The Future of Healthcare: Electronic Tattoos?
There’s a dizzying array of devices and applications being developed for the Internet of Things. Transistors are getting faster all the time, taking up less power, less space and less capital, so we are increasingly promised things that will control, contribute to and improve quality of life and our machines.
But if a future full of Egg Minders and smartphone-powered coffee machines makes your heart sink, all is not lost. Consumer solutions are only the icing on the cake. The really exciting stuff is happening in health and in the ways we can monitor and affect the body.
Material scientist John Rogers and his team at the University of Illinois have created a new class of electronic devices: flexible circuits that are small and robust, biocompatible and designed to last between minutes and months before dissolving harmlessly or simply being rubbed away.
They can be incredibly thin, a thousandth of the width of a human hair. Yet the team has been able to make everything from diodes and strain monitors to radio antennae and simple digital cameras. So much then for the innovations, what about their application?
These tiny devices can now be printed on silicon and transferred directly onto the skin as ‘Biostamps’. This means vital signs such as heart rate, temperature and even UV exposure or electrical signals from the brain can all be picked up by epidermal electronics and collated for home monitoring or sent straight to the doctor. They have already been adapted to monitor impact taken during sport.
The vision is that more patients will be discharged from hospital earlier, while still being continuously monitored but without being surrounded by great tangles of wires and beeping machines. People recover quicker in familiar surroundings, and with remotely collected data, the odds of identifying deterioration before a condition becomes critical are greatly improved.
But let’s think bigger still. As well as cardiovascular health, blood pressure and mental state, they can also be used to monitor a baby in the womb, or a patient during surgery as well as post-op, to help heal any wounds; they could deliver drugs directly to a cancer before dissolving as if they were never there, or streamline organ adoption or aid prosthetic limbs.
Add real-time data collection and big data analysis, and the potential becomes even more exciting. A system that can cope with information gathered on vast scale and in real time could offer insights on everything from general health and wellness to drug compatibility, best personalized treatment, you name it.
In the grand scheme, it completely flips the popular image of a ‘cyborg’ as a way of forcing our bodies to be compatible with machines. Instead we’re witnessing the birth of a whole new form of interface: machines that move and flex to fit, fix and improve our flesh. And they’re going to change everything.