Founders Gal Sont and Dan Russ. Photo: SwiftKey
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Innovative eye-tracking technology could transform communication for those paralysed

An Israeli start-up backed by predictive-keyboard-pioneer SwiftKey is offering hope for severely disabled individuals.

How do you type if you can’t use your hands? Dictation might be your first thought, but for sufferers of neurodegenerative diseases, this isn’t always an option. Dysarthria – severe speaking difficulty – is a common symptom of many disorders such as Parkinson’s and Huntingdon’s disease, which can render communication almost impossible.

To combat this, an Israeli duo has developed an innovative solution. Click2speak is an exciting new piece of software that could have a huge impact for paralysed people – it allows the user to type on a virtual keyboard using nothing more than eye-movements.

Gal Sont is the inspirational figure behind the tech. Described by co-founder Dan Russ as a reckless adrenaline-lover, Sont’s energetic lifestyle changed in 2009 when he was diagnosed with ALS – the most common type of motor neurone disease. It causes nerve cells in the spine and brain to degenerate, preventing voluntary muscle movement and progressively paralysing the entire body. There is no known cure.

After being diagnosed with the disease, I contacted other individuals who suffer from ALS at different stages, and began to learn about the different challenges that I would face as my disease progressed. I also learned about the tech solutions they used to cope with these challenges.

 The most basic challenge was typing, which is done using a virtual on screen keyboard, a common solution shared by not only individuals affected by ALS, but a variety of illnesses such as brain trauma, MS [multiple sclerosis] and stroke victims. The fully featured advanced on-screen keyboards, again proved relatively very expensive (starting at $250), so I decided to develop the ultimate on-screen keyboard on my own.”

This was a bit easier than it sounds – the maths and computer science graduate has been programming for decades. As his situation deteriorated and he lost the ability to use a mouse, Sont purchased an advanced eye-tracking camera to allow him to code Click2speak with his eyes. Here's how it looks from the user's point-of-view:

On its own, this technology is actually nothing new. Fellow ALS sufferer Stephen Hawking has used facial recognition software to track cheek and eyebrow movements as well, in order to spell out words. What makes this technology so sophisticated is the inclusion of tech from the highly successful Swiftkey Android keyboard - its AI technology learns to predict his words based on sources like texts, Facebook messages and tweets. Sont used it to greatly speed up the process of typing words without hands.

This started a new journey that introduced me to SwiftKey’s revolutionary technologies and how we customize them to our specific needs. I reached a first version of our keyboard and distributed it to friends who also suffer from ALS. They gave us invaluable feedback through the development process, and they all raved about its time saving capabilities and accuracy and how it makes their lives a little easier.”

The last couple of months have been exciting in terms of technological developments – we’ve seen Google and Apple hold conferences showcasing driverless cars and smartwatches – but this niche development seems to pack more punch. The team are looking to quickly get a first version out on the market as soon as possible, and eventually ensure all paralysed individuals can have easily affordable access to this sort of assistive technology.

Davide Restivo at Wikimedia Commons
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Scientists have finally said it: alcohol causes cancer

Enough of "linked" and "attributable": a new paper concludes that alcohol directly causes seven types of cancer.

I don't blame you if you switch off completely at the words "causes cancer". If you pay attention to certain publications, everything from sunbeds, to fish, to not getting enough sun, can all cause cancer. But this time, it's worth listening.

The journal Addiction has published a paper that makes a simple, yet startling, claim: 

"Evidence can support the judgement that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx [part of the throat], larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and [female] breast"

So what's especially significant about this? 

First, scientists, unlike journalists, are very wary of the word "causes". It's hard to ever prove that one action directly led to another, rather than that both happened to occur within the same scenario. And yet Jennie Connor, author of the paper and professor in the Preventive and Social Medicine department at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has taken the leap.

Second, alcohol not only causes cancer of one kind – the evidence supports the claim that it causes cancer at seven different sites in our bodies. There was weaker evidence that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer, while the link between mouth cancers and alcohol consumption was the strongest. 

What did we know about alcohol and cancer before?

Many, many studies have "linked" cancer to alcohol, or argued that some cases may be "attributable" to alcohol consumption. 

This paper loooks back over a decade's worth of research into alcohol and cancer, and Connor concludes that all this evidence, taken together, proves that alcohol "increases the incidence of [cancer] in the population".

However, as Connor notes in her paper, "alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco's", partly because we still don't know exactly how alcohol causes cancer at these sites. Yet she argues that the evidence alone is enough to prove the cause, even if we don't know exactly how the "biologial mechanisms" work. 

Does this mean that drinking = cancer, then?

No. A causal link doesn't mean one thing always leads to the other. Also, cancer in these seven sites was shown to have what's called a "dose-response" relationship, which means the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of cancer.

On the bright side, scientists have also found that if you stop drinking altogether, you can reduce your chances back down again.

Are moderate drinkers off the hook?

Nope. Rather devastatingly, Connor notes that moderate drinkers bear a "considerable" portion of the cancer risk, and that targeting only heavy drinkers with alcohol risk reduction campaigns would have "limited" impact. 

What does this mean for public health? 

This is the tricky bit. In the paper, Connor points out that, given what we know about lung cancer and tobacco, the general advice is simply not to smoke. Now, a strong link proven over years of research may suggest the same about drinking, an activity society views as a bit risky but generally harmless.

Yet in 2012, it's estimated that alcohol-attributable cancers killed half a million people, which made up 5.8 per cent of cancer deaths worldwide. As we better understand the links between the two, it's possible that this proportion may turn out to be a lot higher. 

As she was doing the research, Connor commented:

"We've grown up with thinking cancer is very mysterious, we don't know what causes it and it's frightening, so to think that something as ordinary as drinking is associated with cancer I think is quite difficult."

What do we do now?

Drink less. The one semi-silver lining in the study is that the quantity of alcohol you consume has a real bearing on your risk of developing these cancers. 

On a wider scale, it looks like we need to recalibrate society's perspective on drinking. Drug campaigners have long pointed out that alcohol, while legal, is one of the most toxic and harmful drugs available  an argument that this study will bolster.

In January, England's chief medical officer Sally Davies introduced some of the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world, and later shocked a parliamentary hearing by saying that drinking could cause breast cancer.

"I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues," she told the hearing, "And do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think... do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Now, it's beginning to look like she was ahead of the curve. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.