Full speed ahead

How lightning-fast internet helps
innovators make the world a better place

In 2001, a 68-year-old woman in France needed her gallbladder removed. It was a routine procedure, except her doctor was in New York directing a robot to perform the surgery. It was the first transatlantic telesurgery ever performed and relied on the most expensive fiber optic connection to ensure success.

It worked, and the patient recovered without complications. Two days later, she was able to go home and resume her life without pain.

The progress of telesurgery stalled, however, as delayed feedback and inadequate bandwidth connections prevented widespread acceptance of the idea of robots performing surgery on humans. (Social and legal barriers stood in the way too—would humans willingly go under a robot's knife, even if the hospital and their insurance would allow it?)

Over the next decade, though, the increasing speed and reliability of the internet opened new doors for telesurgery and its potential to save lives.

Medicine is only one of many industries that have been revolutionized by blazing-fast internet. Technological advancements in farming are getting food to the hungry, improving livelihoods and decreasing poverty. New technology that tracks natural disaster zones is providing more effective relief for people whose lives and homes have been destroyed. And it all relies on speed.

Medicine

The doctor will teleoperate now

Experts cite numerous benefits of telesurgery (where a doctor controls a robot from a console). Robots can be more precise, and are able to make very small incisions, so recovery time tends to be shorter. Perhaps most important, though, is that a patient might need a life-saving operation and the best surgeon for the job is located somewhere else.

In 2015, researchers at the Florida Hospital Nicholson Center set out to determine the exact network “lag time,” or latency, that was safe for the patient, and the allowable distance between doctor and robot for lag time to remain insignificant. “We wanted to see if the networks were good enough today to do it,” said Dr. Roger Smith, the center’s chief technology officer.

More than 3 million

patients worldwide have undergone minimally invasive surgeries with the da Vinci system, a robotic surgery system.

In 2015, researchers at the Florida Hospital Nicholson Center set out to determine the exact network “lag time,” or latency, that was safe for the patient, and the allowable distance between doctor and robot for lag time to remain insignificant. “We wanted to see if the networks were good enough today to do it,” said Dr. Roger Smith, the center’s chief technology officer.

Thanks to today’s internet speed, telesurgery is both possible and generally safe within the U.S.

ClickTap the dots to suture the incision.

Success!

Your patient is enjoying a speedy recovery!

They started small, and conducted trials between two hospitals in the same city. Dr. Smith and his colleagues found the connection was fast enough to ensure a doctor would feel no lag between his or her movements at the console and those of the robot. Next, they tested across Florida, and eventually between two states. Latency was indeed higher the further the distance between the doctor and robot, but by a miniscule amount, and the operation was still considered safe. “[Across state lines], a surgeon wouldn’t be able to tell a lag was happening,” Dr. Smith said.

So the researchers ultimately concluded that, thanks to today’s internet speed, telesurgery is both possible and generally safe within the U.S. when performed between hospitals with fast, private networks.

Whether transatlantic surgeries (like that first operation in 2001) will become common and affordable in the near future remains to be seen. Dr. Smith calls it a “long-term goal” to figure out how to treat patients in places lacking access, but says social and legal hurdles stand in the way more than technological ones. Would a boom in telesurgeries between countries cause a new type of medical tourism, for example? If something goes wrong, which “side” is liable? The technology is lightning-fast, but answering those questions could take a bit more time.

Precision Agriculture

Race to the crop

The world’s population is expected to reach 9.8 billion by 2050 (up from 7.8 billion today), and the United Nations estimates we’ll need to double agricultural output by that time to feed everyone.

Half of the expected population growth will occur in Africa, where a majority of people rely directly on farming for food and their livelihood. This means there’s a dire need to increase food productivity across the continent, and luckily, technology holds part of the solution.

Five years ago, Dr. Ndubuisi Ekekwe traveled to his home village in Ovim, Nigeria, to figure out why local women were having trouble growing rice and corn on their farms. He concluded they didn’t have enough information about what their crops needed.

“Farmers were just doing what I call guesswork,” Ekekwe said. “When they do guesswork there is no correlation between what the soil needs and what their farming practices deliver.”

Of course, farming has relied on educated guesswork for centuries. But the Internet of Things and big data have made possible a style of farming known as precision agriculture (or precision farming) which eliminates the guessing.

If we can double the yield across the continent, we can effectively reduce poverty.

– Dr. Ndubuisi Ekekwe

The method was already a common practice on large-scale farms across the United States and Europe, but the technology had not yet made it to Africa.

So, Ekekwe built his own “smart farm” system known as Zenvus. To use the tool, farmers place several small solar-powered probes into the soil across their farms. The sensors collect information on sunlight, humidity, moisture, soil temperature and pH in real time.

More than 55%

of Africa’s population works
in farming.

The method was already a common practice on large-scale farms across the United States and Europe, but the technology had not yet made it to Africa.

So, Ekekwe built his own “smart farm” system known as Zenvus. To use the tool, farmers place several small solar-powered probes into the soil across their farms. The sensors collect information on sunlight, humidity, moisture, soil temperature and pH in real time.

The data is then immediately fed to the cloud, where it’s analyzed by the Zenvus system algorithms. Farmers log into the website, either through their mobile phone or computer, and have rapid access to an analysis of the health of their farms, as well as readouts alerting them to issues like pests and drought in their fields.

The speed with which information is delivered has effectively allowed people to double their productivity, Ekekwe explained. This technology has the potential to help reduce hunger across the continent in the face of rapid population growth.

“More than 55 percent of the population in Africa works in farming,” Ekekwe said. “So if we can double the yield across the continent, we can effectively reduce poverty.”

Data Science

The very first responders

When disaster strikes, every millisecond counts.

Dr. Linus Bengtsson was studying the catastrophic impact of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti when he recognized a problem common to natural disaster zones. When it comes to relief efforts, no one knows for certain what to send and where to send it.

“The response available is always less than the need, so the question becomes: Where should we most efficiently put our resources, and also how should we know the needs?” Bengtsson said. “You try to go to the places where you know people are, and you ask them about their needs. Do they need blankets? Do they need pots to cook in? Do they need food?”

And with large numbers of people rapidly moving into and out of affected areas, the answers to those questions change by the minute.

An estimated 2.8 million

people were displaced by the 2015 earthquake in Nepal.

“The response available is always less than the need, so the question becomes where should we most efficiently put our resources, and also how should we know the needs?” Bengtsson said. “You try to go to the places where you know people are, and you ask them about their needs. Do they need blankets? Do they need pots to cook in? Do they need food?”

And with large numbers of people rapidly moving into and out of affected areas, the answers to those questions change by the minute.

Nepal Earthquake 2015

In the days following the Nepal earthquake in 2015, Flowminder used mobile device data to track where displaced people were moving.

Teal bubbles indicate an increased number of people coming into certain areas.

Flowminder used the real-time data to dispatch relief workers on the ground.

Bengtsson, who has a background in public health, wondered if there was some sort of data set that could crack the equation. He realized that by culling data from mobile phones, he could determine where displaced populations were migrating to in real-time and cater the disaster response accordingly.

He flew down to Haiti and started negotiating with the local phone providers, who agreed to give him access to anonymized data from their networks that would allow him to track where phones (and the people holding them) were moving.

Bengtsson joined with data scientists, economists and engineers to form the nonprofit Flowminder, which aims to use big data to support public health and development in low and middle-income countries.

"Data transmission reliability and speed are of the essence with technologies like Flowminder, that provide digital humanitarian response,” said Lillian Pierson, chief executive officer of a data science consultancy called Data-Mania, LLC. “Since many of these technologies are now producing near real-time situational awareness based on streaming data sources, they are, in most cases, totally dependent on reliable internet infrastructure (or SMS data streams, at the very least).”

When it comes to relief efforts, no one knows for certain what to send and where to send it.

In 2015, a devastating earthquake hit Nepal. Half a million buildings were destroyed and more than a million people were displaced.

Flowminder had previously identified the potential for disaster so it had leads on mobile phone providers in advance, and was able to study and analyze how and where people were moving—even as they were moving.

“We are processing very big data, “ Bengtsson said. “But the type of information relief workers need on the ground is actually very simple.”

Flowminder’s analysis in the days following the quake showed large numbers of people moving into under-developed regions that never could have supported or fed them. So it was all hands on deck, as key relief agencies used the data to immediately send emergency aid, supplies and food. Without the information, countless people could have been without the basics they needed to survive.

In this dire situation, it was speed to the rescue. Rapid connection isn’t only making life easier, it’s making the world a better place and helping people survive, thrive and embrace the future.