you get to see everything before you buy it. They call this the “marriage saver.” And this is what companies, good companies try to do is cover that spectrum, so they can figure out exactly what’s going to work to pull them into the future.

Do you really need another iPhone? Not really, but there's going to be another one anyway. That's because companies, as neuroscientist David Eagleman put it, "need to figure out how to feel out the border of the possible." It's a remarkable way to get you to buy more, and it works across the purchasing spectrum from cars to phones to houses. David's latest book: The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World.

A new hydrogel might be strong enough for knee replacements

Duke University researchers might have solved a half-century old problem.

Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • Duke University researchers created a hydrogel that appears to be as strong and flexible as human cartilage.
  • The blend of three polymers provides enough flexibility and durability to mimic the knee.
  • The next step is to test this hydrogel in sheep; human use can take at least three years.
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Predicting PTSD symptoms becomes possible with a new test

An algorithm may allow doctors to assess PTSD candidates for early intervention after traumatic ER visits.

Image source: camillo jimenez/Unsplash
Technology & Innovation
  • 10-15% of people visiting emergency rooms eventually develop symptoms of long-lasting PTSD.
  • Early treatment is available but there's been no way to tell who needs it.
  • Using clinical data already being collected, machine learning can identify who's at risk.

The psychological scars a traumatic experience can leave behind may have a more profound effect on a person than the original traumatic experience. Long after an acute emergency is resolved, victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) continue to suffer its consequences.

In the U.S. some 30 million patients are annually treated in emergency departments (EDs) for a range of traumatic injuries. Add to that urgent admissions to the ED with the onset of COVID-19 symptoms. Health experts predict that some 10 percent to 15 percent of these people will develop long-lasting PTSD within a year of the initial incident. While there are interventions that can help individuals avoid PTSD, there's been no reliable way to identify those most likely to need it.

That may now have changed. A multi-disciplinary team of researchers has developed a method for predicting who is most likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic emergency-room experience. Their study is published in the journal Nature Medicine.

70 data points and machine learning

nurse wrapping patient's arm

Image source: Creators Collective/Unsplash

Study lead author Katharina Schultebraucks of Columbia University's Department Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons says:

"For many trauma patients, the ED visit is often their sole contact with the health care system. The time immediately after a traumatic injury is a critical window for identifying people at risk for PTSD and arranging appropriate follow-up treatment. The earlier we can treat those at risk, the better the likely outcomes."

The new PTSD test uses machine learning and 70 clinical data points plus a clinical stress-level assessment to develop a PTSD score for an individual that identifies their risk of acquiring the condition.

Among the 70 data points are stress hormone levels, inflammatory signals, high blood pressure, and an anxiety-level assessment. Says Schultebraucks, "We selected measures that are routinely collected in the ED and logged in the electronic medical record, plus answers to a few short questions about the psychological stress response. The idea was to create a tool that would be universally available and would add little burden to ED personnel."

Researchers used data from adult trauma survivors in Atlanta, Georgia (377 individuals) and New York City (221 individuals) to test their system.

Of this cohort, 90 percent of those predicted to be at high risk developed long-lasting PTSD symptoms within a year of the initial traumatic event — just 5 percent of people who never developed PTSD symptoms had been erroneously identified as being at risk.

On the other side of the coin, 29 percent of individuals were 'false negatives," tagged by the algorithm as not being at risk of PTSD, but then developing symptoms.

Going forward

person leaning their head on another's shoulder

Image source: Külli Kittus/Unsplash

Schultebraucks looks forward to more testing as the researchers continue to refine their algorithm and to instill confidence in the approach among ED clinicians: "Because previous models for predicting PTSD risk have not been validated in independent samples like our model, they haven't been adopted in clinical practice." She expects that, "Testing and validation of our model in larger samples will be necessary for the algorithm to be ready-to-use in the general population."

"Currently only 7% of level-1 trauma centers routinely screen for PTSD," notes Schultebraucks. "We hope that the algorithm will provide ED clinicians with a rapid, automatic readout that they could use for discharge planning and the prevention of PTSD." She envisions the algorithm being implemented in the future as a feature of electronic medical records.

The researchers also plan to test their algorithm at predicting PTSD in people whose traumatic experiences come in the form of health events such as heart attacks and strokes, as opposed to visits to the emergency department.

Hints of the 4th dimension have been detected by physicists

What would it be like to experience the 4th dimension?

Two different experiments show hints of a 4th spatial dimension. Credit: Zilberberg Group / ETH Zürich
Technology & Innovation

Physicists have understood at least theoretically, that there may be higher dimensions, besides our normal three. The first clue came in 1905 when Einstein developed his theory of special relativity. Of course, by dimensions we’re talking about length, width, and height. Generally speaking, when we talk about a fourth dimension, it’s considered space-time. But here, physicists mean a spatial dimension beyond the normal three, not a parallel universe, as such dimensions are mistaken for in popular sci-fi shows.

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How often do vaccine trials hit paydirt?

Vaccines find more success in development than any other kind of drug, but have been relatively neglected in recent decades.

Pedro Vilela/Getty Images
Surprising Science

Vaccines are more likely to get through clinical trials than any other type of drug — but have been given relatively little pharmaceutical industry support during the last two decades, according to a new study by MIT scholars.

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