Perhaps surprisingly, we as humans haven’t gone down the road of embedding much technology in ourselves yet. Where we do, it tends to be for medical reasons, with many of these applications being passive technologies like hip replacements, stents, traction pins, etc.
Artificial hearts and pacemakers are good examples of embedded active technologies, and these are certainly becoming more sophisticated as they can be monitored and controlled externally. And this has just started to raise people’s fears about the security of Medtech; could someone hack the implant and control the device independently? Can people read my health data and violate my privacy?
A few high profile research cases have embedded other non-medical objects in humans. Like pets with RFID identity tags implanted, so too have humans tried this out. Professor Kevin Warwick’s team at Reading University investigated this, with Kevin having an RFID chip embedded under his skin that allowed him to open his laboratory door without the need of a separate keycard. He and his team did a lot more since.
Well over a decade ago a pioneering nightclub in Barcelona allowed partygoers to pay for their drinks with an embedded microchip in their arm. But there haven’t been many cases of this approach being adopted. You don’t see Londoners using embedded Oyster Cards to travel the Tube. You don’t see people with Contactless credit cards embedded in their fingertip to pay for their M&S goods. You don’t see skiers with their ski pass embedded in a limb.
Indeed, wearables or WearableTech are the current fashion. People have Fitbits and GoPros strapped to their body parts; Google Glass was a relatively short lived accessory which may come round again as some kind of contact lens, and the mobile phone and smart watches are the ubiquitous tech about our bodies.
Bodyhacking or biohacking is the term given to hobby cyborgs that are experimenting at the in vivo technology frontier. People have embedded magnets in their fingertips and gained a ‘sixth sense’ in which they can feel the vibrations from a nearby electromagnetic field. The aforementioned Kevin Warwick has had microneedle chip arrays embedded in his arm to provide an interface with his nervous system. And Neil Harbisson embedded an antenna-like sensor through his skull and into his brain to help him overcome his colourblindness and ‘hear’ colours.
And this really is just the beginning because the next (un?!)natural step must surely be to take all our wearable tech and turn it into embeddable tech. The advantages will be many; the body could ‘feed’ the device with energy (heat if nothing else) and obviate the need for a battery. The nervous system could be used to interface with our visual cortex and dispense with the LCD display. The same approach could connect to the cochlear nerve and we’d hear the phone ring or the iTunes track without the need of a loud speaker or headphones; and no one else would be disturbed either.
Get this embedded interface right with our existing nervous system, and there will be many more ways to exploit sensors to help us navigate and communicate. We’ll have embedded GPS, embedded Wifi, embedded 4G, and our bodies will join the Internet of Things; think Internet of Beings.
I wrote an earlier piece about Cerebral Security highlighting that all we know about the issues of cyber security will multiply once we start directly interfacing with our brain. But if our entire body starts to accommodate embeddables, then we’re going to need to think about Cyborg Security.
People’s appendages could start to house very valuable devices that generate even more valuable data. Its not just the ability to pay with a finger, or know where someone is because the chip is now within their arm, but it is also about health and status information being generated. Your internal systems will be streaming data like the telemetry from a rocket ship, and people around you may try to intercept it. If they knew you were hungry, they could sell you a snack. Feeling thirsty; can I sell you a drink? Feeling tired? then you might be a target worth abducting because you wouldn’t have the energy to defend yourself.
Given this you’ll also need to invest in other cyborg accessories; radar and infrared devices that can detect stalkers sneaking up behind you, bionic muscle-boosting devices that pack a heavier punch for improved defence, and exoskeletons that enable you to flee quicker.
As you can see, this will be disruptive technology that will make many of today’s must-have devices obsolete and open up vast new markets where we’ll feel compelled to spend money and keep an even closer eye on our security and privacy. Perhaps someone will create a third eye embeddable just for that task.
Adrian Burden, Festival Founder