Honey, I shrunk the computer

I wholly admit that I still idolize my older brother who passed away decades ago. I still envy [bordering on being jealous of] his intellect. And any time I see a flash of that intellect in myself, I am very proud. One of his amazing skills was to see connections where others did not. He would quote from sources that seemed to be totally distinct, and derived a conclusion that was unique and important. He died well before Twitter was Twitter and blogs were a dime a dozen. Had he had the chance to share his ideas, I believe that he would have enlightened people in a unique way.

Sometimes, I am able to see connections as well. But it helps when they are staring me [and everyone else] in the face. Over a year ago, Intel introduced a new computer chip the size of a human fingernail. The chip, called Curie, can fit in a regular jacket button. It might as well have been snatched from the pages of a James Bond novel, as it truly is a highly capable computer in a very tiny package. This year, at the Consumer Electronics Show [CES], applications for Curie were demonstrated during the Intel keynote. For anyone who truly wants to see the face of tomorrow, I strongly advise viewing the entire keynote. What is more amazing than the physical dimensions of this fully capable computer chip, is that in a few years from now, it will be much smaller and far more capable than it is today. It leaves a person breathless trying to keep you up with the pace of technology advancement.

I read another article just this evening about a new approach to creating flexible sensors on the skin. The intent of this technology is not only to make thinner and lighter sensors, for such things as pulse rate, but to also make such sensors flexible and extremely comfortable to wear for extended periods. I for one do not wear any jewelry on my body, nor do I wear a watch. I find any such accoutrements to be bothersome and distracting. On the other hand, it really does not take a visionary to combine the type of technology that Intel is advancing with this flexible sensor approach to create a whole new range of electronics.

In the next few years, it truly should be possible to have a full scale computer system with tens of sensors and full computing capability, all on a small and flexible piece of plastic. This tiny strip of supercomputing power could be inserted under the skin in a five-minute procedure, using some local anesthetic and requiring just a few days to heal over. If done properly, this foreign body will not cause a local reaction and will soon become  truly unnoticeable to the wearer. As to the source of power for such a device, there are multiple options. Let me first state that the key to such a small flexible device is that its power needs would be minimal. One can imagine charging its onboard battery using some of the latest wireless charging technologies. Perhaps, once a week or even less, the user would need to wear a watch that wirelessly charges the device. Other options are a battery that is charged from the body’s heat production. I am not an electronics engineer but I am sure that there are many more options for providing power to such a device.

The point of all of this is that once we truly embrace internalized computer chips, wearing watches and specialized clothing will be far less necessary. I find it hard to believe that people will continue to spend hundreds of dollars on smart watches, when the tiny insertable computer I describe above will cost tens of dollars and require no upkeep and possibly not require replacement for many years.

By being inserted under the skin, such a tiny computer with all of its sensors, could provide information which is presently difficult to achieve from outside the body. The first thing that comes to mind is blood glucose. For those with diabetes, anything that could possibly reduce the number of finger sticks to check their sugar every day, multiple times each day, is a blessing. By being under the skin within the subcutaneous tissues of the body, there is direct contact with inner body fluids. This access to the inner body would allow for checking not only glucose, but a whole variety of blood levels of various key agents. For someone who regularly takes a medication that can become toxic, such a subcutaneous device could warn the patient before any actual damage occurs. For patients with poor kidney function, such a device could warn the patients before their sodium or potassium gets too high or low. The potential is almost endless.

It goes almost without saying that the information captured by such a subcutaneous device would be transferred wirelessly to the cloud. This information may very well take a pit stop at the user’s portable phone so that the information is constantly up-to-date on the user’s personal device. Both via local apps on the phone and further analysis on huge data servers in the cloud, the captured information could be easily transformed into actionable data. For example, if the combination of all this technology indicates that the user is having a severe drop in their glucose, the user could immediately get a warning message telling him or her to ingest glucose, i.e., take a glass of orange juice. At the same time, the patient’s physician and friends/guardians would also be updated as to the situation and could check in on the patient’s later on.

Everything that you’ve heard and read about the benefits of wearable technology could be encapsulated in this subcutaneous piece of computing. And as always, the physical dimensions and computing capabilities of such devices will improve exponentially. I won’t even dare guess where we will be with such technologies in 10 to 20 years from now. I will say that we are on the cusp, once again, of a whole new age in computing. And as always, I welcome such news.

Thanks for listening.

About the Author
Dr. Nahum Kovalski received his bachelor's of science in computer science and his medical degree in Canada. He came to Israel in 1991 and married his wife of 22 years in 1992. He has 3 amazing children and has lived in Jerusalem since making Aliyah. Dr. Kovalski was with TEREM Emergency Medical Services for 21 years until June of 2014, and is now a private consultant on medicine and technology.