Embedded Technologies: Smart tattoos


Skin is an amazing organ. More than just a barrier to the outside environment, it is arrayed with sensors that detect pressure, chemical irritants, temperature, and more. Skin is also expressive (blushing), flexible, and an indicator of disease (jaundice). As I’ve read about technologies aimed at enhancing human performance (driven in part by the participation of Oscar Pistorius in the Olympics), I’ve read a lot about brains and muscles, but not much about skin.

Smart tattoosOf course, skin already plays an important role in human enhancement. Cosmetic surgeons take advantage of skin’s flexibility to nip and tuck their way to beauty. Humans have an even longer history in modifying skin for beauty, expressiveness, and indications of status and achievement through tattoos for at least 5000 years. My strong suspicion is the renaissance in tattoos (and, to an extent, piercings) in the developed world is part of how we are preparing to move to embedded devices. And I suspect tattoos will become the first kind of embedded device aimed at enhancement to become ubiquitous.

Medical uses are already emerging. MIT has developed a glucose-sensing tattoo for diabetics, and there are applied (temporary) tattoos in development that point to a wide range of potential diagnostic uses. Such therapeutic applications may lower the barrier for acceptance of tattoos for enhancement because they will be visible and valuable. (Other embedded technologies, like pacemakers, are valuable, but not visible.)

One example of an non-medical use of tattoos is found in Nokia’s patent for a vibrating tattoo, which might be used to unobtrusively alert the user to a phone call or text message. Such a technology could easily be extended to let you know when a friend had arrived at a concert hall or when your five-year-old had wandered out of range. One could imagine applications that could give a whole new meaning to “he makes my skin crawl.”

People already have tattooed eyeliner. Imagine cosmetic tattoos that could adjust automatically to lighting, what you are wearing, or even mood. My eyeglasses darken to protect me from sunlight. Could I someday have an embedded ink that would protect me from sunburn and skin cancer?

What about tattoos that respond to music? Could we have embedded skin devices that allow us to enter dangerous environments? Breathe in water? Drive away attackers? Absorb nutrients and water from the air? (Here’s an intriguing story about an insect that does that latter and points the way to a new technology.)

Skin suggests remarkable possibilities for human enhancement. So far, we’ve only scratched the surface.

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