Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Health technology: Mobile phones sniff out terrorists

Fellow Justmeans.com blogger Alisa Ulfert discusses a way to “sniff out” asthma using an electronic nose that a person would breath into. On a more portable and personal level, cell phones are increasingly being used to transmit health information, such as child health tips, health reminders, or gather health data, such as how far someone walks during the day and how many social contacts they have. So what would happen if you could combine all of those features?

Apparently the US Department of Homeland Security has been pondering just that. They’ve developed an interesting, if somewhat spooky, chip that could turn a smart phone into an environmental sniffer. Actually a nose that’s so sophisticated, it transforms your mobile phone into a portable “weapons-of-mass-destruction-detector.” No joke, here’s how it works.

If a user chose to enable the service, a smart phone app would run constantly, sampling the air at predetermined intervals for dangerous chemicals. When a dangerous substance was detected two things would happen, the user would be alerted, and a call message would automatically be sent to a government monitoring station. If a single warning went out, its likely to be a false-positive, but if fifty alerts went out from the same place, it would indicate the need to investigate.

A consortium has brought together government and private expertise, and expects to have prototype phones available in about a year. Qualcomm is lending it miniaturization and marketing skills, while NASA engineers are working to perfect chemical sensing on a platform that sips very little electricity. Rhevision, meanwhile, is perfecting a tiny silicon nose that does the actual sniffing. Other interested partners are cell phone makers Apple, LG, and Samsung.

Does this type of technology set you at ease, or do you find it scary? Would you enable your tiny silicon nose to go sniffing for Uncle Sam if you had the choice? Let us know!

Photo credit: Ano Lobb

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