Friday, May 11, 2012

The Age of Science Fiction

Often, as I sit on the train watching the city flash by on my daily commute, I think about how we are beginning to live in an age of science fiction.

I've always loved science fiction. I grew up watching Star Wars and Babylon 5 and reading books like Ender's Game and the Foundation series. These books sparked my imagination and made me excited about what the future might bring. And while space opera was my favourite sub-genre, it's not the only topic covered by science fiction. I clearly remember reading stories as a teenager that involved e-readers, social media, and smartphones long before these devices became reality. In fact, if you look at some of the science fiction stories and films from 50 or even 30 years ago, in some ways their imagined worlds looks at lot like ours does today ...

Take snippets of my daily life as an example. Every morning when I wake up a machine automatically turns on and makes me a cup of coffee. I log onto a global network of computers and check electronic mail and social media sites as I eat breakfast (yeah, I'm guilty of eating at the computer). I ride a bus that uses GPS technology to display and announce them in a slightly robotic, female voice. I board a fully automated train (no driver) that whisks me underneath the city for a few stops before rising onto elevated tracks, where it weaves between buildings and over streets packed with morning commuters. As I stare out the window and listen to music, checking for new text or e-mail messages periodically, most people around me do the same. Portable music players, mobile phones, and e-readers are now more prevalent on buses and trains than paperbacks and newspapers.

Diabetes management has also seen a huge shift in the past 20 to 30 years. Just 30 years ago there were no blood glucose meters and insulin pumps were still experimental. Only 20 years ago there were no insulin analogues, no "smart" features like bolus calculators on insulin pumps, no five-second countdown times or tagging readings on meters, and logbooks were still exclusively paper. When I was diagnosed in 1991 there was no mention of an insulin pump being in my future. It wasn't until I was in high school in the latter half of the 1990s and a kid a few grades below me had a pump that I realized it might be something I could use in the future.

Now for some snippets of my diabetes life ... Before I get to work I grab a coffee. I prick my finger and squeeze until a tiny bead of blood appears. I touch my finger to a strip that, sensing the liquid, sucks my blood into a tiny computer that then estimates the amount of glucose molecules in the drop. I use my iPhone to look up the carbohydrate count of the coffee, then use my meter again to program in an insulin dose, which it beams wirelessly to my insulin pump, which delivers insulin with its tiny, precise mechanics. I log the entire thing in my electronic logbook on my iPhone, which I can later sync to my computer. My calendar, which holds all doctors appointments, and to-do lists which hold errends like picking up prescriptions, are also synced across all my devices.

I watched a TED talk a few months ago about how the past few decades have been the information age, and how the next few decades will be the age of bionics and technology's impact on health and medicine. Today there are already devices like cochlear implants, bionic limbs, and artificial hearts. Retinal chips, mind-controlled wheelchairs, and more advanced artificial organs like kidneys seem to be on the horizon. And, as much as some people dislike the artificial pancreas, I suspect it will be the next big breakthrough in diabetes management (note I don't say cure). All of this is hugely exciting, if for no other reason than it's amazing that it's even possible to emulate something like a retina or a pancreas with technology.

It boggles my mind that much of what I take for granted today was considered the realm of science fiction when I was born. Who knows what will come next, or how it might benefit those of us with diabetes.

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