post by Bill Gardner
How do we become healthier? One way is to change our health behavior. Another is to reengineer ourselves as healthier organisms. One idea on these lines is that we could carry electronics that monitor our physiology and behavior in ways that would permit us to better control our health.
Early examples of this are already here. I have a congenital arrhythmia that is managed by an implanted pacemaker. The device also provides telemetry -- albeit through a very primitive interface -- that allows my electrophysiologist to monitor my heart. I have been having some cardiological problems recently, and we were able to determine that I am no longer able to tolerate as much caffeine as I habitually consume.
Implanting devices, however, is far from optimal. It's expensive and mildly risky to put them in or upgrade them. So here, from Science, is a technology for realizing electronic devices as thin, flexible fabrics that stick to your skin like a tattoo:
We report classes of electronic systems that achieve thicknesses, effective elastic moduli, bending stiffnesses, and areal mass densities matched to the epidermis. Unlike traditional wafer-based technologies, laminating such devices onto the skin leads to conformal contact and adequate adhesion based on van der Waals interactions alone, in a manner that is mechanically invisible to the user. We describe systems incorporating electrophysiological, temperature, and strain sensors, as well as transistors, light-emitting diodes, photodetectors, radio frequency inductors, capacitors, oscillators, and rectifying diodes. Solar cells and wireless coils provide options for power supply. We used this type of technology to measure electrical activity produced by the heart, brain, and skeletal muscles and show that the resulting data contain sufficient information for an unusual type of computer game controller.
In effect, you will be able to wear an electronic device as a thin film sticking to your skin. Remember that the remaining iterations of Moore's law imply that extremely powerful computers will be available at very small scales in the next decade. You won't want a tiny CPU next to your skin, because it will generate a LOT of heat, and it would need a power source more continuous than a solar cell. Nevertheless, all this suggests that if we wish, we will be able to have computers and telemetry with us with minimal encumbrance all the time (The suggestion about "an unusual type of computer game controller" is also quite a turn-on.)
Donna Harraway said,
We are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs.
I certainly am one. There are large questions here, on which I invite comment. First, as I discussed here, technologies like are likely to increase health inequalities. Second, how many useful health applications are there for wearable electronics, other than issues like mine? What do you want to measure about yourself, and how would it benefit you?
Update: Hilarious mistake -- I originally titled this epidural electronics, but of course I meant epidermal!