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Technology and (Vetinary) Medicine

In Hinduism an avatar is the descent of a god or the ‘Supreme Being’ to earth in an act that is like a manifestation, appearance or incarnation. It is a word given a new lease of life in the language of computing, where it’s a three dimensional graphical representation or figuration, usually of a person or animal, made life-like.

Now widespread in game technology, most noticeably in Second Life, where some users have become so absorbed (addicted) in the creation of an entire virtual world and life system, that they have lost some touch with reality.

The success of the classic, award winning, big box office grossing movie Avatar (2009) was partly due to the concept of avatars with human traits as much as the cinematic wizardry and technology that was used. The film itself gave rise to further video games, and was described as ‘a spectacular world beyond imagination’.

Clearly nothing can be beyond imagination, but it was a superb piece of marketing. An avatar can also apply to an icon or become the personality of a given user with a name, attributes and behaviour patterns that parallel a real person.

The Birth of The Avatar

It is believed that the term was first coined in 1985 by Chip Morningstar and Joseph Romero for the online role playing game, Habitat. By 1980 it was used to describe computer generated virtual experience in Songs from the Stars by Norman Spinrad. In this fantasy a galactic receiver is programmed to ‘derive species-specific sensory input data from an alien galactic network by code-meanings’.

William Gibson’s novel Count Zero (1986) portrayed a character’s representation socialising in an online world, somebody finding himself in a pale blue graphic that seemed to represent’ recognisable human life. 1992’s Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson the term ‘avatar’ was used to explain a virtual simulation of a person within a virtual-reality internet application.

Since then, the notion of humans simulated into games and films and novels has become standard and natural.

Fiction Meets Fact

As this sci-fi meets digital reality, there now emerges a medical application few had predicted. Scientists now believe they can make a digital replica of a human being using all their actual dimensions and medical data, to become the ultimate and perfect ‘guinea pig’ for medicine.

This avatar of a given patient could have a variety of drugs and treatments tested on it, to see what the effect would be on the actual human being. As people are similar but often widely different in ways they respond to drugs, for instance, this is an exciting and potentially life-changing development.

To be able to predict likelihood of bone fractures and heart attacks, organ failures, migraines, function loss and the progress of degeneration would be an invaluable resource to doctors, dentists and midwives.

To see what would happen if a particular drug combination is employed, what side-effects would follow, how long the treatment needed and what would be the guaranteed treatment outcome will revolutionise medicine. Clinicians will have complete models of individual patients entire systems to practise on.

The detailed simulation of treatment has just never been possible till now, and it is hoped it will reduce clinical errors and make any second-guessing in prescribing a thing of the past. In effect, the avatar will be ‘the second opinion’ that medical science often requires.

The application to mental illness is as yet unexplored, but must surely follow. Many people suffer mental illness at some point in their lives. To save money and unnecessary anguish by testing an avatar must be beneficial.

Equally, the application for veterinary care of animals can also be revolutionised by this form of body browsing.

Alejandro Frangi, Professor of Biomedical Image Computing at Sheffield University, who has been leading research said that there is ‘a lot of data about us in the healthcare system’, but it is fragmented. “A model framework gives us a mechanism of putting all the different payers of information together’. He likened it to a Google Earth style map of individual people’s bodies.

In the meantime, as the price of producing a complete human DNA sequence falls (from around $100m in 2001 to $9000 today), personalised medicine is coming through this technology. Scientists now predict that soon all babies will be given their own genome sequence which will create customised medical treatment for them during their lifetime.

That data contains everything about a person from family history to tastes, allergies to receptivity to particular treatments. Thus it may be seen that the human body is the most data-rich, fast transmission device yet created.

MailOnLine. Rob Waugh, 9 March 2012.

Image: Google