WHERE CELLS MEET CIRCUITS:
AT THE NEXUS OF THE HUMAN | DIGITAL INTERFACE
AT THE NEXUS OF THE HUMAN | DIGITAL INTERFACE
What happens when humans integrate with integrated circuits? The "networked body" is the singularity up close and personal. While Ray Kurzweil's famous prediction referred to the merging of human and artificial intelligences (and the latter's inevitable dominance over the next twenty-five years), the lines have already blurred between the biological, the electronic and the digital.
The bio-singularity is already here.
Below is an overview of special breakout session at KIN Global 2017 that looked at some of the technologies and applications that are redefining everything from the practice of medicine and Olympic competition to the fighting capabilities of Special Operations Forces. With flexible electronics poised to transform the wearables market, what are the business opportunities and challenges?
SCIENCE & TECH
In John Rogers' lab at Northwestern University's McCormick School of Engineering, the bio-singularity takes the form of nano-thin, translucent skin patches about the size of a half-dollar—or smaller—and wired for wifi. Some have built-in chemical labs: a series of tiny squiggly channels and dots whose cheerful, cartoon-like appearance belies the meticulous science being performed.
They can be powered by tiny batteries, simple movement (piezoelectric), or even wireless power transfer, where energy emitted from a remote radio source is captured by a minuscule antenna affixed to the device. These small patches—inspired by a child's temporary tattoo—make the most subtle personal details of our inner workings accessible.
A phone app connected wirelessly to a patch can perform an instant analysis of color-coded biomarkers designed to measure everything from glucose levels to sweat loss. Ten years after Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone, Rogers' pioneering work in flexible micro-electronics and microfluidics is rewriting the practice of medicine. Indeed, with the help of these remarkable waterproof, bendable, stretchable skin-like patches, the smart phone is a credible stand-in for Star Trek's medical must-have: the tricorder.
Potential applications are as endless as they are profound. In collaboration with Lurie Children's Hospital, the newest humans are among the first to try out the latest technology. Premature babies with medical needs are routinely taped with sensors hooked up to monitors. You can barely see the baby for the wires. Wireless patches not only clean up the tangle, but also make it possible for a mom to more easily pick up, caress and bond her with her new baby.
"You need an intimate skin interface for clinically meaningful data," notes Rogers. Since patches can be worn continuously for weeks at a time and are impervious to water (shower-friendly), it is possible to gather patient data at a level of detail never before possible. This is significant both within lab and medical settings, but also—and perhaps even more ground-breaking—in real life as well.
Working with L’Oréal’s dermatological skincare brand, La Roche-Posay, Rogers' team developed "My UV Patch," a heart-shaped, app-connected stick-on designed to help people better understand their personal UV exposure profiles and avoid damaging sunburns.
Patches are also being tested in several ongoing field trials with professional sports teams (Cubs, Bears and Lakers) and with the US Department of Defense (Patterson Air Force Base).
Mounir Zok, Director of Technology & Innovation for Team USA, describes his job in simple terms: "It's getting as many medals as I can for the athletes." By those standards, 2016 was a banner year with a 16% spike in the number of medals brought home by Americans at the Summer Olympics in Rio over the tally in London in 2012 (121 versus 104).
The feat is all the more remarkable considering how much more it takes to become a champion now than ever before. For example, in 1912, a marathon run of 2:36:54 was enough to win a gold medal. In 2016, the winning time was slightly more than 18% faster, clocking in at 2:08:44. The difference today between gold and silver, silver and bronze and bronze and nothing can be as razor thin as 0.01%, notes Zok. "The last thing you want as an athlete is to get fourth place."
To make it to the podium takes brains as well as brawn. In addition to dramatic improvements in training and equipment (see running shoes), Zok points to information as the key competitive advantage. "Success comes down to one thing and one thing only: informed decision-making," he says. This is the lens through which all new technologies are evaluated. Winning and losing hinges on an athlete's ability to judge a situation more quickly and astutely than the competition.
Wireless sensors and other wearables have literally changed the game by liberating athletes from the lab and delivering far more relevant and useful data. A boxer who can track the number and frequency of punches in the ring and correlate the data to conditions, for example, knows a good deal more than a boxer hooked up to monitors in a lab. Likewise, cyclists racing in a velodrome can now analyze their performance down to the second. Swimmer Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history with 28 medals—including 23 golds—wore a sensor 1,000 days in a row, says Zok. Knowledge really is power.
On the flip side, even the cleverest tech can be a fail if it doesn't take environmental and personal factors into account. Dust in the air from gymnasts chalking their hands doomed one product, while language snafus doomed another.
Even if the tech works in the field, at the end of the day, says Zok, the bottom-line question is "So what?" Only that which helps decision-making matters.
As for the future, Zok is bullish on advances in textile computing. Clothes and shoes will be so seamlessly networked to our bodies that they will always keep us perfectly warmed or cooled and automatically adjust to changing terrain and needs. The networked body does what our bodies to some extent already do, only better.
"Humans are more important than hardware"—the dictum that tops the list of "truths" guiding the US Army Special Operations Command (USSOC), also sums up Brad Chedister's marching orders. As a Lead Subject Matter Expert for USSOC for more than a decade, and now as the Lead Warfighter Systems Architect at the Draper Laboratory, Chedister has spent his career focused on "human optimization technologies" that can extend the capabilities of Special Operations soldiers, while also keeping them safer.
These Special Operations Force (SOF) athletes, as he refers to them, are the Olympians of the military. Here, however, the 1%—or even the 0.01%—edge is not about racking up medals, but rather the difference between life and death. When a soldier kicks in a door, he explains, it can be that one extra second gained from all the training and the technology that counts.
Beyond enhancing individual physical prowess and split-second decision-making, Chedister also looks for technologies that support better team dynamics and improve remote triage capabilities.
This tall order begins and ends with assessment: Each Special Operations warfighter is multi-million dollar investment once all the training and equipment are tallied up. Determining candidate fitness is critical. "They can look like Adonis but be weak on the inside," notes Chedister, so wireless sensors that allow testing beyond the lab, such as John Roberts' patches, can really make a difference.
"We are interested in them from the time they sign up until they die," says Chedister, which can be decades after they retire. Longitudinal data—the more granular the better—can be used to iterate next generation predictive analytics, training regimens and equipment. (Perhaps the most sci-fi example of the latter is a project Chedister helped develop at USSOC: TALOS or the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit—aka the Iron Man suit).
The future is going to be about embracing man-machine interfaces, says Chedister. "It's going to be a sensored society." As the military's "tip of the spear," Special Operations is tasked not only with having the foresight to envision that future, but also, in terms of national defense, to develop it— to invent requirements well beyond the bureaucratic ken of a standard requisition form.
The definition of a "networked body" itself will expand as personal networks wirelessly overlap to connect teams in the field and support teams behind the lines. This, of course, is already happening, but in a "sensored" world, the ability to act on information becomes increasingly intuitive and instant. From drone eyes-in-the-sky surveying targets, to body sensors on the ground listening to warfighter heartbeats, the race is on for connected tactical advantage.
Dr. David Kim, CEO of DigiTx Partners, an investment firm specializing in early-stage healthcare and life sciences companies, brings both a clinician's practicality and an investor's savvy to assessing the commercial prospects of networked body tech. Echoing Zok's "So what?" make-or-break question, Kim asks how data, now so easily gathered, can be used.
"Do you need millisecond data? Clustered data?" he asks, pointing out that any data for medical applications must be of clinical grade, able to withstand an FDA audit.
The next hurdle is determining whether there is a viable market for the data. Businesses focusing on chronic conditions such as heart disease and diabetes, where monitoring and analyzing personal data can be critical to an individual's health, show the most promise.
Next, form factor—the shape of the device—matters. If people stop wearing their wearables, there is no data and no business. So far, the wearables market hasn't quite lived up the hype, with even sales of the venerable Fitbit down by double digits in the last year.
By contrast, John Rogers' light, bendable, water-proof, disposable and comparatively inexpensive stick-on patches can be worn continuously for weeks at time, requiring almost no user effort.
Once data quality and collection issues are resolved, then it is time to consider business models. "Who is the user and who is the buyer of the technology?" asks Kim, pointing out that "they're not always the same." In the health space, the buyer is often an insurance company. Even then, by using a Software as a Service (SaaS) model, companies can still "own the customer"—the patient—by controlling the data (an approach not without controversy). The physical device, whether an implanted defibrillator or a patch, becomes commoditized. The value, and the profits, are in data analytics.
Clinical drug trials are another promising area. Sensor-enabled, constant real time data provides speedier and more nuanced, useful insights than periodic tests in medical settings.
Although commoditization will drive down the price of the physical products that will make the networked body a ubiquitous part of our everyday lives, the value of the underlying intellectual property (IP) can be considerable, says James Conley, Clinical Professor of Intellectual Property Strategy at Kellogg. Leveraging IP presents an additional business model.
Using a proprietary analysis platform called PatentSight, Conley organizes data on different classes (IPC, CPC) and groups (families) of patents to measure everything from the size, robustness and the overlap of various markets (e.g., medical devices and electronics), to the relative strength of the commercial competitors. Patents can be assessed across a range of metrics to create an index for comparison rating, while visualizations transform these immensely complex datasets into accessible, usable information.
By any measure, we are at the beginning of the Networked Body era, just starting to understand the vast potential and the ramifications—inspiring and concerning––of the bio-singularity.
First-generation wearables encased in hard plastic forms (bracelets, pendants) are giving way to flexible electronics embedded in vanishingly thin substrates that can be affixed like temporary tattoos directly onto skin. Combined with advances in microfluidics, sweat, the tell-tale liquid interface between the body's mysterious inner-workings and the outside environment, can be measured and analyzed in real time. We can know things that were simply unknowable before and share the data instantly.
First-adopter applications in medicine, skincare, sports and the military only tease at what is to come. Human-centered design takes on a whole new meaning when humans are literally integrated into the design.
This year's KIN Coin, created by media performance artist Natasha Tsakos, speaks to this shift. "The thumbprint is an homage to our humanity," she explains. On the flipside, "KIN Global" has been subsumed into a circuit, creating a networked body that suggests our hybrid future.
"Where will we go?" As that future quickly becomes the present, perhaps the even bigger question is "What will we be when get there?"
by J. A. Ginsburg, Editor, KINpendium
presenters | facilitators
Warfighter Systems Architect
The Charles Stark Draper Laboratory
David J. Kim
Professor, Materials Science & Engineering
Partner 7Wire Ventures
KIN Advisory Board Member
Director, Technology & Innovation
US Olympic Committee
Segal Design Institute
Intellectual Property Strategy