by Steve Johnson
San Jose Mercury News
December 25, 2013
This X-ray depicts
the hands of Amal Graafstra, founder of Dangerous Things.
He has had two radio
frequency identifier implants in his hands
which he uses to
unlock his car, computer and door to his Seattle home.
MCT: Courtesy of Amal
The move to outfit people with
that can be swallowed,
implanted or attached
could revolutionize the way
with devices and one another
The move to outfit people with
electronic devices that can be swallowed, implanted or attached to
skin could revolutionize health care and change the way people
interact with devices and one another.
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
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 in the Bay Area and beyond 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
Some researchers and executives envision
a day when devices placed in people will enable them to control
computers, prosthetic devices and many other things solely with
"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, adding that the trend is going to "push the
boundaries of what it means to be human."
Companies and researchers are keenly
interested in the topic.
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."
But Google CEO Larry Page
apparently is intrigued with enhancing people electronically.
A 2011 book about the Mountain View
search giant quoted him saying,
"eventually you'll have an implant,
where if you think about a fact, it will just tell you the
technology proponent Amal Graafstra of Seattle
demonstrates how one
of the doors to his home can be unlocked
just by passing
either of his hands past a sensor which reads the signal
from a RFID chip
implanted in each of his hands.
MCT: Courtesy of Amal
Similar notions are under study by
others, including UC Berkeley researchers. 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."
Among the most widely anticipated uses
for implants, smart pills and electronic tattoos are medical.
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, California-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
After learning about a Cincinnati video surveillance firm that
required employees to have a chip inserted in them, California Sen.
Joe Simitian introduced a bill that became law in 2008
forbidding anyone in this state from making similar demands.
Two years later, when the Virginia House of Delegates passed a
similar measure, 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 this month
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 to 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
The company, which has a contract for a
military version, plans to introduce one next year for consumers,
according to MC10 official Barry Ives Jr. who touted its use
"athletes, expectant and new moms,
and the elderly."
In a recent patent application, Finnish
phone-maker 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 envisioned 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, strokes or other brain damage.
Among the critical issues to be resolved is how to keep implanted
devices updated with the latest software, maintain their battery
power and shield them hackers.
But Eric Dishman, who heads
Intel's health care innovation team, predicts the gadgets -
particularly those providing health benefits - 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."