One diabetic’s take on Google’s Smart Contact Lenses

Google glucose testing contact lens

One in 19 people on this planet have diabetes. I am one.

About four to six times a day I am reminded of many things — my genetics, my disgusting smoking habit (which I have kicked) and my (now modified) terrible eating habits that have led me to where I am today. I prick the skin on one of my fingers, take a droplet of blood, put it on a tiny strip that is attached to my AccuCheck Glucose meter, and make a note in a little black book. At some point during the day I have to take insulin shots so I can get through my day; doing the things that 18 of 19 people get to do without that extra help. I have to watch everything I eat: one extra macaroon or not taking a walk before going to bed can cause mood swings and lead to other complications. But like I said, it is a mess of my own making.

Just to give you a size and scope of the diabetes problem, I quote from a recent report from Credit Suisse Research Institute which estimates that “close to 400 million people worldwide are affected by type II diabetes alone – a number that is quickly rising” and the “associated costs for the global healthcare system are estimated at a staggering $376 billion every year, representing over 10 percent of all healthcare costs.” By 2020 this could be a disease that impacts 500 million people and the costs “could rise to a whopping $700 billion,” the study said.

So when I read about Google’s “smart contact lens project,” which allows these lenses to measure blood sugar levels, for a very brief instant I was excited. It seemed like that finally we are getting to a place where needles, blood-soaked alcohol swabs and cotton balls are going to be history.

Over the years, many scientists have investigated various body fluids—such as tears—in the hopes of finding an easier way for people to track their glucose levels. But as you can imagine, tears are hard to collect and study. At Google[x], we wondered if miniaturized electronics—think: chips and sensors so small they look like bits of glitter, and an antenna thinner than a human hair—might be a way to crack the mystery of tear glucose and measure it with greater accuracy.

We’re now testing a smart contact lens that’s built to measure glucose levels in tears using a tiny wireless chip and miniaturized glucose sensor that are embedded between two layers of soft contact lens material. We’re testing prototypes that can generate a reading once per second. We’re also investigating the potential for this to serve as an early warning for the wearer, so we’re exploring integrating tiny LED lights that could light up to indicate that glucose levels have crossed above or below certain thresholds. It’s still early days for this technology, but we’ve completed multiple clinical research studies which are helping to refine our prototype. We hope this could someday lead to a new way for people with diabetes to manage their disease.

Reality Check

But after the initial excitement was over, cold reality set in. It also prompted me to ask the question: why is it that a company with such good intentions fails to ask itself very basic of questions, something a normal human being would ponder before embarking on a scientific quest?

For example, why would they ignore the fact that as a diabetes patient, it is generally recommended that I not wear contact lenses. Yes, I understand that there are many different opinions about this, but it is generally thought of as smart to not wear contact lenses, as they always carry the risk of increased complications for diabetics. And on top of that if you have say, astigmatism (like I do), then contacts are less of an option.

Never mind the big fact that most of the people who do suffer from diabetes (Type II) tend to get it because of poor diet, most often because of lack of better diet options due to increased economic and financial stratification of our society. Diabetes is a growing problem in countries in South Asia and parts of Asia and Latin America, especially among those who fit in the lower income category; you know, the kind of people who might find contact lenses an expensive luxury. The less financially fortunate among us are very same group who are much more likely to not monitor their blood sugar levels due to work conditions and financial limitations.

I emailed Google’s press relations department — about 12 hours ago — asking them to elaborate on why the researchers took this specific approach. Yes, as a diabetic, I appreciate the efforts of Google in general and specifically Brian Otis and Babak Parviz, the project smart contact lens co-founders, just as I appreciate every effort made by every scientist and doctor around the world trying to tackle one of the worst diseases to afflict the post-industrial society.

Tone deaf?

And yet, I cannot get over what seems to me a tone-deaf approach by Google’s scientists. It also highlights Google’s fundamental challenge: it fails to think about people as people, instead it treats them as an academic or an engineering problem. Instead of trying to understand the needs of actual people, they emerge with an elegant technological solution.

It is not just this one time. Google+, their social network, is a fail because it fundamentally isn’t social or about people — it is an effort to solve Google’s need for social data for better advertising using machines. Similarly, Google Glasses are a cringe-worthy assault to the social interactions of normals, but because a certain subset of Googlers — including co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page — have a cyborg fetish, it is okay to make that design. It is frustrating for me to keep repeating this, because Google is a company with huge resources and those resources could be deployed more effectively and have a much more positive impact, more quickly. And to do that, the company needs to learn to be human and develop compassion for human condition.

As a diabetic, the only solution I am looking for is non-invasive and one that keeps me in a state of constant alertness about my blood sugar levels while matching that data with advice about what I should do.

Instead of trying to develop a contact lens that will still be quite expensive for many of the world’s poor, diabetic patients, why not focus all monetary and intellectual energies towards developing a more simpler solution that can be built at scale, very cheaply? Why not take the open source ethos and develop a product that actually be given away to anyone — say, emerging world pharmaceutical companies — who wants to manufacture it cheaply? The licensing terms could/should include the Tom’s Shoes Principle: buy one, give one away for free to someone who cannot afford them.

Instead of contact lenses, how about Google’s mighty X-machine focus its microscopic chip approach that Otis and Parviz are taking on a patch that can be applied to the skin — akin to a nicotine patch. The patch could carry the chip and send data to nearest phone — be it a smartphone or a cheap feature phone — and alert diabetics when there are major spikes or declines in blood sugar levels. These would be easier to use, cheaper to product and much more easily distributed. It is a moonshot, and totally worth it.

Sure, it would lack the whiz-bang nature of the smart contact lenses, but it would be something I would welcome with a big grin and a credit card while thanking my stars and Google for having developed that. It’s not that I am not unappreciative of the impact that these contact lens breakthroughs might have in a few years. But another few years would mean another 100 million fellow humans suffering from something I live with everyday.

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