It’s likely the world in the not-so-distant future will be increasingly populated by computerized people like Amal Graafstra.
The 37-year-old doesn’t need a key or password to get into his car, home or computer. He’s programmed them to unlock at the mere wave of his hands, which are implanted with radio frequency identification tags. The rice-size gadgets work so well, the Seattle resident says, he’s sold similar ones to more than 500 customers through his company, Dangerous Things.
The move to outfit people with electronic devices that can be swallowed, implanted in their bodies or attached to their skin via “smart tattoos” could revolutionize health care and change the way people interact with devices and one another. Critics call the trend intrusive, even sacrilegious. But others say it ultimately will make life better for everybody. Some proponents envision a day when devices placed in people will enable them to control computers, prosthetic devices and many other things solely with their thoughts.
“In the next 10 to 20 years we will see rapid development in bioengineered and man-machine interfaces,” predicted Graafstra, who wrote a book about the technology.
In a patent application made public in November, Google’s Motorola Mobility branch proposed an “electronic skin tattoo” for the throat — with a built-in microphone, battery and wireless transceiver — that would let someone operate other devices via voice commands.
When asked, Google said it often seeks patents on employee brainstorms and that, while “some of those ideas later mature into real products or services, some don’t.”
Similar notions are under study by others, including researchers at the University of California, Berkeley. In a scholarly paper published in July, they proposed implanting people’s brains with thousands of tiny sensors they called “neural dust.”
The idea initially is to have the little circuits gather detailed data on brain functions. But eventually, lead researcher Dongjin Seo said, the electronic swarms may prove useful for “controlling devices via thought” or stimulating malfunctioning brain regions to restore “limb motor control for paralyzed patients.”
In October, Stanford doctors implanted the brain of a Parkinson’s disease sufferer with a new device that gathers detailed data on the “neural signatures” of his illness. They hope to use the information to make a gadget that will ease Parkinson’s symptoms with electrical impulses that adjust to any activity the patients do.
Last year, Proteus Digital Health of Redwood City, Calif., won approval to sell a pill that relays information about a person’s vital signs via a mobile phone to their doctor. And officials at Santa Clara, Calif.,-based Intel envision their microchips one day in devices ingested or implanted for medical and other uses.
Some fear implants might become mandatory for health insurance or jobs.
After learning that a Cincinnati video surveillance firm required employees to have a chip inserted in them, state Sen. Joe Simitian introduced a bill that became law in 2008 forbidding anyone in California from making similar demands.
When the Virginia House passed a similar measure in 2010, some of the lawmakers — citing biblical references about the Antichrist — denounced implanted chips as “the mark of the beast.”
It’s unclear how widespread those concerns are. A study Intel made public in December found that 70 percent of the 12,000 adults it surveyed were receptive to having their health data collected by various means, including “swallowed monitors.”
Nonetheless, Intel futurist Brian David Johnson thinks the public initially will be more amenable to smart tattoos than computerized pills or gadgets inserted into them, because “something on your skin, that’s a baby step” compared with a swallowed or surgically implanted device.
One tattoo being developed by MC10 of Cambridge, Mass., would temporarily attach to the skin like an adhesive bandage and wirelessly transmit the wearer’s vital signs to a phone or other device. The company, which has a contract for a military version, plans to introduce one for consumers.
In a recent patent application, Finnish phonemaker Nokia proposed a tattoo that would vibrate when the person gets a phone call or serve as a mobile-device password and attach to the skin with “ferromagnetic powder.”
Other such gadgets would go under the skin.
MicroChips of Lexington, Mass., recently reported success testing a microchip implanted waist high that automatically provided daily doses of medicine to osteoporosis patients. In February, regulators approved an eye implant by Second Sight Medical Products of Sylmar that lets the visually impaired see shapes and movements transmitted to the implant from a camera on their glasses. And University of Southern California scientists are studying implanted chips to restore memories in people with dementia or strokes.
Critical issues to be resolved include how to update the devices’ software, maintain their battery power and shield them from hackers. But Eric Dishman, who heads Intel’s health care innovation team, predicts the gadgets will become common.
“There’s going to be an ecosystem of things on and in the body,” he predicted, adding, “this is the ultimate in personalized medicine.”