Hardware implants: How tech could really get under your skin

It's taken years for the idea of implanting anything artificial in the human body to gain acceptance. So how will the public react when implants become really smart?

Written in my Abu Dhabi hotel and despatched to TechRepublic via a 3Mbps LAN port in my room.

The modern era of human repair using implants got underway in the 1970s with passive joints, stents and valves. Electronic stimulators for lungs, heart and brain soon followed. Today, they are commonplace - but it wasn't always that way, despite their obvious efficacy.

In the early days I viewed the metal, plastic and electronic implants as the fastest way to afford temporary repairs rather than any long-term remedy. And while progress with man-made biological replacements was always going to be slower, it did offer the prospect of greater compatibility and performance.

Surprisingly, we have made faster progress today than projected 20 or even 10 years ago, and our growing population of cyborgs live long and natural lives without any significant downside. Many of my friends and colleagues have been repaired in this way and have seen the quality of their lives improved and extended.

Throughout this period the biggest surprise has been nothing to do with the technologies, or indeed the accepting nature of the patients and their desire to get back to a normal life. It has been the reaction of some parts of the media and those with no involvement whatsoever, personal or professional.

This reaction has spanned the logically cautious to the crazy hype of those worried about our engineering some new form of species. Arguments have focused on the sanctity of life, violations of the human body, creeping cyborgisation and the potential for a Big Brother society.

Fortunately, rationality and a growing demand continue to win the day. At the same time the supply of donated human organs is insufficient, so the manufactured alternatives are vital.

At the leading edge we now have experiments with artificial retinas, stem-cell regeneration of the brain, tissue growth and printing of muscle, ligament and skin. However the most contentious area seems to be the inclusion of electronic devices with controls and displays just under the skin.

Subcutaneous technology

Subcutaneous displays and buttons have been demonstrated, although the long-term stability and the risk of infection and rejection have yet to be established. But if they became a certified safe option, will anyone want them?

My guess is yes. In fact, please form an orderly line behind me. The potential advantages are enormous, and with surgical removal simple, a lot of the Big Brother worries go away.

I have long dreamt of carrying my electronic ID, passport, medical records, and other personal information subcutaneously. And with my genetically inherited deafness gradually worsening, the prospect of internal electronic enhancement is hard to resist.

But then come the restoration of 20:20 vision and a built-in head-up display, leading ultimately to the onboard equivalent of an iPhone, iPad, iPod, radio and TV.

Does it all sound creepy? Well, walking around with headphones listening to music, wearing a Bluetooth earpiece, sporting a facial tattoo, or just owning a personal portable phone would have been viewed as weird only 30 years ago.

For those of you who are going to be around in 30 years, extensive device implants will probably be the norm. But for me, dammit, I was born a couple of decades too early.


Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

Editor's Picks