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How a Smarter Toilet Could Save Millions of Lives a Year

1.5 million children die each year from preventable diseases arising from poor sanitation systems. That's why some of the world's top scientists are working to make a 21st-century toilet without links to water, energy, or sewer lines, and which costs users under $0.05 a day.

Philip Eckhoff: So one of the great things that I love about what I do is we get to take on some of the biggest challenges in global health and global development. And one of those challenges is water sanitation and hygiene. Everybody needs clean water and, you know, to quote the book, everybody poops. And dealing with this in a clean and sanitary way is really important for quality of life, and it’s also really important for health and getting rid of certain diseases that are transmitted.

And one of the biggest challenges over the last couple of years, a really fun technological challenge has been the Reinvent the Toilet Project. The basic theme of this was looking at are there new solutions, twenty-first century solutions to sanitation--Echoing what we saw in telephone and communication systems where a lot of countries completely skipped over building a big network of landlines and traditional phones and went straight to cell phones. The question was, could we come up with the equivalent technology that would jump over building out sewer networks and giant expensive water treatment plants and jump immediately to non-network sanitation?

And it turns out that new approaches are possible using mechanical engineering and chemical engineering approaches. There is actually a lot of free energy in the waste that can be used to process itself if the machine to do it is designed correctly. And you can actually do this is a fairly cost effective way. 

So the Reinvent the Toilet challenge was kicked off about five years ago in order to get universities, different companies, design firms and so on to actually think about this and put twenty-first century innovation applied to the problem of human sanitation. And it’s been remarkably cool and successful so far to see the different approaches that have come up. 

There was one team of a lot of Hertz Fellows that started working on figuring out new ways to use pyrolysis and other approaches for using electrolysis for drying and combusting. One group is running a steam engine off of human waste as an input stream. And where a community would used to have ten tons of waste a day now all of a sudden it runs a steam engine that generates 150 kilowatts of electricity and puts out 10,000 to 20,000 liters a day of potable water. 

So this is just really exciting to see what innovation can do, what new technologies can do, and actually taking on some of these really big challenges and saying, "What would be a really definitive technological solution to this that actually solves the problem in a way that we would never have imagined trying 25 or 30 years ago?"

 

In 2011, a research team featuring several Hertz Foundation Fellows received a grant to participate in the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s ‘Reinvent the Toilet Challenge’. To bring sustainable sanitation to the 2.5 billion people globally who don’t have access to safe toilets, which leads to millions of deaths each year from highly preventable diseases, this team developed a self-powered combustion toilet that transforms feces into biological charcoal (biochar), clean water, and minerals. With the support of the Fannie and John Hertz Foundation, epidemiologist Philip Eckhoff pursued a PhD in applied and computational mathematics at Princeton University, receiving his degree in 2009.


The Hertz Foundation mission is to provide unique financial and fellowship support to the nation's most remarkable PhD students in the hard sciences. Hertz Fellowships are among the most prestigious in the world, and the foundation has invested over $200 million in Hertz Fellows since 1963 (present value) and supported over 1,100 brilliant and creative young scientists, who have gone on to become Nobel laureates, high-ranking military personnel, astronauts, inventors, Silicon Valley leaders, and tenured university professors. For more information, visit hertzfoundation.org.

Does conscious AI deserve rights?

If machines develop consciousness, or if we manage to give it to them, the human-robot dynamic will forever be different.

Videos
  • Does AI—and, more specifically, conscious AI—deserve moral rights? In this thought exploration, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, ethics and tech professor Joanna Bryson, philosopher and cognitive scientist Susan Schneider, physicist Max Tegmark, philosopher Peter Singer, and bioethicist Glenn Cohen all weigh in on the question of AI rights.
  • Given the grave tragedy of slavery throughout human history, philosophers and technologists must answer this question ahead of technological development to avoid humanity creating a slave class of conscious beings.
  • One potential safeguard against that? Regulation. Once we define the context in which AI requires rights, the simplest solution may be to not build that thing.

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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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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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.

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