Apr 2, 2008

Mobiles & Medicine - Everything Is Under Control

One of the first things you learn when you go deeper into medicine studies is how incredibly tight and organized everything is inside the human body. It's not just the hormone that stimulates a function, but it's also the mediator that induces the hormone's secretion, and the peptide that causes the mediator to act, and the enzyme that activates the peptide, and the gene promoter that causes the enzyme to be produced. It's also the other hormone that stimulates an opposite function to the first one, and ... well we can go as far as life itself to explain some of these things.

The other thing you learn is how much control is behind every one of the smallest reactions inside your body. The simplest of examples is that if you eat anything that contains sugars after fasting, your pancreas will produce insulin so that your liver starts stocking the sugar instead of releasing it into the bloodstream, but also so that your muscles, brain and other organs start using this sugar. Each of these is an incredibly long list of reactions, with many others running in the background, and all being regulated by the smallest details.

In short, after contemplating the human body's function, you always come out with one conclusion: it's incredible how the smallest of things get added up, in an everlasting series of cycles and processes, to make a perfectly functioning entity. Everything is regulated, be it upwards or downwards, and even the tiniest piece has its place in the puzzle. In the end, it all comes down to one final goal: Life.

I have always wondered about the analogies between medicine and mobiles, two domains which take the vast majority of my time. Why have I come to love both of them, even though, on the surface there is no resemblance whatsoever between them? Then I came to the observation of the details. I guess I am fascinated by the amount of organization and regulation that governs in both instances.

Take for example the sheer act of taking a picture with your handset. Visibly, you're only opening the camera lens cover and pressing a button. You then view the picture, press back, and close the camera shutter. This is all the interaction it takes from your side. Now think about all every process that happens in the background during these 5 to 10 seconds: the lens cover clicking into place when opened so that it launches the camera application, the amount of genius going behind the fact that what's in front of your lens is projected on the screen, the capturing moment with each pixel being memorized and put in its right place on the screen, and then being saved with a thousand others on that incredibly small MicroSD card you could swallow without noticing, followed by the camera application shutting down the moment the lens cover is closed back. Think of all the 0 and 1 in the background, the electricity circulating on the boards, in the most complicated circuits, the coding scripts being executed. Think of the relations between everything that happens and that you can't see with your eyes compared to the small amount that finally pops on the screen.


I know that the comparison between medicine and mobiles doesn't stand a chance now. But as years go by, these small devices, barely the size of our hand palms are getting more complex, more detailed, with more and more processes of the smallest importance running in every millisecond.

Over the years, engineers and scientists have thrived to reach the level of perfection and togetherness that is seen in the human body. Why do you think the most enticing of all gadgets are robots? Why do you think that each time a new development in the robot-world is made, we stand in front of it in astonishment? Why do you think movies like AI (Artificial Intelligence) were made? Two reasons. First, is that deep inside, the final aim of an engineer (and Human for that matter) is perfection, and the most detailed model of perfection is us. Second is because we have long wanted to explain how we truly function, because our biggest mystery lies within us.

Is there any doubt that in 10 years, mobiles will become even more developed than they are now? No. Is there any doubt that in 20 years a mobile prototype will have learned to regulate itself, to control itself, to clean itself figuratively (software-wise) and literally (hardware-wise)? No. Is there any doubt that in 30 years mobiles will be made from live particles, that can interact with the environment? No (look at the Nokia Morph Concept).

One question remains, is there any doubt that no matter how far into the future we delve, anything built by us will have flaws, bugs, problems, issues? No. It's not a matter of belief or not, it's a matter of facts.

Let's go back to medicine for a while and take the human body, our model of perfect function, as an example. It doesn't matter how well everything is built and regulated, something at some point can and will go wrong.

Most of the time, the body knows and corrects the error, because it's "intelligent" and it has learned to distinguish the error and to correct it. As an example, I will take the process of cell duplication. Our cells multiply all the time, to regenerate newer and younger ones, leaving the others to die. During this transformation process, a letter in our genetic language (which is made of 4 letters, ATCG, that's all) may be misread and mis-copied: It's not a simple xerox process! The body has its way of knowing the original copy from the new one it just made, and hence can and will correct the mistake.

But one in every million times, the body won't notice the mistake, and we will end up with something called a "mutation". If this happens in the germinal cells (read: ovule or sperm cells), the error will be transmitted to the next generation. Sometimes, this will just lead to a different eye color, or skin structure, but sometimes it affects a very delicate function and causes an illness. And that's how genetic diseases are born (in a very simplistic explanation).

So, is everything under control? No. Even in the most complex structures known to us, everything isn't under control. Archaic changes and modifications of a template always occur. A gadget, handset, piece of electronics,..., might be amazingly functioning now, but no one could assure you that it wouldn't stop in the next second. Bugs, as we call them now, are and will always be an issue we face, be it with our mobiles or within our body. So we'd better accept the facts as they are, than keep moaning about it for the next millenium.

Some people might explain this by the tendency of the universe to chaos. See, the Earth and our existence are a huge exception to the theory that everything tends naturally to go to chaos, and that organization is by itself a state of chaos. I don't know how I would explain it, because no, I am not looking for the answer to everything. Life would be dull if I knew it all, wouldn't it?


  1. hey rita, great read
    But just a correction, DNA is composed of n-bases not letters: Adenind, Thymine, Guanine, Cytosine ACTG

  2. Kiro, I know all the ins and outs of DNA and genetics, and I know that. But I was using the DNA/base = language/letter comparative figure, that's why I called them letters :)

  3. Great post! Fyi, what part of the medical field are you in? Two, no one not even a phone will ever be perfect. No one can seem to fix my Nokia phone not even Nokia and hello I believe they made it. Second, I work with greatest technology ever made at the hospital and when it breaks it still seems that companies just give us a new one. But the real test will come when I start using the Nokia N800 tablet at my new job at UTMB and for use getting my Masters. I bet you will here a lot from me then. Great post!!

  4. Hey Christina, I am graduating as a Pharmacy student this summer, and am looking to pursue a masters/phd in the domain of biotechnologies, gene therapies and the likes.
    It's nice to see you have enjoyed this read, it's a new direction for this blog and I plan to expand more about the differences and analogies between mobiles and medicine, as well as the mobile industry and the pharmaceutical industry. It's a weird approach and I was hoping readers would like it, as it's only trying to bring something new to the masses.
    Now concerning electronics going insane, with a replacement unit being the only solution, we have all seen these situations. The more something is complex, the more there is a chance (or risk) that something will go wrong. Take for example a spoon, the only thing that can happen to it is break or melt. Take a mobile, it can break, melt, get scratched, refuse to turn on, refuse to turn off, turn on with a black screen, camera won't launch, speakers won't work,... Heh, problems can come from every corner ;)

  5. Rita, brilliant post. I'm wondering if you have thoughts about consciousness. I think the science of the body is the easy part. consciousness is the most difficult part. Do you have interest in philosophy or psychology?

  6. Congratulations Rita,
    The Wall Street Journal, in the article for the ngage start, did not forgot to mention your name
    Apparently Edwin from WSJ is your 1st fan

  7. Nabil,
    Consciousness is a topic that i have often thought about yet never comprehended. I should try to stay away from it, because no matter what I say/think of it, I guess I will never be right, nor wrong (because who knows?).

    And to anonymous,
    Thank you for mentioning the article, it was a shock. I had answered a couple of Adam Ewing's questions, but read in his signature that he was in Dow Jones, didn't see the "contributor to WSJ" mention. Now this is a new high for me.


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