How the Internet of Bodies is redefining the essence of the human connection

The Internet of Bodies envisions a world where we can make payments, exchange business information, or control our home environment with a touch or a thought.
  • Wi-R turns your body into a gateway to the internet
  • Controlling devices with your mind
  • Walletmor’s new payment implant lets you pay with a wave of your hand
  • Invasiveness and security concerns

Imagine a day when tapping your finger on a countertop pays for your coffee or a firm handshake sends your digital business card to a prospective client. In this world of tomorrow, a mere thought of turning up the heat, and your home will respond automatically by making sure things are cosy and warm by the time you arrive. This isn’t just wishful thinking, though — it’s the direction we’re heading, and it’s happening faster than you might expect. The smartphone has been our trusty companion for years, cramming every task imaginable into its sleek, glassy frame. But change is in the air. Wearable devices like smartwatches have already started to chip away at the monolith that is the smartphone, offering us snippets of information and control without needing to pull a device from our pockets. But even they still rely on screens, on something you have to look at and touch.

Now, let’s stretch our imaginations a little bit further. In the not-so-distant future, the very concept of a ‘device’ could become obsolete. Why? Because our own bodies might become the ultimate tool for interacting with the world around us. This is the promise of an emerging concept known as the Internet of Bodies (IoB), where your skin, your movements, and even your thoughts become the conduits to the digital realm. We are entering an era where a handshake could convey more than goodwill — it could exchange digital identities. A nod could be a command, a glance a password. Bio-integrated technology could make it possible to engage with a myriad of systems and devices through intuitive actions, making our interactions with technology more fluid than ever before. In this article, we will take a closer look at the IoB concept and explore what it means to be connected in a world where technology becomes an extension of ourselves.

Wi-R turns your body into a gateway to the internet

At Purdue University, Professor Shreyas Sen and his team are working on a groundbreaking innovation that may redefine human interaction with technology by turning the human body into a conduit for data transmission. Their work focuses on transcending the traditional interfaces that rely on screens and voice commands by creating a personal network within the body itself. This innovative concept is called Wi-R technology. It could one day enable devices like smartphones, laptops, and even medical implants like pacemakers and insulin pumps to communicate with one another seamlessly — by using the human body to connect to the internet. This ‘body internet’ employs electro-quasistatic signals, which fall within a lower-frequency band than the radio waves currently used by wireless communication methods like Bluetooth. This not only facilitates faster data transmission but also ensures privacy and security, as the signals are contained within the user’s body.

“Right now, our gateway to the internet is this very exciting box in our hands. We find ourselves heads down, looking at it for a significant fraction of our awake time. If that’s not the kind of future we want, then technology needs to evolve”, says Sen, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Purdue University. “Instead, the smartphone could be deconstructed and distributed all around you at suitable locations such that it becomes invisible to the eye”. During the recent CES trade show, Sen’s team demonstrated how Wi-R technology works by streaming music from a smartphone to a speaker by simply touching the speaker, with the body serving as a medium for data transfer. The implications of this discovery are profound, as it promises to simplify the way we interact with our gadgets, eliminating the need to tap on a screen or issue a voice command to get a device to do something. Instead, instructions could be conveyed through simple skin contact — or, looking further ahead, perhaps even by thought.

Controlling devices with your mind

Building on their previous work with Wi-R technology, Sen and his team are also working on another invention that could potentially enable us to control technology using our minds within the next couple of decades. In a paper published in Nature Electronics, the team describes a brain implant that uses the same electro-quasistatic signals that Wi-R technology relies on to enable communication in the human brain. By placing these implants at several key points within the brain, we may one day be able to control devices using nothing but the power of our minds — no physical interaction required. For example, we could send a text or start the coffee machine by simply transmitting our thoughts to the target device via the implant.

Unlike existing methods that rely on an extensive network of wires and electrodes to interface with the brain, Sen’s approach aims to utilise the brain’s inherent conductivity to facilitate communication. This would not only reduce the need for invasive wiring but also promises to amplify data transmission speeds more than a hundredfold compared to alternative wire-free methods. However, to effectively replicate the activity of a human brain, which consists of billions of neurons, a wireless implant would need to reach data transmission rates in the tens of megabits per second. While no current technology can achieve this within the brain, electro-quasistatic signals exhibit the most potential in reaching this goal. “There’s no avoiding that humans are getting augmented by machines and that machines are constantly changing our lives”, says Sen. “But our research shows that it’s possible for these machines to help you without requiring you to always have to look at a screen”.

Walletmor’s new payment implant lets you pay with a wave of your hand

As impressive as the two innovations above undoubtedly are, it will be a while before they are ready for real-world applications. That’s not the case with Walletmoor’s new payment implant, though, which employs Near Field Communication (NFC) to enable secure and contactless financial transactions that can be executed with a simple wave of the hand, offering a more practical alternative to wallets and mobile payment solutions. “The implant can be used to pay for a drink on the beach in Rio, a coffee in New York, a haircut in Paris — or at your local grocery store”, says Wojtek Paprota, the founder and chief executive of Walletmor. The device, which is about the size of a small safety pin and only half a millimetre thick, can be discreetly placed anywhere under the skin, with the palm being the most practical site for implantation.

According to Paprota, the implant aims to address the pervasive fear of theft and loss that plagues modern society. By integrating payment capabilities into a virtually undetectable implant, you gain the peace of mind that your means of payment is inseparably attached to your person, impervious to theft and duplication of sensitive financial data. But that’s not all. The company is also working on expanding the implant’s functionalities by developing a user-friendly platform that will not only enable you to manage your financial activities but also to unlock doors, use public transportation, and even store personal business card information, all within its compact form.

Beyond financial applications, the company is also exploring the possibility of using the implant to store vital medical information, such as your allergy data and medical history. This could help redefine emergency care protocols, allowing for instantaneous access to critical health information and thereby enhancing care delivery and patient outcomes. “The steps we take today define our future, which is inextricably linked to innovative technology slowly becoming our daily reality”, concludes Paprota. One person who has already taken a giant leap towards this future is the Dutch futurist Richard van Hooijdonk, who has not one but two chips in his hands that offer similar functionalities.

Invasiveness and security concerns

While not everyone is enthralled by the idea of implanting a chip into their body, it seems that quite a few people — 51 per cent, to be precise — are in fact open to the possibility, as revealed by a 2021 survey that included 4,000 people from the UK and the European Union. Despite their willingness to consider the idea, a large portion of respondents also highlighted concerns related to security and the invasiveness of the implantation process. The microchips in question harness everyday technologies that are already familiar to us and found in key fobs, public transit cards, and contactless bank cards. Their operational range is constrained by the small antenna within, necessitating proximity to a corresponding RFID or NFC reader to establish a magnetic link essential for data retrieval. This limitation, as argued by proponents of the technology, suggests that fears of constant tracking are unfounded, drawing parallels with the way RFID chips in pets aid in identification rather than location tracking.

Despite these assurances, apprehensions persist, particularly as we consider the potential evolution of these chips in the upcoming years. Theodora Lau, a fintech expert, characterises implanted payment chips as a natural expansion of the Internet of Things, highlighting the convenience they could offer. Nevertheless, she raises critical questions about the balance between the increased convenience and the associated privacy and security risks, especially as embedded chips become repositories of more extensive personal information. “How much are we willing to pay for the sake of convenience?” she asks. “Where do we draw the line when it comes to privacy and security? Who will be protecting the critical infrastructure and the humans that are part of it?” These thoughts are echoed by Nada Kakabadse, professor of policy, governance, and ethics at Reading University, who warns of a darker aspect of this technology that could be exploited for control and oppression, thereby benefiting a select few at the expense of the many.

Closing thoughts

In the not-too-distant future, the line between our physical selves and the digital world is set to blur as emerging technologies seek to integrate our bodies as part of the Internet of Things. This concept, known as the Internet of Bodies (IoB), envisions a world where simple gestures and thoughts control the devices around us, rendering traditional interfaces obsolete. Imagine making payments, exchanging business information, or controlling your home environment with a touch or a thought, thanks to tiny implants that communicate with external systems. These advancements promise convenience and efficiency, but they also promise a transformation in emergency medical care, with the potential to save lives by providing instant access to critical health data.

However, the journey toward this future is not without its challenges. Integrating technology into the very fabric of our being — literally — raises significant ethical questions about privacy, security, and personal autonomy. Are we ready to embrace a life where our bodies are not just biological entities but also part of a vast digital network? As the physical and digital worlds become increasingly intertwined, we must critically assess the trade-offs between convenience and the sanctity of our bodies and our personal data. How far are we willing to go in merging our physical selves with the digital universe? The potential for a harmonious blend of biology and technology opens new frontiers for exploration, but at what point does the cost to our privacy and autonomy outweigh the benefits of such integration?

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