And that’s just one of the tricks that the Emeryville, California-based company is pursuing in its overall goal to use intelligent ambient biometric sensors to make healthcare better. Phillip Alvelda, CEO of Brainworks, spoke at our VB Transform AI event on Thursday, and he demoed the technology in real-time both onstage and in an interview.
He said that healthcare should be more preventative than reactive. The company’s technology is contactless and always-on, and it only works if users have opted in for the constant monitoring, which, in contrast to a lot of different medical equipment, is completely physically non-invasive.
That’s important for monitoring the heartbeat of a premature baby, whose skin is so sensitive that it can be harmed by patches and wires associated with vital signs monitors. By using a camera to detect tiny changes in skin color and movement, Brainworks can provide detection that is just as good and meets the standards set for measurement by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Alvelda said.
“We recognize where the face is, get real-time pulse rates and heart rate history,” he said. “We see if they are consenting patients. Once we capture a measurement every five seconds, we evaluate the precision of the measurement and if it is a good vital sign based on the recording requirements of the FDA.”
The camera sensors can also work remotely so that it can track patients who don’t want to or can’t come into a doctor’s office. And it’s more sanitary. Alvelda said that the resharing of unclean hospital equipment can often be the source of deadly MRSA (staph) infections. That’s all the more reason to use a camera rather than equipment that comes into contact with a patient’s skin.
Alvelda said his company has seven full-time people and a number of consultants. They have a lot of experience in the intersection of AI and biology. Alveda has been involved in AI for decades and was the founder of companies such as TaDa Innovations, MobiTV, and Idetic. He was the program manager for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, where helped fund research that delved into the intersection of engineering and biology. He learned much of his technical knowledge in an early job building sensor systems at NASA in the 1980s.
After seeing much of the AI landscape through his work at the Biological Technologies Office at DARPA, Alvelda went back into the private sphere and started Brainworks in 2017. The company’s service going through field validation trials in August, and then it will seek regulatory approval for medical use.
“At DARPA, we learned a tremendous amount about what the brain was really doing that rewrote a lot of neuroscience,” he said. “We said we could use machine learning to build the missing pieces of the brain around the technologies that we already have.”
The goal is to use AI to build trustworthy ways to detect and interpret personal health. This can be done with just about any smartphone camera, but Alvelda said the company would take advantage of better technology — such as Apple Watch sensors — as it becomes available. The AI is what helps the company sort through the data to get reliable and accurate information about minute changes in skin tone and movement. When your heart beats, there’s a pulse of change that happens in your body, and Brainworks detects that.
“With your heartbeat, it basically changes your skin in some way,” he said. “It changes your skin color, and it becomes redder and less green.”
The accuracy matters. If it detects that the measurement is accurate, the sensors will capture a few seconds of your heart rate. It will do that again later, and each time you log in with your face. You simply point the camera at yourself, as if you are taking a selfie, and it captures the pulse and breathing rate in real-time. Then it can store that data, so long as you have a subscription. If it does not recognize you as someone who has signed in and opted into the terms of service, it will not store your real-time data.
Alvelda said that matters because he is aware that camera technology can be used to spy on people and capture their data without permission. His company abides by ethical standards, and it won’t do business with anyone who isn’t using it for ethical business ideas, he said.
Alvelda said the company has more than 30 patent applications on the various AI and neuroscience technologies. Over time, he said the company would be able to add more vital sign measurements, such as blood pressure. When that happens, Brainworks will be able to add more predictive services that could warn people of pending health risks.
“The trifecta is heart rate, respiration, and blood pressure — and temperature as a fourth,” Alvelda said. “Then you can get to an actionable diagnosis. You can imagine trying figure out movement disorders, like Parkinson’s Disease or ALS.”
He said that contactless health monitoring will enable health professionals to diagnose conditions from biometric data that might not surface during an in-office clinic visit. By vastly increasing visibility into heart rate activity, intermittent medical symptoms can be surfaced resulting in life-saving diagnosis and treatment.
The company is working with a number of partners such as Johns Hopkins Medince and Medstar.
Ultimately, the system could also be applied to education, fintech, smart city, transportation, and a variety of other markets.
“We are focused on healthcare because we don’t want to try to boil the ocean,” Alvelda said.
Rivals include other companies that are trying to connect neuroscience with computing applications such as Numenta.
Alvelda said a number of parties have suggested that the company go into other fields where the use of the cameras is more sketchy.
“You’ve got to build the system in such a way that it’s architected to operate ethically, and make sure that you can run only the things from people that they have given you their consent to do,” he said. “We have a strong vision baked into our company to do work for human benefit and social good.”