The time is near when mHealth and wearables are taken to the next level as medical implants are swallowed or sewn into our bodies.
But what will happen when we cease to wear wearables? Will doctors be able to monitor our every move remotely or perhaps give us a pill to swallow that’s actually a mini Mars Rover through our systems? What seemed like sci-fi until recently is being tested and soon coming to a body near you.
Currently in testing are some amazing medical advances. There’s a bionic pancreas at Boston University with an implanted needle that reports a diabetic’s sugar level right to her or his smartphone. Another project that’s going on sees capsule-sized circuits swallowed, not only to monitor fat levels in obese patients, but to generate genetic material that makes them feel full, ultimately making gastric bypass surgery obsolete.
These are just two among hundreds of ways we can really revolutionize medicine with embedded or implanted medical devices. And sure it sounds naturally less invasive than regular procedures that cut you open, but it can be risky and invasive in a whole new way.
With embeddable tech, do we need to threat-model our lives?
Of course, any time you are implanting something in your body, a lot of unforeseen things can happen. A human guinea pig is often too risky or not even available.
In perhaps in the most interesting talk on implanted wearables “How to threat model your wife,” Brian Knopf tells his story of applying the physical space and software technique of threat modeling for analyzing security to decide if a necessary pain management device should be implanted into his wife’s spine. The embedded pain manager was connected, controlled and charged wirelessly and would generate electricity in her nervous system.
Here are just some of the things he had to consider for this device that was very expensive, would have to be surgically implanted and then eventually removed, and around which scar tissue would inevitably grow:
- Medical Implant Lifespan: It’s a major surgery to put in and later to take out, so the device can’t just have the lifespan of an average smartphone.
- Medical Implant Voltage: It needs to balance blocking the intense pain while not electrocuting her.
- Medical Implant Leakage: It runs on battery. Unlike ruining your CD player, a leak could mean poisoning her. At the time of his talk, one of the three main manufacturers of this specialized device had a massive recall because of leakage.
- Medical Implant Overheating: She had to lie down on an external charger for an hour to juice it back up. Some devices could overheat and cause severe burning.
- Medical Implant Hacking: Most implanted devices are connected to WiFi for monitoring purposes.
In the end, her need to overcome the life-interrupting pain met with her lack of public profile to deem none of these threats important enough to avoid the implant. But that’s not always the case. In 2007, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney had yet another open heart surgery, this time to change his implanted defibrillator because it was deemed a much greater risk that he could be hacked than the doctor’s need to monitor remotely or the risk of having another surgery at all.
These are just two examples of how when the Internet of Things becomes the Internet of Your Own Body, more questions — like does this really need to be connected — need to be asked and put in the personalized context of the human it’s going into.