Ray Kurzweil’s dream of internal nanobots floating around our bloodstream making us immortal by eradicating diseases and slowing down the aging process may actually be a reality sooner than any of us ever thought. Nick Bilton of the New York Times recently reported on two different companies – Proteus Digital Health and HQ – that are working on next generation “ingestible” computers — tiny pill-like computers that you can swallow with a glass of milk or water. Once inside your body, tiny sensors and transmitters go about their business, whether it’s tracking your internal biorhythms or wirelessly reporting back on your body’s current health status to your doctor.
While there are many possible uses for these ingestible computers – everything from acting as bio-passwords to helping to activate digital devices in your immediate proximity – the most attractive area for now is healthcare. As Kurzweil has suggested in the past, the only way to prolong human life and eradicate diseases like diabetes or obesity is by implanting tiny computers and sensors within our own bodies that are capable of troubleshooting all the little problems that cause our bodies to age. Ingestible nanobot computers, for example, would search out the cells and organs in need of repair and go about fixing things in real-time. As of now, these computers enter the body and are flushed out within 24 hours, at which point they could either be reused (after a vigorous scrubbing, no doubt) or replaced with new computers. In the future, these nanobots may be permanent, functioning parts of the human body.
In many ways, ingestible computers are the next logical progression of the wearable computing trend. Only this time, computers are on the inside, not the outside, of the body. In the case of Proteus Digital Health’s ingestible computers, they are actually powered by your own stomach: copper and magnesium interact with acids from your stomach to create real-life batteries. (In the future, acid indigestion and heartburn may actually be desirable side-effects!) As humans, we are becoming more and more comfortable with the idea of computers working ambiently in the background, reporting back on our behaviors and bodies to other computers and devices. It only takes a minor stretch of the imagination to see them being hard-wired into our bodies’ natural internal processes.
So what could possibly go wrong when you’re swallowing new computers every 24 hours or so?
The biggest concern for now involves privacy. You would essentially have sensors and computers reporting back on you. As John Perry Barlow of the Electronic Frontier Foundation suggests, these new ingestible computers could either be “wonderful” or “terrible,” depending on your perspective. If you’re concerned about a loved one taking the right medications on a regular basis, then it’s a wonderful innovation. If you’re concerned, however, that your insurance company could jack up your premiums if it discovers something about you that even you don’t know, then it could be terrifying.
There’s another, even scarier, scenario, however: What if the tiny computers floating around inside of you get hacked?
Even Ray Kurzweil, the self-proclaimed prophet of the Singularity, admits that, sometime within the next 30 years, we may get to a point where these internal nanobots would be able to self-replicate. And, within a certain number of replication cycles, vast colonies of nanobots would eventually be able to “devour” the human body. If this happens on a grand enough scale, it would be the first-ever case of a non-biological plague.
So, are we ready for the future of ingestible computing? The coming wave of wearable computing should be a good early warning of how good we humans are at co-existing with computers. Once we’ve got smartwatches, smart Glasses and smart wristbands hooked up to our bodies, we’ll have a much better idea of how to get along with our nanobot friends. Maybe, at some point before the Singularity actually kicks in, we’ll all learn to just stop worrying and love the nanobot.