Ingestible Computers Offer Huge Array of Possibilities

The idea of getting a prescription at the doctor’s office, for many, is a familiar task that ends in, commonly, several familiar ways. First the prescription is written, then the bearer goes to a pharmacy of choice to obtain a series of pills of various sizes. But what happens when one of those pills isn’t packing chemicals in various proportions, but rather, a complete computer monitoring system?

That’s a question that many are beginning to ask, as computer miniaturization goes past the smartphone level and down to the “ingestible pill”-size level. Such a development has only recently become available, so while the question of pill-sized computers isn’t exactly a big one yet, it’s shaping up to be as the devices reach more and more of the mainstream. With a pill-sized computer, users can take advantage of an entire set of sensors and the like to monitor—from the inside-out—various standards of health. Not only can the pill-sized computers reportedly measure various internal benchmarks, but it can also wirelessly relay same to doctors outside the body’s immediate purview.

While ingestible computers can also do other things—there are indications that such computers will be able to fill in passwords remotely or open a car door—this is one of the first times that ingestible computers are being seen in wider use since the earliest days of same, sometimes seen in space travel or the like. Powered by the body’s own internal processes in some cases—a version from Proteus Digital Health includes magnesium and copper to its system’s construction to derive electricity from the interaction with stomach acids—the computer can travel through the intestinal tract, and do things like watch for the intake of pills, recording not only that pills were taken, but at what time, and then relaying said information to a smartphone app.

As these computers develop, more features are likely to come on board, including blood flow and temperature monitors, monitors related to mental disorders, and more. Some, like the CorTemp Ingestible Core Body Temperature Sensor, are already in use in areas like firefighting, team sports and again, space travel to protect against people overheating.

But for all the potential benefits of such technology, the potential for misuse is shocking. Consider the ability for people to turn those ingestible computers into location trackers via hacking, the kind of thing that would give privacy wonks cold sweats. The loss of what was perhaps the last frontier of privacy—what’s going on under one’s own skin—is also a terrifying concept; what if insurance companies start requiring the swallowing of a computer before a policy will be issued? If that ingestible computer is controlling the flow of a certain medication, for example, a hacker in that particular operation could kill a person by ratcheting up, or cutting off, the flow of said medication.

It’s therefore quite clear that, on all sides of this particular equation, possibilities abound. The possibilities are neither all good nor all bad, but it’s likely to prove tough to sell everyone on the benefits given the down sides lurking in the system. Still, with some proper protective measures—both legal and practical—the idea of swallowing a computer to do just what it needs to do may not be so out of line.

Edited by Alisen Downey