Wearable and ingestible sensors are revolutionising the health monitoring space as the demand for quality healthcare continues to rise. Emphasis on preventive health has led to the development of prognostic sensors for applications in the medical industry. This, in turn, has led to a shift in the healthcare business model from a diagnostic one to more prognostic and preventive health and wellness.
Sensor adoption is crucial to this evolution, facilitating advanced diagnostics, treatment and patient monitoring. Wearable and implantable biosensors will emerge as the key enablers for device innovation.
“The Internet of Medical Things will lead to sensors playing a greater role in offering connected healthcare infrastructure,” said Measurement and Instrumentation Industry Principal Dr. Rajender Thusu. “However, there are no clear policies or standardisations yet that companies can adhere to while implementing the connected health platform. The greatest challenge, therefore, lies in bringing together different applications under the same working platform, when individual solutions lack interoperability.”
What kind of devices can you expect to see gaining momentum? Think Fitbits and Apple Watches that can read your heart rate, activity levels, and sleep cycles. Google is even developing contact lenses that can read your glucose levels. mc10 is coming out with a biometric stamp the size of a band-aid that can report a person’s vitals to connected devices and doctors. Developers at the University of Buffalo are creating a pendant that can analyze chewing and swallowing sounds to determine what wearers are eating and alert them when they’ve started to overeat or eat unhealthily.
While these devices may be helpful for those hoping to maintain good health, Ian Shakil notes that it’s important to realize that these devices are only able to provide so much assistance.
“The Internet of Medical Things will continue to evolve and deliver value by getting the complexities of technology out of the way and connecting- or better yet, reconnecting- doctors with patients,” said Shakil, CEO of Audmedix.
“Augmendix’s service is optimally designed to deliver the highest quality patient notes resulting in improved patient care and pay or reimbursement,” he explained.
Shakil’s company estimates that physicians spend at least 70 percent of their time reading documentation before they started sing their service. “This new ly reclaimed time that can be repurposed in-clinic for other administrative tasks or even to see more patients,” he explained.
Workers at companies based in the Swedish tech business incubator Epicentre are having microchips implanted into their hands.
Up to 400 members of Stockholm's Epicenter will be able to have the highly controversial radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips inserted into their bodies.
The chips, which are the size of a grain of rice, store personalised security information, similar way to an office security pass or a chip-and-pin credit card. They enable people to open doors and operate photocopiers – and in the future make payments – with a wave of their hand.
"We already interact with technology all the time," said Hannes Sjoblad, who is in charge of implanting the chips and has an implant containing his business card details. "Today it's a bit messy: we need pin codes and passwords. Wouldn't it be easy to just touch with your hand? That's really intuitive.
"We want to be able to understand this technology before big corporates and big government come to us and say everyone should get chipped – the tax authority chip, the Google or Facebook chip."
RFID chips have already provoked controversy in the US following rumours President Obama's regime would require every US citizen to have one implanted, as part of health care reforms.
BBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones raised doubts of the wider social acceptability of RFID implants after having one of the chips inserted while visiting Epicenter.
"All sorts of things are possible," he wrote. "Whether it becomes culturally acceptable to insert technology beneath our skin is another matter."
But Sjoblad, a chief disruption officer at the Swedish biohacking group BioNyfiken, believes the use of RFIDs is just the beginning.
"I believe we have just started discovering the things we can do with this. There is huge potential for life-logging. With the fitness-tracking wearables at the moment, you have to type in what you are eating or where you are going," he said. "Instead of typing data into my phone, when I put it down and tap it with my implant it will know I am going to bed.
"Imagine sensors around a gym that recognises, for instance, who is holding a dumbbell via the tag in your hand. There is an ongoing explosion in the Internet of Things. The sensors will be around for me to be able to register my activity in relation to them."
Ben Slater, an advertising director from Australia, had a near-field communication (NFC) microchip injected into his hand just before the launch of the iPhone 6.
Micro-chip implants for making payments and locking doors are the next frontier, but are the pitfalls worth it?
Amal Graafstra holding a large hypodermic needle - the kind needed to inject an RFID chip into your hand. Photo: Supplied
Most tech-heads like to tinker with the inner workings of iPhones or clapped out VCRs.
But Amal Graafstra is different. For the last 10 years, he's been busy hacking into his own body.
His US company Dangerous Things specialises in manufacturing rice grain-sized computer chips designed to be implanted inside the delicate webbing between the thumb and forefinger.
[Dangerous Things founder Amal Graafstra has an RFID chip implanted in each hand.]
Dangerous Things founder Amal Graafstra has an RFID chip implanted in each hand. Photo: Supplied
"Getting an ear piercing is many times more risky," he says, reassuringly.
The bionic-grade glass chips use radio-frequency identification (RFID) to control electronic objects with the swipe of a hand - from the lock on a front door to a car ignition or a personal computer.
It's the same kind of technology used in pet ID tags; by itself, the chip doesn't do much, but when it comes into close contact with a "reader" device, it will transmit information that can then trigger commands.
[The bionic glass chips are about the size of a grain of rice.]
The bionic glass chips are about the size of a grain of rice. Photo: Supplied
The chips only cost $US99 a pop, and while their core market is a handful of dedicated geeks - including a few in Australia - Graafstra says he's increasingly noticing a new kind of customer.
"What is becoming clear is there are more individuals purchasing the chips who have less knowledge about the technology," he says.
"They're into gadgets and they're geeky but they're not necessarily building their own stuff, so the type of customer is expanding slowly."
[NFC chips are increasingly used for instant payment methods, including via smartphones.]
NFC chips are increasingly used for instant payment methods, including via smartphones. Photo: Visa
RFID chips are becoming more common elsewhere, too.
The most well-known standard of RFID is near-field communication (NFC), increasingly used in instant, digital payment transactions, which facilitate credit card payments in a matter of seconds with a simple tap.
Visa this week announced a partnership with the University of Technology Sydney to develop new wearable technologies.
Alongside the announcement came a sensational figure from its own research, purporting to show that a quarter of Australians were "at least slightly interested" in having an NFC chip implanted in their skin for payments.
Visa and UTS have since clarified they were not actively developing implant technologies themselves, but the alarm bells are already ringing.
Social futurist Mal Fletcher, who heads up the London-based think tank 2020 Plus, responded with an Op Ed warning of the potential pitfalls of "subcutaneous spending devices".
These included bodily hacking; mass surveillance from commercial parties collecting our personal data; rising instances of "digital debt" thanks to the abolition of physical money and its tangible value associations; links between implants and cancer; and even the potential to cause early-onset dementia.
Fletcher insists he's not an alarmist - just cautious.
"We have to look at not just where technology is now but the principle behind it," he says.
"I'm not trying to make payments companies into the bogyman," he says. But he points out that it is in their interests to lead the push towards a cashless society, where ease of transactions and detachment from money encourage impulse spending - and everyone's spending habits are dutifully logged.
Graafstra counters that chip implants are not too far removed from where we are today, where day-to-day living depends on the binary transactions of bank cards, swipe cards and serial numbers - all traceable back to our ID.
"We're already in a position where we have no real control over our digital assets," he says.
At least chip implants can eliminate the stress of being mugged - or can they?
The threat of hacking RFID chips is real, says Linus Information Security Solutions director Mike Thompson, and the upsides may not be worth it.
The assumption that NFC chips can only be read at very short distances is misplaced, he says, citing "plenty of examples" where people have accessed them over distances of several metres using specialised antennas.
These security flaws can be mitigated with the addition of passcodes or PINs - which can be added to smartphones or wearables, but not to the palm of your hand (yet).
An aluminium shield also works; for instance, a special aluminium wallet to protect your NFC-enabled credit card from would-be hackers.
Thompson is sceptical of the advantages of embedding chips into one's body over, say, clothing or other wearable devices.
"Is opening a door automatically when you are naked that important?"
“The Watch is here” touts Apple’s slogan for its wearable computer, implying that the one and only time-piece that really matters has arrived. So much for the Rolex Cosmograph and Seiko Astron when you can buy a stylish digital Apple Watch Sport, or even Apple Watch Edition crafted with 18-karat gold.
If we believe the hype, one in four Australians plan to buy a wearable device by the end of the year.
Of its many features and functions, the Apple Watch is a music player, fitness tracker, communications device, payment token and digital key. And it also tells the time. We were surprised that no one claimed that it will also help look after our kids. But not for long. There’s an app for that. So is there anything this device cannot do?
Who would have thought that the power of an internet-enabled laptop computer, mobile phone, iPod, fitness tracker, bank card and set of keys could be neatly packaged and strapped around your wrist?
And unlike other futuristic visions of hand-held communicators, the Apple Watch won’t leave you stranded in perilous situations because it’s dropped, stolen or falls out of range because it’s literally always connected to you.
This raises a key question: how will we change our behaviour based on the fact that we are walking around with a fully-fledged computer – one that sits in contact with our bodies and communicates wirelessly with machines around us without us being explicitly aware of it?
According to the marketing spiel, we’ll have a lot more convenience at our fingertips. But, in actuality, we may find ourselves reaching for the mute button, longing to be disconnected, and fed up with all the notifications interrupting us. That’s when the novelty effect wears off.
We have probably witnessed people who cannot resist the urge of pulling out their mobile phone to interact with it at the most inopportune times or who pass their idle time simply looking down at a screen.
Most do not realise they are even interacting with their personal computer devices for hours each day. The repetitive behaviour has almost become a type of tic disorder which is neurobehavioural.
We get a message, it makes us feel important. We reply and get a buzz the very next time it happens again. It’s kind of like digital ping pong. And the game can get tangible fast. The main reason this repetitive behaviour remains hidden is that the majority of smartphone users suffer from this, so it looks normal.
You can see people in public spaces immersed in virtual places. These Wi-Fi-enabled mobile contraptions can also trigger a host of internet-related addictions, whether used for gaming, answering mail, web surfing, online transactions, social media, we-chatting, or taking a tonne of photographs.
According to experts, internet addiction disorder (IAD) can ruin lives by causing neurological complications, psychological disturbances and social problems. This is not to mention the potential for accidents when people are not looking where they are going or not paying attention to what they should be doing. In short, our need to be always online and connected has become a kind of cybernarcotic drug.
Little device, big data
Very few of us are immune to this yearning for “feedback loops”, so telecommunications operators and service providers pounce on this response. Information is money. And while we are busy interacting with our device, the companies are busy pocketing big money using our big data.
In days gone by, mobile communications could tell data collectors about our identity, location, even our condition. This is not new. But the real-time access and precision of this level of granularity of data gathered is something we should be all aware of as potentially impinging on our fundamental human rights.
Because they interface directly with the human body, watches have the capacity to tell a third party much more about you than just where you’ve been and where you are likely to be going. They can:
Detect physiological characteristics like your pulse rate, heart rate, temperature which can say a lot about your home/work/life habits
Determine time, distance, speed and altitude information derived from onboard sensors
Identify which apps you are using and how and why you are using them, minute by minute
Oversee the kinds of questions you are asking via search engines and text-based messages you are sending via social media.
All in all, private corporations can glean what you are thinking, the problems you are facing, and they know your personal context. What is disturbing is that they can divulge some of your innermost personal thoughts, intentions and actions, and have evidence for the reasons we do things.
Many people immersed in the virtual world are too busy to be thinking about the very act of inputting information onto the internet. People value a life of convenience over privacy too much to be genuinely concerned what information is being logged by a company and shared with hundreds of other potential partners and affiliates.
And consumers are often oblivious to the fact that, even if they are doing nothing at all, the smart device they are carrying or wearing is creating a type of digital DNA about their uniqueness.
Today, we are asking to be monitored and are partying in the panopticon. We have fallen in love with the idea of being told about ourselves and don’t discern that we have become like prison inmates who are being tracked with electronic bracelets.
By the time we wake up to this technological trajectory, it may be all too late. Our health insurance provider might be Samsung, our telecoms provider may be Google, and our unique lifetime identifier could come from Apple. At present, these are the archetypal tech providers. But tomorrow, who knows?
And by that time, we will likely be heralding in the age of uberveillance where we posit that cellphones and wristwatches are not enough, that the human-computer interface should go deeper, penetrating the skin and into the body.
The new slogan might read “The Mark is Here”, herald the iPlant, that which gives birth to life, the one and only passport to access your forever services.
“You can’t live without it”, may soon no longer be just figurative, but a reality.