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Chris Dancy has been tagged as the most connected man in the world. This 45 years old American lives in Denver, 'hooked up' to several wearables that measure all his physical activity, awake and asleep, when resting or moving… He lives connected to a pair of Google Glass, a Fitbit bracelet, a Pebble smartwatch, and sleeps under a quilt with sensors. What Dancy already knows and possibly longs for are the so-called implantable wearables, the beginning of the real 'Connected Man'.
Although these devices incorporated in our bodies may seem like a science fiction story, the health sector has already analyzed the benefits of using these chips. In this year’s South by Southwest event, Dr Leslie Saxon, a cardiologist and director of the Center for Body Computing at the University of Southern California, said that the future of wearables definetely goes beyond a smartwatch or a biometric bracelet.
Implantable wearables: the power of big data and social community
Saxon is convinced that implantable devices will be useful to monitor the health of patients, and that data will help to develop models for disease prevention. This health professional has been leading for some time now initiatives of this type at the Center for Body Computing, where advanced technologies are investigated in order to improve public health.
During one of their investigations, they monitored wirelessly 400,000 patients, who transmitted medical biometric data daily. “We proved that patients live longer if we can implement this type of medical protocols,” says Saxon in an interview in Popular Science. “I realized that by checking every day on patients' status wirelessly, we could make observations not just over my 700 patients with these defibrillators, but over the entire country,” she explains.
The idea of Saxon is to achieve a perfect blend of implantable wearables, massive data processing and the creation of a global medical community. “Instead of having these scenarios where you saw the patient 0.001% of their life, only if they had a symptom, we could use implantable wearable sensors so that we could take care of people continuously and on demand,” says the researcher in Popular Science. If this could be applied to each individual from childhood until his death, we could have a huge database from which to develop predictive models for serious conditions.
Biogram, a community connected by the heart
The Center for Body Computing itself has developed a mobile application that already implements this mixture of data and community. Biogram is an application that allows anyone to share his heart rate to other users. It might seem silly, but over time it can become a great cloud of biometric data.
We are going towards a future in which large tech companies will create their own implantable wearables associated to an application connected to a large data center. It would be something as simple as going to a technology store, get a device implanted into your body and start contributing to enrich a database that can save lives.
“What I'd like to see is almost a UN for digital health, some kind of global governance in the interest of the individual. In the future, think about being able to predict an Ebola outbreak so you can prevent kids from dying”, says Dr Saxon.
Implantable wearables: some examples
Companies like New Deal Design create devices that can make real the visionary cardiologist’s dream of a superconnected medical future. The Underskin project is developing a kind of digital tattoo with NFC technology which will allow to share the constants of the human body in real-time, but also encrypt the use of credit cards or open doors remotely.
Another leading company in the development of such devices is Massachusetts-based MC10. They are working on stickers which can be placed on the skin and include temperature and heart rate sensors. They process data through wireless antennas and also include a battery that gives them autonomy.
The idea of MC10 is to launch devices that are incorporated into the body forever, not as smartwatches or bracelets that can be worn or not. As a matter of fact, their investigations incorporate the experience and knowledge of John A. Rogers, professor of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Illinois and an expert in the study of flexible membranes that can be used on the skin or injected into the body.
Connected Man, Connected Cyborg
The end of this trip is the scenario that defends and promotes the Cyborg Foundation, a non-profit organization founded in 2010 by the activists Neil Harbisson and Moon Ribas. The idea of this association is the creation and research of new trends in the application of technology to the human body. Their ultimate goal is to foster the definitive move from the human being to the cyborg.
As Harbisson has said on more than one occasion, “life will be more exciting when we start creating applications for our body.”
This visionary is, in his own flesh, a connected man. He was born with a hereditary syndrome called achromatopsia, a condition that prevents him from seeing life in colors. Everything his eyes perceive is in grayscale, unless he incorporates in his head a sort of electronic eye that captures the light frequencies and sends them to a chip that he has placed inside his head. The device then generates a different sound for each tone, allowing him to distinguish colors.
What at first was just a detector for Harbisson, ended up becoming a perception and ultimately a real sense of color. The electronic eye was initially a way to overcome his illness, but after a while it became something much bigger. Today it is able to recognize a greater electromagnetic spectrum than the one visible by the human eye.
This is what truly motivates Harbisson: the possibility of developing implantable devices that can not only solve the negative consequences of a disease, but extend the capabilities of the human brain.
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