Play a Video Game, Save a Real Life

I have lectured multiple times in the past on the whole topic of medicine and technology. These are always enjoyable lectures for me [and hopefully my audiences] because it is a chance to take a step back and appreciate the whole process of progress in modern medicine, in a big part due to technology.

One of the initial slides I always present is a listing of milestones in the history of modern medicine. For example, basic hygiene was critical to drastically reducing the spread of a whole variety of infectious diseases. Modern waste control was critical for the drastic drop in diseases like tuberculosis and typhus. Even before the introduction of basics of present-day medicine like vaccines, just these non-pharmaceutical techniques dramatically improved individual and public health.

I will take a moment and say that it is nothing less than tragic that present day healthcare workers, with doctors way up on the list, are responsible for spreading infectious agents all because of a lack of sufficient handwashing. It is truly painful to accept that papers are still being published in 2015 demonstrating the dangers of the lack of handwashing, and the positive effects of monitoring to effectively force staff to wash their hands in between managing patients. Even the very official and professional looking necktie that doctors wear, has been recognized as a vector for transferring life-threatening bacteria from one patient to another. The person or group who come up with a solution for the lack of handwashing in healthcare, will save tens of millions if not more lives.

I will take another moment and mention the unquestionable positive effect of vaccinations. What I’m about to say is clearly going to offend those who staunchly resist vaccinations for their children, but it needs to be said over and over again. As far as I’m concerned, if a child contracts an infectious disease which leads to serious harm or death, all because the child was not vaccinated, this is at the very least criminal negligence.

It is my personal opinion that the full force of the law should be brought down on parents who do not vaccinate their children (assuming of course that there are no contra-indications). What astonishes me is that responsible parents would never dare drive with their children not properly buckled in. A hospital is not even allowed to hand a child over to parents unless they can show that they have a proper child seat in their car. If a parent is caught driving with an unbuckled child, there are legal repercussions.

What is astounding is that the absolute risk to a population of children who are unbuckled is dwarfed by the risk to a population of children who are unvaccinated. How can people claim to be educated and concerned parents and not understand such basic math. And for those who claim that they should have the right to choose for their own children, I reluctantly accept that argument except to say that there should still be the repercussion of not allowing such children to ever leave their homes and thus endanger others around them. If a child had Ebola, no one would question such a quarantine. Does it matter to a child who dies whether he or she was infected by measles or Ebola?

One of the next phases I list as critical in the development of modern medicine is the lunar landing. I still personally cannot believe how NASA was able to put men on the moon and get them back safely to earth using computers that are more than a million times weaker than a regular cell phone. But they did it. And in doing so, they spurred a tremendous investment into modern technology including computers. I think it is pretty clear that any historical action that contributed to a major push forward in the field of mathematics, physics, engineering and computer science, has been fundamental to modern-day miracles like CT and MRI machines, DNA analysis and all the rest of modern medicine.

The next item on my list is mobile phones. Thanks to mobile phones, even today, the entire developing world has access to computing power and the Internet in a way that was thought unachievable just a decade ago. It was not that long ago that the “One Laptop Per Child” program was seen as a marvelous dream but impossible to implement. The success of portable phones along with their lack of open fans, hard drives and minimal electricity needs made them highly suitable for the difficult climate and lack of readily accessible energy sources that are common across the developing world.

I personally have always been surprised that cell phone companies on a continent like Africa do not give away solar powered phone chargers. Cell phone companies only make money when calls are being made and SMSes are being sent. When an individual spends even a penny on the electricity needed to charge a phone, that is a potential loss of income for the phone companies. On the other hand, if you make the cost of power extremely inexpensive or even free [by using the readily available sunshine], I would strongly suspect that you would see a significant rise in mobile phone use. Perhaps in the Western world, this is far less of an issue. But in the half of the world where the most basic things are a luxury, I would think that solar powered “anything” would be immediately and maximally used.

In any case, with sufficient power and Internet access, a student anywhere in the world can partake in lectures from top universities like Harvard and  McGill [yes, I am Canadian and yes McGill is the Harvard of Canada]. Internet access is still an issue in the developing world but thanks to truly awe-inspiring projects from Google and Facebook, worldwide Wi-Fi might soon be a reality. Obviously, adding a few billion people to Google’s and Facebook’s audiences would translate into increased income for these companies. I guess I am still more of an idealist and believe that these companies are driven first by the public’s welfare and secondly by increasing their profits, at least in the developing world.

Mobile phones, and along with them mobile Internet, will eventually bring healthcare to every point in the world. As technologies for sharing information and delivering remote assistance continue to improve, a child with a high fever and rash somewhere in Kenya will be able to benefit from the medical opinion of an expert in the States. I must say that as difficult as it is to wait for all of these things to finally really happen, I still smile every time I think of how much better things will be over the next few decades.

When talking about modern computers, which again are critical to the success of present day medicine, people naturally think of the “brain” of the computer, otherwise known as the central processing unit or CPU. When I was in my 20s, a great many people were very aware of the CPU in their computers. People would talk about their new 386 based computer and how they were planning to upgrade to a 486 in the next few months. Then came the Pentiums which made everything before them seem to be from the Stone Age. Today, most people do not know what CPU sits inside of their cell phone, tablet, smart watch and even desktop computer. Modern-day CPUs can process instructions at a rate that is difficult to imagine. And each year, these CPUs dramatically increase in their capabilities, making things possible that were not so, just a few years previously.

But as capable as CPUs are at executing the instructions that are passed to them from the software on the device they run, there is another type of processor that is even more powerful than the CPU but receives little acclaim. This processor is the graphics processing unit or GPU. It is somewhat self evident from the name that this processor is primarily geared towards performing calculations that have to do with presenting graphics on the screen of a computer. But as it turns out, these types of calculations are also commonly performed when doing a whole variety of scientific work. As it turns out, in a strange twist of fate, GPUs, which still are critical for the latest and greatest computer games, have become killer hardware for doing a variety of life-saving medical calculations.

Why is this? Why are GPUs so much better at scientific calculations than regular CPUs?

CPUs are designed to process all different types of instructions that a computer must perform. Some of these instructions do have to do with straightforward math. Some of these instructions have to do with file management and others with communications. A CPU is an all-purpose device which means that it does many things well, but not necessarily any one thing superbly. A GPU is entirely focused on the calculations necessary for graphics. As such, it can be far better and faster than a CPU specifically for the calculations required for displaying, for example, a 3-D computer game.

Above, I referred to the value of GPUs in scientific work as a strange twist of fate, because GPUs have not been advancing so quickly due to the scientific community. It is not the demand by NASA or top science departments around the world that have spurred research and development into better and better GPUs. GPUs continue to improve primarily because of video games. The very thing that people “waste” their time on, is the very thing that provides the billions of dollars necessary to support the entire industry of gaming.

Every company that designs GPUs wants to be the best, and thus have their GPU included in the device or computer that people buy. Actually, when a videogame begins its development, the developers assume that the average hardware being used by gamers will be a generation ahead of present day machines. In the two to four years that it can easily take to develop and then market a videogame, computers become far faster than they were at the beginning of the video game’s life.

GPUs in mobile devices, including phones, are also getting stronger all the time. The ability to play high-end games on a cell phone is a major draw for many people. As the mobile screens get better and better with resolutions that I don’t have even on my main computer, better GPUs fill those screens with animated pixels.

How does this help the medical world? I wish to quote from an article in Forbes which states as follows:

“the [GPU] chips can slash the time required to calculate a radiotherapy dose. They can reduce the most complex proton radiotherapy calculation from 70 hours to just 10 seconds. No, that’s not a typo: it really is 25,000 times faster”

I think it is clear just from this one statement that GPUs are playing a critical part in healthcare. They are making technology-based medical management far more capable. One could even argue that every time you buy a videogame, you are effectively making a donation to healthcare.

One of the wondrous things about technology is that you are never really sure where the next advancement will come from. When the first engineers started planning Apollo 11, I don’t think they realized what the positive repercussions of their work would be. Perhaps it was in fact the entire Apollo team that deserved to win a Nobel in medicine back in 1969.

Thanks for listening and for playing the latest version of “Lara Croft”

My website is at

About the Author
Dr. Nahum Kovalski received his bachelor's of science in computer science and his medical degree in Canada. He came to Israel in 1991 and married his wife of 22 years in 1992. He has 3 amazing children and has lived in Jerusalem since making Aliyah. Dr. Kovalski was with TEREM Emergency Medical Services for 21 years until June of 2014, and is now a private consultant on medicine and technology.
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