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Computational pioneer Erez Lieberman explains how the Web -- and spam -- evolves

The computational pioneer talks about how the Web -- and spam -- evolves, why programming languages are different from human languages and how the iShoe may save grandma's life.

By Sara Forrest
October 27, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Erez Lieberman has done pioneering work on mathematical and computational approaches to the study of evolution, including the evolution of networks and languages. His newest endeavor is the development of the iShoe, to assist elderly people with balance problems.

What inspired the iShoe, and how exactly does it work? I first began to understand how big a problem falls are for the elderly when my grandmother passed away shortly after a catastrophic fall. Tragically, a quarter of senior citizens fall down, leading to 300,000 broken hips; about 30% of those victims do not survive the year, and many others never regain their mobility. The iShoe insole looks like an ordinary insole, but it is actually a wearable sensor system that tracks how a person distributes pressure in their feet and can transmit the results wirelessly to any Bluetooth device. This enables us to tell how well a person is balancing so that doctors and caregivers can intervene before a catastrophic fall.


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Name: Erez Lieberman
Title: CEO, iShoe; Hertz Fellow, Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology
Location: Cambridge, Mass.
Philosophy in a nutshell: "The only thing better than knowing what you're doing is not knowing what you're doing."
Favorite vices: Miami, Al Gore, puns.

Favorite technology: Lebônê's dirt-powered battery.

I understand that NASA has become interested. Why? Because there's no gravity, space flight can compromise an astronaut's ability to balance and to do things like sense which way is down. That's an operational issue for NASA, so they actually use some of iShoe's technology.

How does the development of technology like this affect the future of medicine and health care? Even in Star Trek, all medical evaluations seem to happen in the presence of a doctor (even if the doctor is a hologram). Wearable diagnostics have the potential to transform a person's clothing into a platform for remotely monitoring their health. Doctors will be able to supplement in-office visits with continuous care. Telemedicine is not just about long-distance consultation; it's about being able to detect and respond to a problem in real time, no matter where your patient is located. When we eventually know how to build the [Star Trek starship] Enterprise, Picard won't need to visit Crusher to find out what's wrong; she'll pick up the signs remotely.

In general, how does biology benefit from the Computer Age? An iShoe collects enough data every minute to overload the hard drive on my first computer. Whether you're studying human physiology or the mouse genome, 21st-century computation gives us the agility to handle huge data sets and to capture at least a fraction of the complexity that makes humans go. Computers help us think about messy systems, and biology is a very messy system.

For instance, there are about 100,000 different antibodies in a milliliter of blood. Each of those is designed to recognize a different molecule that could cause disease so that your body can eliminate the threat; that's 100,000 magical cures! Now think about the bits: Just the genetic sequence defining these antibodies is a couple of hundred megabytes worth of data. Without modern computers, understanding the immune system would be hopeless.

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