This blog post is the last in a mini-series of 4. Click here to read part 1, part 2 and part 3.
To ensure astronauts stay healthy on long-duration spaceflights to the Moon, Mars and beyond, we can learn from terrestrial healthcare innovation. In this blog series I share examples of how emerging technologies in healthcare can have benefits both in space and on Earth.
Coaching by AI
As we venture further into the solar system, one of the struggles of long-duration spaceflights will be the isolation of crews from the rest of humanity. To learn how do deal with this, on Earth analog missions are carried out where simulation crews are confined to mock-up spacecraft for a similar amount of time as a real space mission would take. Next to that, we start to see benefits coming from terrestrial experiences with innovations that take place in the mental healthcare domain.
New technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) are making tremendous progress to a point where they could possibly provide real care. Conversational AI services are actually being set-up and tested worldwide to play a role in psychological coaching for patients. They approach mental health with the same techniques as ‘traditional’ Cognitive Behavioral Therapy does. These AI agents can be used to chat about fears, about dealing with stress, or about coping with living with a disease (or even successfully help in the prevention of disease!).
Credit: X2AI. Showing a demo of Tess: X2AI, the creator of Tess, aims to provide mental healthcare for everyone using psychological artificial intelligence. Recently they teamed up with an NGO to deliver mental healthcare to refugees in Lebanon.
The psychological stresses that come from confinement to relatively small spaces, from working in extreme environments and from being isolated from friends and family might result in the need for some counseling. Nowadays ‘private psychological conferences‘ are scheduled every couple of weeks for astronauts to speak with crew psychologists. This is hard to do when everything you say takes 40 minutes to get from the surface of Mars to human psychologists on Earth. Potentially, AI could provide a solution to offer on-demand counseling with a skilled, but artificial psychologist. To add to that, the virtual humans that I described in a previous post could deliver an even more realistic experience when speaking to such AIs.
Reality check: VR, AR, MR?
Like I wrote in my previous blog, astronauts will be on their own if they need to provide or receive healthcare in space. In the International Space Station they can be ‘assisted’ by flight surgeons from the ground, but on a flight to the Red Planet they can not rely on this immediate assistance. They will rely on training. Medical training for the crew can benefit from new technologies like Virtual Reality (VR).
Crews have already been using forms of VR for training how to operate spacecraft and robot arms. It becomes interesting when virtual elements are added to real world scenario’s, called Augmented Reality (AR) or Mixed Reality (MR). When seen through glasses or a head-mounted display the inside of the space station can be blended with artificial layers. Astronauts Scott Kelly and Tim Peake have been testing this on board the International Space Station (and seemed to be enjoying it!). Also the European Space Agency is looking for ways to further develop VR, AR and MR for training in operational tasks.
Credit: Astronaut Scott Kelly wearing a Microsoft Hololens on board the International Space Station (@StationCDRKelly)
These tools can also be used to train astronauts for medical procedures in a realistic way, which is something startups are working on for terrestrial healthcare, for example for surgery. Furthermore, AR could be used on board spacecraft for guidance while using complex (medical) equipment or while performing actual medical procedures. The future of medical training with Mixed Reality will benefit both doctors on Earth as well as astronauts on the ground and in space.
What is reality?
In this blog series I have shared examples of technology and design that create opportunities for the future of healthcare on Earth and in space. Still, the absence of gravity and presence of radiation are challenges to be dealt with, but I believe that the space sector has lots to gain from the developments we see in modern healthcare here on earth, especially in ‘digital health’. Digital solutions ensure on-demand availability of care, focused on patients instead of centered around institutions. At the same time, terrestrial healthcare might benefit from solutions that are the result of designing for extreme environments. Let’s combine forces and lead the way to a healthy world, up there and down below!
For now, I’ve started to collect and curate articles on the topic of ‘Space Health’ in a Flipboard magazine, which you can access here. Do you know of interesting developments in this space or are you working on ‘space health’ yourself? You can share it by leaving a comment below this blog and send me a message if you’d like to contribute to the magazine or if you want to get in touch!
Written by Jules Lancee
In my work as a biomedical engineer I focus on emerging technologies and their role in a changing world of healthcare. I explore how they will impact the care that we deliver to patients, but find it equally interesting to see how they will be able to benefit the future of long-term spaceflight. I think both questions are opportunities for collaboration and inspiration!