IoB: The Good, Bad and Ugly
Internet of Bodies (IoB) already has an established evolutionary journey. It started with internal and external devices and, more recently, moved to embedded options. This journey has brought about questions about what’s good, what’s not so good and what’s downright bad.
Internet of Things (IoT) is commonplace, but the Internet of Bodies (IoB) is on the rise. By definition, IoB is basically IoT applied to the body and connects it to a network through devices that are ingested, implanted or connected to the body in some way. The body has become the latest data platform resulting in endless possibilities though some of them offer questionable opportunities.
There has been special interest in IoB for some time, noting that developments in the field have expanded the notion of healthcare beyond the hospital or surgery and into everyday life. Physical data can be gathered using a range of devices that can either be worn, ingested or even implanted.
Externally wearable devices abound, with Apple or Samsung watches and Fitbit being widespread. Indian market intelligence and advisory firm, Mordor Intelligence’s Smartwatch Market – Growth, Trends, COVID-19 Impact and Forecasts (2021 – 2026) research reports that the smartwatch market had a shipment of 68.6 million units in 2020 and is expected to reach 157.2 million by 2026.
The health focus trend has led to an increase in the shipment of fitness trackers. Since every smartwatch has a component of a fitness tracker, the popularity of the smartwatch has increased significantly, as it has multi-functional features for recording health parameters. As nifty as these devices and their accompanying functionality are, they seem to be the tip of the iceberg.
More recently, we’ve all been subjected to having our temperatures taken due to COVID-19. Mostly via sensor-operated thermometers that abide by the socially distanced order of the day. In Shanghai’s Public Health Clinical Center (SPHCC), smart thermometers produced by VivaLNK also use sensors to record temperature. The temperature sensor is applied directly onto the patient and allows for continuous, real time monitoring of changes. Data is sent electronically from the patient to a remote observation dashboard at the nursing station where an abnormal result triggers an alert ensuring a prompt response.
The solution limits patient-to-caregiver contact and medical staff are further able to analyse trends from gathered data. Jiang Li, VivaLNK CEO says, ‘The world will never be rid of diseases, but more effective methods of prevention and treatment can be achieved through technological advances.’ SPHCC also plans to deploy other VivaLNK sensors to monitor vitals such as heart rate and respiratory rate.
More internal devices such as cochlear implants and pacemakers have offered implanted healthcare solutions for some time. More evolutionary still, are ingestible digital pills. In 2017, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) in America issued the first approval of Abilify Mycite, a digital pill for treatment and monitoring. Basically, once swallowed, sensors are activated in the patient’s stomach that transmit data to a device in real time allowing for the release of aripiprazole, a drug used in treating psychiatric conditions.
The solution offers life-changing experience for patients with severe conditions like schizophrenia and severe depression given that missed medication can have serious consequences. There are several market players who are developing similar and expanded solutions. Digital pills that allow video streaming as ingested, multiple medicines that are 3D-printed onto a single pill and even internal site-specific treatment are but some of the innovations being explored. Undoubtedly, the future holds many more such developments in the field.
Because IoB is powered by quintessential personal data, it provides health-related opportunities, but also, a set of unique challenges. Former American Vice President, Dick Cheney, was fitted with a pacemaker in 2001 after suffering with heart disease. In 2007, the heart defibrillator’s wireless function was disabled in order to prevent a possible terror attack though to emanate from the possibility of causing a heart attack using the device. In 2013, the wifi-connected defibrillator was replaced with one without wifi capacity. As with most technology and data-driven devices, hacks are a very real possibility.
Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillators (ICDs), like the one Dick Cheney has, can be vulnerable to a range of electronic signals making them able to be exploited. The device monitors heartbeat and if an irregular rhythm is detected, low-energy electrical pulses are sent to prompt the heart to beat at a normal rate. Affecting these electrical pulses could have fatal consequences.
A special report by World Economic Forum in August 2020, explored IoB and the new challenges it brings about. One of which is data governance. The report notes that, beyond individual privacy and autonomy, new potential risks of discrimination and bias in employment, education, finance, access to health insurance and other important areas for the distribution of social resources could arise.
The RAND Corporation, a non-profit, nonpartisan research organisation that develops solutions to public policy challenges, concurs. RAND’s own report entitled The Internet of Bodies: Opportunities, Risks, and Governance also published last year notes that IoB ‘might enable a surveillance state of unprecedented intrusion and consequence’. Technological developments ensure an ever-expanding range of devices combining software, hardware and communication capabilities to track personal health data, provide medical treatment or enhance well-being.
The downside is that these devices also complicate a field already fraught with legal, regulatory and ethical risks. Similar to IoT, regulation and legislation are hard-pressed to keep up with the rapid pace of IoB. The RAND report further says that ‘increased IoB adoption might also increase global geopolitical risks, because surveillance states can use IoB data to enforce authoritarian regimes.
Widespread IoB use might increase the risk of physical harm, espionage, and exploitation of data by adversaries’. RAND advises governments to be prepared and proactive in developing security regulations for potential issues as 5G, 6G, wifi and satellite internet standards become prevalent in the market.
Last year, well-known engineer, Elon Musk, demonstrated developments made by his company, Neuralink, towards a brain-computer interface (BCI) system by showing neural implants in pigs. ‘It’s like a Fitbit in your skull with tiny wires,’ Elon said in his presentation. His goal is to build a neural implant that can sync up the human brain with AI. While this would enable people to control computers, prosthetic limbs and other machines using only their thoughts, the idea has fuelled some negative commentary alluding to mind control. Nevertheless, Elon proposes that, in future, people will need to get such computer chips implanted into their brains to compete with AI, essentially, ‘hacking’ their biology.
Enter biohacking. The term refers to a technological enhancement of human biology giving people the power to design their own biological destiny through access to the latest biological, genetic and technological developments science has to offer. Exploration has already begun outside of big corporates. On the aesthetic side, Swedish creative director and self-proclaimed cyborg activist, Jasmine Idun Isdrake, has set up a laboratory in Sweden where artists, scientists and technologists can share ideas and experiment together with aesthetic and functional biohacking projects.
Jasmine sheds light on her vantage point by affirming, ‘I experience technology as an extension of the body in some cases, as fashion, as skin, as a daily tool or material, everything is technology in a sense, or simply put, tech are tools for freedom, if used or designed right.’ She has used her own body as her canvas. She has subjected her own body to similar hacks to, for example, apply devices that allow her to play music with her hands using an interface instrument, have an implant that counts down the number of beats her heart has left, and apply a gadget that helps her regulate her neurodiversity issues when in public. She says, ‘I identify with the label cyborg for now, on a very basic level, but categories will soon be obsolete. My philosophical view of the cyborg is the one of the rebel, taking power of tech and its own body.’
Futuristic technological developments garner loads of excitement at the prospects they facilitate and generate in people’s lives, and indeed, for their physical bodies. For better or worse, IoB will bring about a multitude of change as the progress of devices that connect the human body and the web accelerates. RAND says that IoB could revolutionise healthcare and improve our quality of life, but, without appropriate guardrails, it could also jeopardise our most intimate personal information and introduce several ethical concerns.
Main photo by Comfreak from Pixabay.