The Future of IoT: You

The next frontier in IoT is connecting the human body to the internet.

This program was produced by the Marketing Department of WIRED and Ars in collaboration with CA Technologies.

The Internet of Things is radically changing our world, from manufacturing and retail to healthcare and transportation. But the next thing to be connected to the internet is the most personal of all: the human body.

The connected human isn’t entirely new, of course. IoT-enabled pacemakers have been pumping since 2009, and popular consumer devices allow people to monitor basic health information. But these connections are now happening rapidly around (and inside) our bodies, thanks to miniaturized sensors and chips and an investment windfall in everything from digital therapeutics to ingestibles. What's more, many of these devices don't even require a trip to the operating room.

Scientists, for instance, have already developed “smart dust”—miniature, salt crystal–sized machines that travel through the sky to gather air quality data. “It seems science fiction-y, but it seems nothing is ridiculous anymore,” says Karen Rommelfanger, an Emory University ethicist who studies the potential of connected humans.

Look at how the bleeding-edge of connected devices holds promise for human health.

Smart, Miniaturized Medicine

Imagine taking a pill that could alert you when you’re at risk for a heart attack. That potential might not be too far off.

Redwood City, Calif.–based Proteus Digital Health has developed an ingestible sensor the size of a grain of sand that can monitor whether a person has taken his or her medication—and at the correct dosage. Once swallowed, the body’s electrolytes activate the pill, which transmits a signal to a small battery-powered patch worn by the patient. The information is transmitted via Bluetooth to the cloud. Doctors, too, are already using smart pills to take photos of intestinal tracts as an alternative to more invasive colonoscopies, promising more effective and lower-cost screening. 

The internet was a way to connect computers, and now it can be a way to connect brains.

— Andrea Stocco, co-director of the Cognition and Cortical Dynamics Laboratory, the University of Washington

Helping the Blind See

One day, the blind could potentially see with the help of cameras and microscopic chips that relay sensory information to their visual cortex. A study published last fall offers a glimpse of what's possible. Five people were connected to a brain-stimulating device that, in turn, was connected to a computer. By receiving signals to their visual cortex, the participants successfully navigated a virtual maze world—without sight—92 percent of the time.

“If we can stimulate a healthy person’s visual cortex to create an artificial visual percept, we could in principle do the same with blind individuals,” says Andrea Stocco, who conducted the research as co-director of the Cognition and Cortical Dynamics Laboratory at the University of Washington.

Moving Objects With Your Thoughts

Miniaturized sensors and a better understanding of the brain hold potential to help people with paralysis or brain injuries. In 2014, a paraplegic man performed the opening kick for the 2014 World Cup using a brain-controlled Iron Man–like suit, built by Duke University neurobiologist Miguel Nicolelis.

One of Nicolelis’ most prominent projects is “brain net,” an experiment that allowed two monkeys to work together to move a digital image using their brains. Each monkey could only control one dimension of movement, but by combining their brainpower, the pair could move the arm. Scientists hope such technology could be used to facilitate physical rehabilitation, allowing a person to relearn information from an able-bodied person following a stroke or brain injury.

Stocco’s team at the University of Washington went a step further in a human experiment that showed how one person could actually control the finger of another person using their thoughts, an EEG machine and the internet. The participants wore a cap with electrodes hooked up to an EEG machine, which read electrical activity in the brain. One person wore a purple swim cap marking the left motor cortex, which controls hand movement, and through transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), the person received electric currents to that location of the brain. When one person imagined moving his right hand, it caused an involuntarily hand response in the other person located across campus.

While eerie, the hope is that future research could help people relearn motor skills faster after a stroke or brain injury, Stocco says. “The internet was a way to connect computers, and now it can be a way to connect brains.”

Jennifer Alsever
By Jennifer Alsever | February 22, 2017