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Shyam Gollakota. (GeekWire Photo / James Thorne)

Shyam Gollakota has come a long way since his first day as a university undergraduate.

“I didn’t know how to program. In fact, I didn’t even know how to type,” he said.

You could say he got the hang of keyboards. Gollakota is now a professor of computer science at the University of Washington, a co-founder of several tech startups, and has been named twice to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list.

“I realized that computer science is just not about programming,” Gollakota said. “It’s about how do you think about solving problems.”

After proving himself as an expert in low-power computing, he turned to the world of healthcare. In the past year, Gollakota and his collaborators at UW have figured out how smartphones and speakers like Amazon’s Alexa can be used to monitor people’s health in real-time.

For this episode of the GeekWire Health Tech Podcast, we talked to Gollakota about how he’s turning smart devices into sonar machines that can detect heart attacks, opioid overdoses or even something as simple as an ear infection.

Listen to the episode below or subscribe to GeekWire Health Tech in your favorite podcast app, and read on for highlights.

Gollakota’s interest in health emerged from his earlier work in wireless networks. His department at UW developed ways to do wireless communications with very little power, which later gave birth to the startup Jeeva Wireless. From there, they became interested in how wireless signals reflect off the body, and how those might be used to track body movements.

“The next natural question … was, ‘Can I transform your smartphone into a Star Trek tricorder?'” said Gollakota, referring to the science-fiction device that can diagnose people with a simple scan of the body. That research turned into ApneaApp, a project that was able to show it’s possible to diagnose sleep apnea by tracking someones’ breathing on a smartphone.

The professor and his colleagues would later use a similar formula to detect when someone is having a heart attack.

“This problem is actually pretty close to me because heart problems are one of the biggest problems facing South Asians,” said Gollakota. The researchers gathered up a bunch of audio from 911 calls and were able to identify clips of a specific gasping sound that typically coincides with a heart attack. They then trained an algorithm to identify the gasping sound, paving the way for an app that could listen for heart attacks in people’s homes.

But they didn’t stop there. Gollakota and the other researchers have also used smartphones and smart speakers as sonar devices to monitor breathing and check for ear infections.

Their first application was for opioid users, who often experience a gradual slowing of breath during an overdose. By sending out audio signals and measuring how they return to a smartphone’s microphones, the team was able to decode a breathing rate and detect when someone’s breathing had dropped below a critical threshold.

Gollakota and his fellow researchers at UW developed a smart speaker skill to monitor sleeping babies. (Dennis Wise / University of Washington Photo)

They then took the idea of smart sonar and ran with it. Gollakota’s team took smart speakers and created a system that can monitor children while they sleep, collecting data on sleep and watching for signs of irregular breathing. And they even created an application that can test for ear infections in children using a sonar system on a smartphone.

Gollakota thinks that applications like this, which are capable of monitoring people’s health around the clock, can catch much more than intermittent visits to a doctor’s office.

“You go to a doctor, they do a spot monitoring of your vital signs, like your heart rate, your breathing, your blood pressure and all these different things. But it’s a spot check,” he said. “Sometimes when you’re getting a spot check, you might miss what’s really happening because the symptoms might not show the exact moment you go to the hospital.”

At the same time, respecting people’s privacy is paramount. In developing sonar applications, Gollakota’s team decided only to collect inaudible sounds, thus reducing the chance that the tool could be used to spy on people.

Bee with backpack
Bees equipped with data-gathering “backpacks” can still eat, control their flight and perform other normal behavior. (University of Washington via YouTube)

Despite his penchant for rethinking how to use smart devices with clever workarounds, Gollakota doesn’t see himself as a traditional hacker. “I think of myself as pushing the limits of what devices can do,” he said, “We are using the sensors and computing, which are already available on these devices, in very innovative ways.”

One of the more out-of-the-box ideas that the group of UW researchers came up with was to turn bees into a swarm of buzzing data-gatherers by strapping electronic devices to them. The idea was to overcome the battery limits of modern drones.

“You’re taking the best of biology and the best of electronics to address these power issues,” said Gollakota. “This actually has implications for biology as well because people who are trying to understand the behavior of bees or insects with climate change.”

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