Will Electronic Tattoos Ever Go Mainstream?

DuoSkin 2D trackpad. (Photo: Jimmy Day)

An electronic tattoo that bends with body tissue and is able to sense brain-wave activity, muscle movement, and heart activity? It may sound like science fiction, but scientists at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and Northwestern University, among others, have been working on these devices since 2011. The breakthrough in this project was the flexibility of the device, or tattoo, so that it can be worn directly on the skin. One potential application is to monitor brain activity of epileptic patients and deliver interventions via electric current from the tattoo during an epileptic outbreak. Another potential use would be to gather data on premature babies. If the tattoos could remotely communicate with other software or databases, it would enhance their usefulness in the medical field.

However, these devices have yet to come into widespread use, due to the difficulty to design and expense to produce. While the science of the electronic tattoo is fascinating, it raises some interesting questions about the intersection of computers and the human body. Just how comfortable are we with wearing a computing device that is capable of molding to our bodies? As the technology improves, would we be willing to live with these kinds of chips permanently? In one sense, one could argue that the device could add life-saving monitoring functionality. For example, if you were traveling by yourself and somehow experienced a heart event that caused chest pains and bodily functions similar to that of a heart attack, this kind of tattoo could remotely communicate with the nearest hospital and dispatch a medical team to provide medical treatment.

But on the other hand, would living with a computer so closely integrated with our brain, heart, and muscles make humans less human, or put another way — blur the lines between what it means to be human versus what it means to be a machine? Could we still be the ones who program and direct technology or would the roles begin to reverse? Would the ultimate goal be to recreate, or mimic, the wonders of the human body and mind without the “traditional” reproductive process of our species? If that occurred, would we be able to distinguish between human and machine?

This debate is not new to the field of computer science. Alan Turing, considered the the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence, perceived this question in 1950. He proposed that as computers become more intelligent, one way to distinguish between a computer and a human would be to administer a test. A human being would ask questions of two participants — one a human and the other a computer — without knowing the identity of the responders. Based on the answers provided, if the tester could not identify the computer, then the computer would have “passed” the test, and therefore has the ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human being.

Yet, another perspective, provided by a researcher who developed SixthSense, a video technology that interacts with human gestures, is that ultimately it’s not what we can do with technology, but rather what we chose to do with it. Meaning that it’s up to us to keep whatever balance we wish to exist between nature and technology. So as with the electronic tattoo, we may have a choice in the near future in terms of how far we wish to take the technology and for what purpose.

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