Tech Giants Are Moving Into Healthcare

Marcia Frellick

May 14, 2021

Advances in medicine and communications are happening so fast that soon a daughter will receive an alert when her mother's activities show hints of future Alzheimer's disease. A smartphone will be able to synthesize a person's data on blood pressure, sleep patterns, and oxygen levels and send information to a designated physician when a pattern of concern emerges.

With NextG technology, patients will own that information, can choose who to share it with, and systems will be resilient to interruptions, outside threats, and system failures.

To get there, the US National Science Foundation is partnering with two federal departments and nine private connectivity giants — US Department of Defense, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, Apple, Ericsson, Google, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Nokia, Qualcomm Technologies, and VMWare — to award $40 million in grants to the researchers with the most promising ideas for transforming the way information is communicated.

The program is called RINGS or Resilient & Intelligent NextG Systems. Medicine is one of the sectors — along with education, transportation, public safety and defense, and others — that will benefit from the winning ideas. RINGS is setting up to fund 40 ideas at $1 million each over 3 years. Full proposals are due by July 29.

Million-Dollar Ideas

The National Science Foundation is seeking to dramatically reduce the time it takes for progress to happen. Typically, researchers apply for federal grants and some get funding and publish; industry eventually takes notice and buys up the successful technology.

Thyagarajan Nandagopal

It used to take 20 years for research to go from concept to practice," Thyagarajan Nandagopal, PhD, acting deputy director of the National Science Foundation Division of Computer and Network Systems, tells Medscape Medical News.

The hope is that with partners invested up front, buyers will already be in place, eager to get results and ready to launch the winning technology.

"The researchers don't have to go sell these ideas to the companies," Nandagopal explains.

NextG will come after 5G, but experts have purposely avoided calling it 6G because it might end up being completely different from the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth platforms we see today, not just an updated version, he says.

"The space is changing," he points out, "and we anticipate more interest in things to come that may not be the traditional networks that we know of today."

NextG, Not 6G

Critical in the next iteration is that devices monitor patients 24/7 and patients can control their data and choose who to share it with. Physicians or loved ones designated to receive certain data can set up filters so that they only receive information when blood pressure levels in the patient being monitored pass a specified mark, for instance.

Phones will act as agents and fuse the data received from insulin pumps, heart monitors, and smartwatches instead of tracking those functions individually. But to preserve privacy, that fusion will happen on the patient's smartphone — the base station — and the information will not travel "to the Amazons, the Apples, and the Googles," Nandagopal says.

This is your data. You own it and your device takes care of this.

"This is your data. You own it and your device takes care of this," he explains. "That level of smartness doesn't exist today; that's something that we hope we can enable with this kind of research."

NextG resilient connectivity is vital as people will increasingly be wearing embedded monitors or activation devices.

The way it looks now, "unless all of the data is owned by one entity, you don't have a good picture of what is going on," he says.

Voice assistants — evolved versions of Alexa and Siri — will be incorporated into medical information. Relatives could receive information that an elderly person has increasingly been using functions on their devices to help them locate their keys, for instance, or are asking the same questions repeatedly of the voice assistant.

Personal devices will be able to compare the information to patterns from people asking similar questions and be able to identify the beginnings of cognitive decline.

Early research shows that the type of search you do on Google can predict signs of dementia 3 to 4 years in advance, Nandagopal says.

"We're going to see an increasing integration of technology into our bodies, not to mention using these technologies in our homes. We will have devices that monitor our sleeping to look for apnea, monitor the elderly for risk of falls."

NextG technology must also have a safety and reliability level not yet seen, he says, and be resilient to hackers.

With new technology providing 24-hour monitoring, older adults will more easily be able to live in the environment they choose, and relatives who live elsewhere will be assured that their health and safety are being monitored.

But that peace of mind evaporates if a system goes down for even 5 minutes, Nandagopal says.

Marcia Frellick is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. She has previously written for the Chicago Tribune, Science News, and, and was an editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, the Cincinnati Enquirer, and the St. Cloud (Minnesota) Times. Follow her on Twitter at @mfrellick .

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