Blood sugar tech’s magic

Paul Raven @ 20-07-2011

Medical implants – think pacemakers and the like – are getting more commonplace, and that trend is likely to continue. But as any gadget-hound will know, tech needs juice to keep running… and you don’t really want to have to keep digging out a device from inside your body so you can swap out the batteries, do you? Of course you don’t… which is why the University of Frieburg’s research into biological fuel cells powered by the host’s blood sugar is a promising development.

They are looking into the use noble metal catalysts, such as platinum, to trigger a continuous electrochemical reaction between glucose in the blood and oxygen from the surrounding tissue fluid. The use of platinum (or a similar metal) would be ideal, as the material exhibits long-term stability, it can be sterilized, and electrodes made from it wouldn’t be sensitive to unwanted chemical reactions, including hydrolysis and oxidation.

The Freiburg scientists are ultimately hoping that the surfaces of implants could be covered with a thin coating of the fuel cells, which would then power the devices indefinitely.

Medical uses are all well and good, of course, but there’s a whole bunch of other cyborg gubbins that could use the same power-source. Book your combat hardening and sousveillance countermeasure systems implant appointments today!

[ Yeah, yeah, I know. Puns don’t kill people; people kill people. ]

Implanted obsolescence

Paul Raven @ 26-10-2010

We privileged early-adopter types are increasingly accustomed to our technology becoming obsolete… but what happens when the technology in question is actually a physically-embedded part of you? Suddenly your upgrade path is a little trickier than hopping on a Boris-Bike and going to your nearest Apple store. Tim Maly points out the risky side of early-adopter human augmentation tech:

On the ground, the realities of the only brain-mounted interface I know of – cochlear implants – are brutal. Here’s a taste: You can’t hear music. For a sense of what that’s like, try these demos. The terrifying truth is that once you’ve signed up for one kind of enhancement (say, the 16 electrode surgery) it’s very hard to upgrade, even if Moore’s law ends up applying to electrode counts and the fidelity of hearing tech.

If you are an early adopter for this kind of thing, the only thing we can say for sure about it is that it’ll be slow and out of date very soon. Unless they find a way to make easily-reversible surgery, your best strategy is to wait for the interface that’s whatever the brain-linkage equivalent is to 300dpi, full colour, high refresh screens.


Medical advancements demand sacrifices. Someone needs to wear the interim devices. Desperation is one avenue for adoption. Artificial hearts are still incomplete and dicey-half measures, keeping people alive while they wait for a transplant or their heart heals. This is where advances in transplants and prosthetics find their volunteers and their motivation for progress. It’s difficult to envision a therapeutic brain implant – they are almost by definition augmentations.

An avenue to irreversible early adoption is arenas where short term enhancement is all that’s required. The military leaps to mind. With enlistment times measured in a few short years, rapid obsolescence of implants doesn’t matter as much; they can just pull virgin recruits and give them the newest, latest. If this seems unlikely, consider that with the right mix of rhetoric about duty and financial incentives, you can get people to do almost anything including join an organization where they will be professionally shot at.

Picture burnt-out veterans of the Af-Pak drone wars haunting the shells of long-deserted strip-malls, sporting rusty cranial jacks for which no one makes the proprietary plugs or software any longer… you can probably torrent some cracked warez that’ll run on your ageing wetware, but who knows what else is gonna be zipped into that self-installing .deb?

Meanwhile, Adam Rothstein brings a bit of Marxist critique to the same issue, and points out that the same problems apply to external augmentations:

It is easy to envision these uncanny lapses between classes occurring when we start fusing bodies with machines, because to imply that our bodies can easily be obsolete machines threatens a certain humanist concept of our bodies as a unifying quality to our species. But we don’t have to start invading the body to find differences that affect our ability to stratify ourselves into classes. If the equilibriums of the relations of production can develop a rift between first and third world without personal technology, between upper class and lower class both before, and as we start to use computers to identify ourselves as class member, why would one not also occur between “cutting-edge” and “deprecated” classes as technology becomes more “personal”–magnetizing that one kernel social structure not yet susceptible to fracture and evolution? At what point will our devices themselves reinforce the equilibriums of choice they themselves provide, by being the motive force for separating individuals into groups? If not by lasting only as long as their minimal service contracts in a planned obsolesce that intensifies the slope of device turnover, then by active means? An app only for the iPhone 8, that can detect models of the iPhone 5 and below–letting you know that you’ve wandered into an area with a “less than savory technological element?” When will emergency services only guarantee that they can respond to data transponder calls, and not voice requests? The local watchman has been phased out, in favor of centrally dispatched patrols that require phones to access. Isn’t it only a matter of time before central dispatch is phased out for distributed drone network policing? The ability to use a computer is a requirement for many jobs. When will the ability to data uplink hands-free be a requirement?

Insert unevenly-distributed-future aphorism here.

Copyright and the Eyeborg

Paul Raven @ 21-06-2010

Well, so much for my ability to see potential conflicts arising from new technologies; when we were talking about Rob “Eyeborg” Spence the other day, it never even occured to me that live streaming video from a human-implanted camera would open a massive can of copyright worms.

… what happens when he goes to the movies? Or, what if he goes to a sporting event with an exclusive broadcast right?

Quite. Obviously it’s not far beyond being a purely hypothetical issue at the moment, but wind forward a decade to a point where AR spex and similar hardware are as ubiquitous as smartphones are now, and you’ve got a real legal minefield around infringement techniques which will be difficult to police… just like we have right now, in other words, only more so.

At least we know the lawyers won’t be going hungry.

Under Your Skin: The Implants are Coming

Brenda Cooper @ 02-06-2010

This idea for this article started when I was doing some research on prosthetics and came across an article about a wheelchair that can be controlled with brainwaves. That got me thinking about what else we might be doing to use electronics or other implants to manage our interface with the world. This was pretty interesting research: I learned a new word (Geoslavery, or location control), and I got to see that the new wave in implants may not be chips at all. Continue reading “Under Your Skin: The Implants are Coming”

Neural interfaces: the state of the art

Paul Raven @ 28-05-2010

Some heavy but fascinating reading over at h+ Magazine, in the form of James Kent’s round-up of where we are with technologies for interfacing the human brain with technological hardware, and where we’re going with it. The big take-away point for me is that the more fidelity you want from the interface, the more invasive the interface needs to be, though that might change as the technology advances.

And here’s your slice of sf-nal thinking from the conclusion:

While the primary purpose of neural interface research is putatively therapeutic, the functional potentials and ethical concerns of neural porting are problems looming in the future. Right now these are hypothetical concerns, but if a single-access embedded neurode procedure could be perfected and automated and performed at a local clinic in two hours for around a thousand dollars, and it was covered by insurance, the temptation for cosmetic and personal use of such a procedure becomes clear. Neural interfaces can be abused, obviously, and can be hacked into to enslave and torture minds, or drive people intentionally insane, or turn them into sleeper assassins or mindless consumers. Security is an inherent problem of any extensible exo-cortical system that must be addressed early in the engineering and testing stages, or anyone with an exo-cortical input would be ripe for exploitation. Sensory discrimination is an ongoing problem in any media environment, so individual channel selection, manual override, and the ability to shut down device input should be an integral part of any embedded system.

Probably not a system you want Microsoft writing the OS for, then…

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