The gap separating reality and science fiction shortens by the day. Professor Hao-Hua Chu of the National Taiwan University, whose sense of parental responsibility prompted him to design a camera-based game to encourage children to brush their teeth that shows which areas of the mouth have been properly cleaned, is now working on a device that embeds triaxial accelerometers in users’ teeth that detects myriad behavior patterns such drinking, smoking, coughing, chewing, and even speech, and that is 94 percent accurate.
This work could be applied to many different areas, from detecting food intake for people on diets, to helping smokers quit their habit, or identifying speech patterns, for example the repeated use of words or phrases. Still in the early stages of research and development, the concept clearly has huge potential.
In recent years we have become increasingly used to hearing about implanting devices in the body. The first cardiac pacemakers date back to the late 1950s, and their development has been led by a revolution in electronics that has seen the creation of ever-smaller devices able to transmit complex data, allowing them to be updated or reprogrammed without the need for surgery.
A recent episode of US television series Homeland saw the Vice President murdered when his pacemaker was interfered with, sparking widespread concern about whether this was possible in real life. The death in late July of well-known hacker Barnaby Jack at the age of 35, shortly before he was due to attend a Black Hat conference in Las Vegas on the vulnerabilities of medical devices, under circumstances that are yet to be clarified, has given the conspiracy theorists plenty to speculate about.
The idea of the human body as the “final frontier” is a powerful one: with each day we learn about new devices that can be worn and that allow us to monitor our habits, the amount we exercise, and even how often we have sex. We are growing used to the idea that these devices are there to help us lead healthier lives. The smartphone is increasingly the control center for such devices, becoming the hub that manages our Personal area networks, or PANs, made up of sensors distributed around the body.
We may find the idea of implantable or wearable computing initially strange, but the reality is that we already live in a world in which many decisions are taken for us by technological devices: it is but a short leap to a world in which sensors implanted in our bodies monitor our digestion, blood pressure, heart rate, or the amount of times we say “like” or “kind of” in each sentence.
Other questions remain, such as understandable concerns about who has access to this information, or the safety of such devices, but addressing these is simply a matter of time. And as we are seeing, this will likely be sooner rather than later.