The creepy and amazing world of computer implants
Cameras embedded in human skulls. Chips that translate thoughts into actions. Contact lenses that diagnose eye diseases. These computer implants will blow your mind.
The cybernetic organism, or cyborg, has been a staple of science fiction for decades. Recent advancements in computer implants, however, are making the man-machine merger a reality--often with results both fascinating and frightening. In the near future, miniature electronic implants may help blind people see and paraplegics walk. And as crazy as it sounds, your pancreas and liver may soon communicate with your smartphone. What will your vital organs say? Read on to find out.
Chip on the Brain
Never mind touchscreens, keyboards, mice, or even voice input. The new BrainGate" technology cuts out the UI middleman by implanting a chip directly under a person's skull. The chip detects electrical impulses, which route to a computer for translation into real-world actions such as moving a cursor on screen, or opening and closing a prosthetic hand. Prototype BrainGate systems" are currently being tested on people with severe physical disabilities, including those with spinal-cord injuries or muscular dystrophy.
Heart to iPhone, Please Answer!
Dutch researchers at IMEC have developed a wireless body area network (BAN) that empowers vital organs to send health data to a smartphone. Called Human++ BAN, the network consists of a series of miniature sensors, each with its own power supply, that communicate with a central node worn on the body. The external node uses a cell phone network or wireless LAN to contact the outside world, such as your mobile phone or doctor's office. Human++ BAN's potential uses include medical diagnostics, chronic disease management, and fitness tracking. (Sorry, no Facebook updates at this time.)
Third Eye for the Artsy Guy
Iraqi-American performance artist and NYU professor Wafaa Bilal temporarily implanted a camera on the back of his head. Why? To capture images, one per minute, from his daily life and transmit them to his Website and to Qatar's Arab Museum of Modern Art for public viewing. The artist's 3rdi apparatus consisted of a small digital camera surgically mounted on his skull. Bilal carried a 3G-enabled laptop, which attached to the camera via USB cable. Not surprisingly, the skull-embedded camera gave Bilal a headache, which led the professor to remove part of the device.
Help for Paralyzed Limbs
Researchers at University College London have developed Active Book, an implantable chip that sends electrical impulses to help exercise paralyzed bodies. Unlike earlier devices, which were too bulky to implant, the miniature Active Book is smaller than a fingernail. It slips around spinal nerves and sends electrical impulses directly to the spine, researchers say. By implanting many of these chips, scientists hope to stimulate enough muscle groups to enable activities such as cycling or rowing.
Researchers worldwide are developing retina implants to help restore sight to blind and vision-impaired people. In Germany, the Institute for Ophthalmic Research's Retina Implant Project, for instance, is developing a microchip with photocells; the chip absorbs light as it enters the eye, and then converts it into electrical signals. (An external energy source behind the ear powers the device.) The chip assumes the duties of light-sensitive cells, or photoreceptors, that have been damaged by degenerative retinal diseases.
Man Catches Computer Virus!
Now wait just a gosh darn minute--how could computer code "infect" a living, breathing human? This viral melding of man and machine seemed peculiar when it made headlines in May 2010. Here's what happened: British scientist Mark Gasson and his colleagues at the University of Reading created a benign virus for an RFID (radio-frequency identification) chip embedded in Gasson's arm. (A cybernetics expert, Gasson uses the chip in lieu of a conventional swipe card.) The virus jumped wirelessly from Gasson's chip to the lab's computers, demonstrating how easily malware can spread via unsecured, implanted devices. The moral of the story: Implant designers need to take security seriously.
'Breast on a Chip'
Purdue University researchers are studying new approaches to breast cancer treatment that may include the use of nanoparticles to detect and destroy tumor cells. They've developed a tiny breast-on-a-chip, a U-shaped mold that contains the delicate cells that line mammary ducts. This "engineered organ" will allow researchers to study nanomedical treatments, including the use of magnetic nanoparticles that attach to and illuminate cancer cells. By reversing the magnetic field, researchers hope to retract excess nanoparticles. If successful, nanomedical treatments could prove far less harmful to cancer patients than today's chemotherapy.
'The Wireless Body'
PositiveID's Wireless Body, a new healthcare-management system for diabetes patients, uses an RFID microchip that's slightly larger than a long grain of rice. The chip is usually embedded in the patient's arm. Rather than enduring daily finger pricks, diabetics use a wireless scanner to get readings from the implant--an easier way to monitor and record their blood-sugar levels. Love it or hate it, RFID technology will soon play a major role in our daily lives.
Contact Lens With Sensor
Here's an easier way for ophthalmologists to diagnose and treat eye-related diseases such as glaucoma. Sensimed, a Swiss medical-devices company, has developed Sensimed Triggerfish, an innovative micromechanical sensor embedded in a soft silicon contact lens. This monitoring tool allows an eye doc to record and observe intraocular pressure--fluid pressure of the aqueous humor--continuously for up to 24 hours. An ophthalmologist places the Triggerfish sensor on the patient's eye, just like a normal contact lens. The device's antenna is tethered to a small recording box about the size of an iPod Classic. The patient then goes home while the monitoring system records intraocular data. When the patient returns the next day, the doctor removes the device and analyzes the information.
You've Got Me Under Your Skin
Some people light up a room when they enter. The rest of us might consider embedded LEDs implanted under our skin. Developed by the University of Illinois's John Rogers and a team of international researchers, this malleable set of LEDs is sheathed in a fine layer of silicon rubber. The result is a flexible yet functional LED array that's impervious to bodily fluids. Future real-world uses may include subdermal LED implants that monitor wounds or initiate drug therapy.
Mark of the Beast?
The Web is rife with noisy, Bible-quoting loons convinced that computer implants and radio-frequency identification chips fulfill apocalyptic prophesies that foretell the end of mankind. How can you tell if they're right? Well, simply remove your RFID implant--hey, you probably have one and don't even know it--and check its serial number. If the digits 666 appear anywhere, we're all doomed.