We’re still on the forefront of seeing what the blending of biology and technology might be able to do.

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Wearing a tech-enabled device that can track your daily steps or keep track of your heartbeat during workouts has become something many of us take for granted. But we’re still on the forefront of seeing what the blending of biology and technology might be able to do, according to Nicholas Becker, a Ph.D. student in electrical engineering at UW and a Global Innovation Exchange student.

Becker should know. He spent a year researching human-computer interaction, including how certain physiological signals can be trained as input from a user to a device, at Tsinghua University in China, one of the academic partners of the Global Innovation Exchange program.

With foundational support from Microsoft, the program, which welcomed its first cohort in September, offers two graduate tracks: a 15-month Master of Science in Technology Innovation degree from the University of Washington and a 21-month dual degree option, which combines the MSTI with a Master of Engineering in Data Science and Information Technology degree from Tsinghua University in China.

When Becker heard about the Anu and Naveen Jain Women’s Safety XPRIZE, created to incentivize the development of “transformative technologies that can increase women’s safety and empower communities,” Becker was inspired.

“Sometimes as researchers, you develop technologies for the sake of exploration and it was serendipitous that my research happened to align so perfectly with this call for technology from the XPRIZE,” he says.

Becker took his research and, along with an interdisciplinary research and development team made up of three MSTI (Master of Science in Technology Innovation) degree students at GIX and a Tsinghua University postdoc, began to develop a product that could trigger an alert, via an inconspicuous wearable device, if a person is in physical danger — even if that person is restrained — by monitoring physiological signals like breath patterns.

In November, the group was announced as one of 21 semifinalists. They’ll travel to Mumbai, India in April to compete for the million-dollar prize.

“I used to work in biomedical physics research,” says Becker, “so I have a very interdisciplinary background. And we have a very interdisciplinary program [at GIX]. We’ve found that when you’re able to match your understanding from, say, an electrical engineering and devices background with an understanding of biology, you can bring together specializations that breed more perspectives to truly innovate in meaningful ways.”

Nicholas Becker and his GIX team are developing a product that could trigger an alert, via an inconspicuous wearable device, if a person is in physical danger.
Nicholas Becker and his GIX team are developing a product that could trigger an alert, via an inconspicuous wearable device, if a person is in physical danger.

While one piece of technology might not solve a problem as deep-seated as violence against women — one in three women in the world face physical or sexual violence in their lifetimes — Becker says “technological innovation can be part of the positive change.”

The time is ripe for biology, machine learning and tech to come together beyond the basic FitBit step counters, says John Raiti, Ph.D., a senior research engineer and lecturer at GIX.

“We’re at a moment when we have this huge push of data to the cloud from smartphones and sensors have radically decreased in price — that’s all coming together to help allow the fusion of technology and biology and data in new and exciting ways,” says Raiti.

While there are more obvious medical applications for devices that can monitor the body, Raiti says he’s been pleasantly surprised by some of the more innovative ideas from his students this year. “These teams are all highly interdisciplinary, so you have people from law professions and others who are designers, others in computer science and some in engineering,” he says. “They really tap into those different experiences to find something they’re enthusiastic about and this adds to the diversity of student projects including areas such as biomedical, educational, fitness, agriculture, video games, and robotics.”

One such idea? Using biofeedback and a wearable device to help mitigate miscommunications.

Archisa Guharoy and Zoe Zou are members of the Women’s Safety XPRIZE team with Nicholas Becker.
Archisa Guharoy and Zoe Zou are members of the Women’s Safety XPRIZE team with Nicholas Becker.

Sean Ker, a dual-degree master’s student at GIX, is originally from Taiwan but learned English from American expatriate teachers in international schools. “Often, when my brother and my mother talk, he speaks to her quickly using complex vocabulary in English, a language she hasn’t yet mastered,” says Ker. “My mother sometimes mistakes this as arrogance, a blameless but impactful misunderstanding, and I was often a mediator between the two.”

Ker, along with his team at GIX, all of whom come from different cultural backgrounds, started to think about ways that the intent or emotion of what we say can be perceived differently depending on what language we speak or what our cultural norms are. “We wanted to investigate how we could leverage the technology we have today to start to objectively label and understand the ways we speak – a ‘Periodic Table’ for communication across cultures, if you will,” says Ker. “We have an ambitious goal to build a cultural library of the ways we communicate so we can promote acceptance and understanding of people from different backgrounds.”

Sean Ker’s GIX team is working on a “Periodic Table” for communication across cultures.
Sean Ker’s GIX team is working on a “Periodic Table” for communication across cultures.

While their potential product is still in very early research stages, Ker’s team is investigating the connections between communication and biological markers that can be analyzed through machine learning. “We’re trying to  extract objective features from speech using a microphone, but also subtle signals we may not commonly associate with communication. We started using two sensors – a heart rate sensor and a galvanic skin sensor – to detect patterns. In this way, we may be able to preemptively identify anxiety or depression from physiological changes in how you speak,” says Ker. “This could also be used to assist those with neurodevelopmental disorders who have a harder time understanding facial expressions, like having emotional hearing aids.”

One of Ker’s teammates, Ibtasam Sharif, sees the potential for technology like this to help ease even slight miscommunications. “Some people, when they get excited they talk more, and another person might interpret that as this person being overpowering. But if that other person can detect that in fact it’s just excitement, not them trying to be imposing, you can comprehend the intent behind what’s happening and keep someone from getting annoyed or put off unnecessarily,” he says.

Sharif, a computer scientist and entrepreneur who has worked in software and mobile gaming, says diving back into biology for this project, a subject he hasn’t studied properly since 2002, is opening his eyes to how much potential there is for crossover between his field and human physiology.

“I’m spending more and more time reading about how our human bodies work in general,” says Sharif. “For instance, did you know that every person’s heart size and the amount of blood flowing through the arteries and the amount the heart expands and contracts is unique to every person? That could be the future of authentication. Fingerprints and facial recognition can be fooled pretty easily, but a heartbeat authentication — that could be the future.”

Raiti, who has worked with Becker, Ker and Sharif through classes at GIX says he’s looking forward to see where this crossover brings his students next. “Sometimes the direction they take is totally surprising and they all really run with it — it’s exciting.”

Perspectives from two GIX students as they started the program last fall. (Provided by Global Innovation Exchange)

The Global Innovation Exchange is a collaboration between universities and industry partners from around the world focused on developing leaders in innovation. The first two academic partners are the University of Washington and Tsinghua University, with foundational support from Microsoft.