Internal IoT? Microchips Implanted Into Swedish Workers
A digital startup incubator in Stockholm called Epicenter has employees volunteering to become “cyborgs,” a transformation involves implanting microchips into the skin between their thumb and index finger. The chips can effectively be used as swipe cards, letting the employees open doors, make mobile payments and even operate printers. According to the Associated Press, the chips perform functions using near-field communications (NFC) to provide convenience for these everyday tasks.
Epicenter’s ambitious team is just one example of how researchers are finding more and more ways to implant electronics inside the human body. These internal Internet of Things (IoT) devices could lead to significant medical breakthroughs and signal the start of an interconnected human-machine future. According to the source, advocates for this emerging technology propose that internal devices could improve carriers’ quality of life through data insights and increased convenience. Dissenters warn that chipping could violate personal privacy, especially if employers or governments make chipping mandatory.
The Material Question
According to one professor of engineering at MIT, however, the inside of the human body isn’t a friendly place for IoT devices.
“Electronics and body fluids do not mix,” Dr. Michael J. Cima tells Bloomberg. “The environment within your body is actually quite corrosive to the kinds of materials you normally have in your iPhone.”
A sensor deep within the body encounters heat, moisture and immunosuppressant reactions. But advances in materials science are making it easier for IoT devices to survive inside living beings.
A group of MIT graduate students created a new hydrogel that could protect electronics deep inside human tissue. The hydrogel’s interior stickiness creates a bond with metal stronger than the bond between tendon and bone. It also stretches much further than earlier hydrogels, helping it move along with the body. A sensor placed inside a hydrogel patch could remain in the body without becoming corroded.
Stretchable materials like hydrogels aren’t new concepts for IoT devices designed for the human body. Japanese researchers, according to BBC, have created an electronic skin that contains electrical circuits and adheres to human skin. This material could potentially monitor health conditions, perform more mundane functions like telling time or even broadcast high-definition TV on the back of a user’s hand.
When pressed to extreme thinness, even rigid materials — like the ones in your iPhone — can become flexible. Silicon, as long as it’s no more than a few nanometers thick, can conform to body tissues and surgical instruments. It can also be used to separate and analyze body particles at nanoscale. For example, the IBM lab on a chip can separate and detect particles as small as 20 nanometers in size, including cancer-specific biomarkers in human saliva, urine or blood.
Connecting Human With Machine
Some researchers see another future for internal IoT: enhancing human brainpower with computer connections. According to Futurism, Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk is launching a business called Neuralink designed to enable human brain tissue to interface with computers.
Internal IoT, powered by Epicenter’s microchips or MIT’s hydrogel-encased sensors, could revolutionize human health care. The integration of IoT with human nervous system components and tissues would do a lot more than open doors at the office.