The Frontier (Part One): Digitizing the Human Body

This post was originally published on the Digitally Cognizant blog. It is the first post in a blog series on “Digitizing the Human Body.”

Populating the human body with powerful technologies is no longer just the domain of sci-fi. Existing and emerging technologies are rapidly ushering in an era of human augmentation, self-regulation, automated diagnosis and treatment, and even vast intelligence gains.

Human digitization is a perhaps inevitable leap into a future state in which embedded technology treats chronic illnesses, regulates homeostasis, diagnoses maladies in their nascent state, augments human sensate and cognitive capabilities, enhances physical prowess, and extends human possibilities in directions never explored or attained before.

Once critical mass is achieved, perhaps in the next 10 years, the impact of human digitization will make previous technology breakthroughs seem pallid in comparison. Life sciences companies – with their vast experience in scientific research and innovation, as well as their deep expertise in establishing safety and efficacy – are best suited to spearhead this disruption. However, doing so entails shedding a legacy of molecular focus and embracing the digital revolution.

A Technological Revolution Takes Shape

Steven Johnson, in his national bestseller How We Got to Now, describes innovation over the centuries. Looking at history through the lens of innovation, it is easy to see how mankind has continuously focused on extending human capabilities.

In this regard, human digitization is actually already happening. For example:

  • The implantation of radio-frequency identification (RFID) devices is finding increased acceptance compared to when it was first introduced a decade ago by VeriChip. We’ve grown accustomed to bionic joints, wearable robotics, artificial hearts, and other embedded technologies ripe for IoT control.
  • While digitization is based on binary code, researchers have cracked the human quaternary genetic code (built with the four nucleotide bases), which represents a sea change in the quest for new medications and diagnostics.
  • Human physiology can now be tracked with an array of biological markers, and our anatomy is now digitized with advanced imaging.
  • Augmented vision is within sight. Though Google Glass was considered by most to be a failure, the product was merely an initial foray into visually augmented reality, and later entrants, such as Microsoft’s HoloLens, hold enormous promise. (Meanwhile, even Google Glass has found a productive home in manufacturing environments.) Not only is research afoot to put wifi and Bluetooth-enabled devices on contact lenses to provide extra imagery within fractions of a second, but artificial retinas will also soon be marketed that will allow the blind to see by forming images on the rear areas of the eyeball.
  • Undetectable bionic ears are on the horizon.
  • Data sets of detailed digitized cross-sectional photographs of the human body have been created by the U.S. National Library of Medicine in the Visible Human Project. The initiative involves CT scanning, MRI scanning, and cryosectional technologies – all of which will facilitate anatomy visualization applications.
  • Designing and building new organisms through synthetic biology technologies is a reality. Ginkgo Bioworks can now reproduce any fragrance or flavor from a single-cell organism such as yeast and E. coli. The world’s largest database of synthetic DNA, powered by robotics and AI, is ready to change commodity chemicals, industrial enzymes, and human health markets.
  • Facial recognition technologies are now being used to monitor animal health. Cognizant has conducted a pilot initiative using face-recognition technology to measure the pain level of sick farm animals. We are also working with a client on a diagnostic app that facilitates early detection of skin pathologies. This portable, cloud-based, scalable technology uses AI and machine learning to identify biomarkers and skin cell patterns indicative of disease processes, enabling early detection through widespread screening.

Just the Beginning

Existing technologies and applications are mere precursors to future possibilities. The early applications for RFID microchip implants are focused primarily on convenience – a wave of the hand can be enough to automatically unlock a door, pay for a purchase, or perform other mundane tasks. But the possibilities of these technologies are much further reaching, as they also include the enhancement of intellectual and physical prowess. Once a substantial number of people have technologically augmented their inherent capabilities, there will be an onrush of interest and participation.

Few will want to be left behind in this accelerated movement into a trans-humanistic future. Just as the Code HaloTM revolution has reset general perceptions over privacy and transparency, digitizing human biology will follow a trajectory of gradual acceptance, followed by a tsunami of interest and adoption. Consider the following works in progress:

  • Elon Musk is launching a company called Neuralink, whose technology promises to boost human capacity by linking our brains to a digital interface of sensors and chips powered by an AI engine. Musk contends that such augmentation will protect humanity from being ravaged by AI. Dramatic advances in brain science in recent years make the vision for mind–technology blending and interactivity entirely feasible.
  • Ray Kurzweil’s well-known vision of the Singularity is one potential culmination of human digitization and AI infusion breakthroughs. Kurzweil sees the fusion of human and machine intelligence as an inevitable evolutionary process that will trigger “super-exponential” growth in consciousness in our world and beyond. Perhaps even further on the visionary continuum is Dmitry Itskov, who aims to attain “immortality” by uploading his total consciousness to a computer or hologram.

Need for Regulatory and Ethical Review

Human digitization technologies pose enormously complex challenges before full implementation is viable. Even with rapid increases in processing and storage capabilities, existing systems would be hard-pressed to keep up with the data management demands imposed by such innovations.

Entirely new business models will be required; for example, the compensation for medical practitioners might be based on preventing rather than treating disease conditions. Regulatory hurdles also loom for these new and sensitive technologies. For example, we’ll need rules for who “owns” or keeps a person’s data mine. Plus, anything in our body (an organ, device, sensor, nanobots, etc.) that can be communicated with, analyzed or controlled externally can be hacked – and the stakes of such cyberattacks can be lethal.

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (to take just one agency) has a strong interest in ensuring these new inner-body technologies are as fail-safe as possible. But the current structure of regulatory agencies places an emphasis on drugs, devices, or a combination of the two. A new approach to designing, running, and monitoring clinical trials would also be needed for digitization technologies.

Human digitization also engenders real concern for incursions of surveillance and control by “Big Brother,” as depicted in film and television shows like Minority Report or Black Mirror. The upsides of such an envisioned shift are dramatic, but one does not need to be paranoid to see the downsides as well.

the author

Pratik Maroo

Pratik Maroo is Chief Digital Officer in the Life Sciences business unit at Cognizant.