Turning the Observer Effect on its Head

Dear Friends of CITRIS:

The so-called “observer effect” has well-known manifestations in IT, where watching a process output, say, may slow it down, cause an I/O error, or otherwise interfere. It is more famous though in particle physics where simply peeking at an electron radically alters its course.

A far more common example of the observer effect is described in this issue of the CITRIS Signal’s first story, Smart Bandages to Track Wounds Through Healing, which covers upgrades to the most fundamental piece of medical equipment: the bandage. Until now, the same shield that kept a wound safe also obscured possible infection or other pathology from clinical observation. Moreover, removing a bandage to see what was happening beneath it too frequently introduced new infections or aggravated the wound. And for wounds buried deep in the body after surgery, the medical costs of observing it directly would be very high.

>> Read Smart Bandages to Track Wounds Through Healing

CITRIS engineers are addressing this problem by printing flexible electronic systems directly onto bandages that can track the healing process without harming it. Not only that, but the same subtle electrical fields detected by the bandages could be manipulated to speed and improve the healing process itself. We’re not quite talking about Star Trek Tricorders. But if they ever do evolve, our devices will be their ancestors. The nanotechnologies, printable electronics processes, materials development, sensor deployment, wireless communication expertise, and cooperative integration of all of these fields make this project one that hits CITRIS’s sweet spot. We will be thrilled to watch this one quicken.

CITRIS researchers are taking steps to accelerate the healing and return to full public life of injured combat veterans as well. Too many of these men and women, so thoroughly engaged overseas, avoid democratic participation at the ballot box when they get home. Especially for those who have received traumatic head injuries, the attendant difficulties with attention and short-term memory make voting a daunting and sometimes overwhelming task. Data and Democracy Initiative researchers are developing a new tablet-based tool, Vote Your Mind, to help compensate for these deficits and create a more reliable and user-friendly experience in political participation.

>> Read Vote Your Mind

CITRIS jump-starts innovation among affiliated faculty by offering seed-grants for promising ideas pursued by collaborative multi-campus teams. Over the last five years, we have distributed more than $6 million to support ideas that have gone on to win nearly $40 million in outside research awards; a pretty impressive six-plus-fold return on investment! Just as important, the competition fuels the search for ways to address some of our most pressing societal challenges. The seed-grant program for 2014 will be announced soon, so keep an eye on this website. The deadline for submissions will be in late February. The smart and out-of-the-box ideas we get each year from our four campuses are not only inspiring, they also are engines of hope. We can hardly wait to see what creative ideas emerge this year in our four focus areas: energy, health care, intelligent infrastructure, and data and democracy.

Keep up the good work,

Paul Wright and Camille Crittenden