In this blog, we talk a lot about ingestible technology that seems like absurd science fiction. Think of how many movies featured amazing tele-screens. They have communication devices where you could see someone on the other side of the planet (or galaxy, depending on the flick). Now think of how commonplace it is. We’ve become so wired to new technology that we both take for granted its ubiquity and forget the vanishingly short time it has been with us. But those movies always had another side- a dark and grim technological future, where our lives were increasingly robotic. Dystopic sci-fi is just as big, if not bigger, than creating a gleaming and stainless future.
Some tech seems on first glance to shade into horror, at least instinctively. For many, ingestible technology has the potential to be one of those. After all, concurrent with the rise in mobile technology has been the clean-eating movement. People are more conscious of the impact their food has on their bodies (and the planet). So it seems strange that we are possibly entering a future where we will literally ingest tiny robots, all in the name of health. But thanks to leaps in nanotechnology and microprocessing, we are entering that future, and it is far more on the shiny side than a rain-soaked world of replicants.
Silicon Valley’s Proteus Leads the Way with Ingestible Health Sensors
These developments made news this week when Redwood City- based Proteus Digital Health announced it had secured $120 million from unnamed, but presumably deep-pocketed, investors. Proteus is a leader in both wearable and ingestible technology, having secured in 2012 FDA approval for an internal biomedical sensor. In addition, it is now being tested in the UK, a country that traditionally leads Europe in health advances. If it clears the UK, it seems like it could move across the continent.
Ingestible technology is exactly what it sounds like- a dissolvable capsule containing dozens, if not hundreds, of tiny robots. Obviously these aren’t anthropomorphic robots- you aren’t going to have a bunch of C-3POs reenacting a metallic Fantastic Voyage throughout your innards (although honestly that would be really rad). Rather, these are tiny devices that are smart enough to detect what is going on inside your body- heart rate, blood health, white blood count, organ stability, bone strength, lung capacity- almost anything, depending on the programming.
What they do with that information is just as amazing: they can transmit it directly to your mobile device- or, probably more importantly, the device of your doctor. After all, information only becomes knowledge in capable minds. The inner workings of your body can be revealed by simply taking a capsule.
Think about that. If something is wrong, you often have to take multiple tests to pinpoint it- if this technology develops, that could be a thing of the past. Taking a pill regularly could let you know when something is going wrong before it spirals into the nexus of lengthy hospital stays, wild expenses, pain, and death.
After all, catching something early is key to survival. A fascinating article by Michael Fowlkes in Market Intelligence Center last year talked about the impact this could have on things like abdominal bleeding or colon cancer- if an image from inside could be transmitted painlessly and easily, you could catch these killers early on. Left unspoken is that many people are reluctant to get tests before something goes wrong- whether out of embarrassment (especially for colon cancer), inconvenience, short-sighted optimism (I’m fine, why get tested?), or fear-blinkered myopia (I don’t want to know), the result is the same. We put things off until it is too late. If these pills become widespread and affordable, that could be a thing of the past.
A Different Kind of Reluctance
Of course, that doesn’t mean people will embrace this technology. After all, it is remarkably strange and even a little nerve-inducing. You are literally swallowing robots and letting them zoom around to scope out, take pictures of, and record your body. That sends a frisson of creep down the back. I’m 100% in favor of this, and there is still part of me that finds it deeply strange.
But I think that comes from a reluctance to understand the way these things work. They aren’t “smart” on their own. Unless whomever is creating them is absolute bughouse crazy, they aren’t going to program them to do bad things. The robot inside you doesn’t have opinions or will, just direction. It isn’t going to suddenly say, “You know what? This guy is a jerk. Let’s explode his heart.”
I grant you that would make for a killer movie, and if anyone from Hollywood is reading this, I can produce the script right away. The Robot That Explodes Your Heart. We can work on the title. But movies aren’t always reality. Our films and literature are great at providing worst-case scenarios, and that provides a hugely important role. It allows us to see possible futures, and to work to avoid them- to realize that “could” is not automatically the same as “should.” But, unlike the ingestible tech, we have autonomy. We can weigh the astonishing health benefits against the instinctual and wholly-understandable fear factor, and realize that “ewww” shouldn’t immediately mean “no.”