Imagine a setting in which 80 students who are the leading thinkers from 35 countries gather together to work on solving the world’s most challenging problems. Participants are chosen from thousands of applicants through an extremely rigorous application process. Students work together and live together, making for an intense around-the-clock discussion of exactly how to improve humanity using technology. Situated at NASA Ames Research Park in Silicon Valley, Singularity University (SU)has made this vision into a reality, by creating a unique international, interdisciplinary graduate studies program. For 10 weeks, individuals from all over the world strive to understand cross-disciplinary technologies in different tracks ranging from nanotechnology and medicine to entrepreneurship and space science. After doing a thorough study of what has been done and what is in the works in each field, students assemble into teams. Working together, teams produce tangible solutions to global problems in the forms of companies, research programs, or NGOs, realizing the mission of the University, which is to “assemble, educate, and inspire leaders…in order to address humanity’s Grand Challenges.”
I was fortunate enough to be invited to attend SU’s Global Health Challenge Panel. The morning curriculum consisted of two panels, the first focusing on current challenges in global health and the second discussing how technology plays a role in global health surveillance. Panelists included Larry Brilliant, founder of Seva and President of Skoll Global Threats Fund; Eric Rasmussen, VP for humanitarian systems at Access Agility; Stanford Visiting Professor Nathan Wolfe, Director of Global Viral Forecasting Initiative; Dr. Helen Lee, Associate Professor of Medical Biotechnology at the University of Cambridge; and others.
In response to the question, “What are the greatest global health challenges existing today?”, the first panel covered a variety of topics, such as population growth in the slums, climate change, and cultural barriers to healthcare delivery; all the panelists agreed with Dr. Brilliant’s one-liner summary answer of “Getting shit done.” Each individual then spoke about global health challenges in the context of his or her work.
Dr. Brilliant brought up an interesting concept about the necessary and sufficient factors playing into the success of global health initiatives, using the eradication of polio as an example. “Necessary” describes a condition that must be satisfied in order for the desired outcome to be achieved, in this case, elimination of the disease. “Sufficient” describes a condition that if satisfied, guarantees the desired outcome. The invention of the polio vaccine was therefore necessary but not sufficient; without the polio vaccine, eradication is not possible, but having the polio vaccine alone does guarantee success. Similarly, finding an appropriate mode of vaccine transportation across different climates and terrains, creation of a small bifurcated needle that rural villagers could easily use, and development of a surveillance containment system were all examples of necessary but not sufficient breakthroughs. Using polio eradication, Dr. Brilliant showcased the scientific, logistic, and epidemiologic hurdles that were all necessary in their own right, but not sufficient until all the pieces of the puzzle were brought together.
As another example, Dr. Helen Lee explained her point of care diagnostic tests for Chlamydia using a vaginal swab from women or urine sample from men. The concept seemed simple; Dr. Lee wanted to throw a big party where participants gave their samples at the beginning of the festivities and received the results at the end. The envelope containing the results either had a negative test result and a fact sheet about safe sexual practices or a positive test result and an antibiotic azithromycin pill in addition to the facts. The problem was implementation though. For cultural and religious reasons, individuals did not want to participate due to the stigmatization of sexually transmitted diseases. So even when the technology is available, other factors beyond scientists’ control will still hinder the success of the public health endeavor.
The second panel focused on using modern technology as health surveillance tools. Healthmap is a 501(c)(3) organization in Palo Alto that collects and organizes web data for health safety and development. Everyday, every hour, Healthmap mines data from 50,000 sites in 9 different languages, extracting key words, locations, and disease trends. Another device in development is “Asthmapolis” for non-communicable diseases, an increasing threat in global health. This project focuses on installing GPS trackers in inhalers to monitor the locations of flare-ups and possible inducers of attacks. Of course, these adaptations of technology for health purposes beg the contemplation of privacy issues. Who owns the right to the information surrounding one’s health? How can you balance the aggregation and anonymization of health data while preserving the targeted surveillance methods specific enough to respond quickly to health threats? These questions still remain to be answered. The penetration of mobile phones in developing countries was another topic of discussion, as SMS text messaging is a cheap alternative to office visits and paper mail when delivering test results in more remote settings. Again, the issues of patient confidentiality were highlighted, although having a password-protected text message is a possible solution. Another hurdle for the SMS texting system is the difficulty of obtaining monthly data plans for the bottom level of the population.
All in all, it was an interesting day at Singularity University, which I had not heard of before my visit. The global health panel introduced me to new issues in global health, and it was inspiring to listen to the students’ questions and debates surrounding new technologies with one another over lunch. It was clear to me that this place is a gathering for individuals truly passionate about making a change in the world. As Larry Page, founder of Google and partner of Singularity University, states on the SU website, “If I was a student, this is where I would want to be.”