Nine real technologies that will soon be inside you

9 real technologies that will soon be inside you
9 real technologies that will soon be inside you

Given the frenzy of interest following the announcement of the Apple Watch, you might think wearables will be the next really important shift in technology.

Not so.

Wearables will have their moment in the sun, but they’re simply a transition technology.

Technology will move from existing outside our bodies to residing inside us.

That’s the next big frontier.

Here are nine signs that implantable tech is here now, growing rapidly, and that it will be part of your life (and your body) in the near future.

1. Implantable smartphones

Sure, we’re virtual connected to our phones 24/7 now, but what if we were actually connected to our phones?

That’s already starting to happen.

Last year, for instance, artist Anthony Antonellis had an RFID chip embedded in his arm that could store and transfer art to his handheld smartphone.

Researchers are experimenting with embedded sensors that turn human bone into living speakers.

Other scientists are working on eye implants that let an image be captured with a blink and transmitted to any local storage (such as that arm-borne RFID chip).

But what takes the place of the screen if the phone is inside you? Techs at Autodesk are experimenting with a system that can display images through artificial skin.

Or the images may appear in your eye implants.

2. Healing chips

Right now, patients are using cyber-implants that tie directly to smartphone apps to monitor and treat diseases.

A new bionic pancreas being tested at America’s Boston University, for instance, has a tiny sensor on an implantable needle that talks directly to a smartphone app to monitor blood-sugar levels for diabetics.

Scientists in London are developing swallowable capsule-sized circuits that monitor fat levels in obese patients and generate genetic material that makes them feel “full”.

It has potential as an alternative to current surgery or other invasive ways to handle gross obesity.

Dozens of other medical issues from heart murmurs to anxiety have implant/phone initiatives under way.

3. Cyber pills that talk to your doctor

Implantables won’t just communicate with your phone; they’ll chat up your doctor, too.

In a project named Proteus, after the eensy body-navigating vessel in the film Fantastic Voyage, a British research team is developing cyber-pills with microprocessors in them that can text doctors directly from inside your body.

The pills can share (literally) inside info to help doctors know if you are taking your medication properly and if it is having the desired effect.

4. Bill Gates’ implantable birth control

The Gates Foundation is supporting an MIT project to create an implantable female compu-contraceptive controlled by an external remote control.

The tiny chip generates small amounts of contraceptive hormone from within the woman’s body for up to 16 years.

Implantation is no more invasive than a tattoo.

And, “The ability to turn the device on and off provides a certain convenience factor for those who are planning their family.”, said Dr Robert Farra of MIT.

Gives losing the remote a whole new meaning.

5. Smart tattoos

Tattoos are hip and seemingly ubiquitous, so why not smart, digital tattoos that not only look cool, but can also perform useful tasks, like unlocking your car or entering mobile phone codes with a finger-point?

Researchers at the University of Illinois have crafted an implantable skin mesh of computer fibers thinner than a human hair that can monitor your body’s inner workings from the surface.

A company called Dangerous Things has an NFC chip that can be embedded in a finger through a tattoo-like process, letting you unlock things or enter codes simply by pointing.

A Texas research group has developed microparticles that can be injected just under the skin, like tattoo ink, and can track body processes.

All of these are much wiser choices than the name of a soon-to-be-ex.

6. Brain-computer interface

Having the human brain linked directly to computers is the dream (or nightmare) of sci-fi.

But now, a team at Brown University called BrainGate is at the forefront of the real-world movement to link human brains directly to computers for a host of uses.

As the BrainGate website says, “using a baby aspirin-sized array of electrodes implanted into the brain, early research from the BrainGate team has shown that the neural signals can be ‘decoded’ by a computer in real-time and used to operate external devices.”

Chip maker Intel predicts practical computer-brain interfaces by 2020.

Intel scientist Dean Pomerleau said in a recent article, “Eventually people may be willing to be more committed to brain implants.”

“Imagine being able to surf the Web with the power of your thoughts.”

7. Meltable bio-batteries

One of the challenges for implantable tech has been how to get power to devices tethered inside or floating around in human bodies.

You can’t plug them in.

You can’t easily take them out to replace a battery.

A team at Draper Laboratory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is working on biodegradable batteries.

They generate power inside the body, transfer it wirelessly where needed, and then simply melt away.

Another project is looking at how to use the body’s own glucose to generate power for implantables.

Think the potato battery of grammar school science, but smaller and much more advanced.

8. Smart dust

Perhaps the most startling of current implantable innovations is smart dust, arrays of full computers with antennas, each much smaller than a grain of sand, that can organize themselves inside the body into as-needed networks to power a whole range of complex internal processes.

Imagine swarms of these nano-devices, called motes, attacking early cancer or bringing pain relief to a wound or even storing critical personal information in a manner that is deeply encrypted and hard to hack.

With smart dust, doctors will be able to act inside your body without opening you up, and information could be stored inside you, deeply encrypted, until you unlocked it from your very personal nano network.

9. The verified self

Implantables hammer against social norms.

They raise privacy issues and even point to a larger potential dystopia.

This technology could be used to ID every single human being, for example.

Already, the US military has serious programs afoot to equip soldiers with implanted RFID chips, so keeping track of troops becomes automatic and worldwide.

Many social critics believe the expansion of this kind of ID is inevitable.

Some see it as a positive: improved crime fighting, universal secure elections, a positive revolution in medical information and response, and never a lost child again.

Others see the perfect Orwellian society: a Big Brother who, knowing all and seeing all, can control all.

And some see the first big, fatal step toward the Singularity, that moment when humanity turns its future over to software.

Putting Electronics in People

By Glenn Zorpette

Posted 10 Mar 2014 | 19:14 GMT

A baby born five to 10 years from now in a developed country may get a tattoo not long after her first feeding. It would be an integrated circuit, a discreet and flexible affair, smaller than a postage stamp and probably placed on the chest. It would monitor such biometric parameters as electrocardiogram (EKG), physical activity, nutritional status, sleep duration, breathing rate, body temperature, and hydration. By the time the child is two years old, she will have generated and stored in the cloud more biometric data than has anyone alive today, says Leslie Saxon, chief of the division of cardiovascular medicine at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine.

The data, possibly collected from one or more sensors in the body, would be transmitted to cellphones or tablets where apps would give parents and pediatricians insights into the baby’s health and condition in real-time. 

And it won’t be just children who are sensored up, Saxon says. Athletes, soldiers, and just about everybody else would benefit. It’s part of a future in which “patients own their data and have the resources to interact with it,” Saxon says. “They’ll manage symptoms and medication, food and physical activity,” she predicts. “You’ll be able to curate your own body metrics.” And that’s not all. Noting that the deluges of data will be valuable to pharmaceutical, biomedical, and other companies, Saxon suggested that “maybe you should be paid for your data.”

Saxon, addressing a standing-room-only crowd of about 500 people, was the first speaker at the IEEE Technology For Humanity series at the SXSW Interactive conference in Austin, Texas, on Saturday.

She acknowledged the potential pitfalls that have fueled apprehension about such schemes, such as concerns about privacy. With a piece of hardware in your body that can identify you uniquely and unequivocally, and with sensitive data flowing from your body continuously, the potential for tracking or misuse of the data are worrisome, she conceded. “Maybe there has to be a virtual UN [United Nations], to make sure individuals’ rights are safeguarded,” she said. She also acknowledged that many people don’t want to know data that could reveal critical aspects about their long-term health prospects.

It will only work, she says, if people are “using machines to amplify their humanity, not to scare the heck out of them.” Clever apps could let people “discover revelatory stuff about themselves,” she pointed out. “It should be fun–like cinematic arts, it should engage me, and be on-demand.” An avid popular music fan, Saxon noted how she became a believer in Spotify, the music streaming and recommending service, after it steered her to the rapper Lil Wayne. She had never been a rap fan, but Spotify “decided I’d like him, and I do!” she exclaimed.

To underscore the point, Saxon set up a Spotify playlist, which is described on her YouTube channel.

Already, she said, 27 percent of Americans use some sort of gear that measures biometric data, such as a wristband that records timing of physical activity and sleep. These will evolve into “incredible sensors that can change the human-machine interface,” she predicted. They’ll be implantable, networked, and durable, and become a part of our leisure and personal lives. Imagine “merging sensors from our bodies to those of, say, a high-end car, to enhance the experience of driving the car.” Or, “suppose you’ve had a fight with your husband. How does digital data inform you and help you move beyond it?”

One coming application will be tiny, ingestible sensors, which will be taken with pills. The sensors will affirm that a patient has taken a correct dosage, and then monitor physiological reactions to the dose, enabling doctors to fine-tune it. Thirty to 50 percent of patients don’t take drugs in the dosages prescribed, Saxon said. In fact, Saxon noted, an ingestible-sensor scheme developed by Proteus Digital Health has already been FDA approved, and is being rolled out for heart-failure related drugs.

Getting back to the children, Saxon noted that widespread use of sensors in young people could be particularly invaluable in developing countries, where outbreaks of disease are more common and often difficult to analyze and trace. Undernourishment, too, could be better understood. “Major public health concerns could be addressed in these ways,” Saxon said. And the benefits would accrue in some surprising places—some 2 million children live in poverty and are undernourished in her home state of California, according to Saxon.