Half man, half machine: The cyborgs are coming

By Pat Pilcher
Wednesday 18 November 2009 11:39

Until now, man-machine hybrids, or cyborgs, have been the stuff of trashy sci-fi flicks. But thanks to a recent breakthrough in implantable electronics, people mightn't need pockets to carry their tech gadgetry in the near future.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have developed ultra slim and flexible electronic circuits on silk that dissolve once implanted inside the body leaving the electronics behind to do their thing.

Until now, implanting electronics into tissue required the circuitry be encased to protect it from shorting out from moisture or irritating the tissue. Using nanometre thin silicon etched onto silk however means that circuits can work fine inside a body without any irritation.

The applications of this breakthrough are boggling, opening up potential for all sorts of future fun.

One of the more obvious applications already being talked up is LED tattoos that can show blood-sugar levels. Taking things one step further, the future could see programmable tattoos able to be changed on a whim, or even turned off depending on circumstances. Stuck for cash? How does using a silk/silicon tattoo for paid advertising at the beach sound?

Even more intriguing is the concept touted by the silk/silicon developers which could see embedded electrodes providing an interface between a nervous system and other electronics.

Not only could this make it significantly easier for disabled people to interact with computers and other devices, but it could also open up new treatment avenues for disorders such as Parkinsons disease.

Equally promising, silk/silicon electrodes could also transform prosthetic limb designs.

Whilst advances in artificial limb designs have seen breakthroughs such as Dean Kamens Luke arm. Recipients of such ultra-advanced prosthetics have had to endure prolonged training to use the limbs. Using embedded silk/silicon electrodes could see thought-controlled artificial limbs becoming a reality. Longer term, the technology could also see seamless brain-to-computer interfaces making typing and clicking obsolete. Sending an email, Facebook message or even a tweet could become as simple as thinking "send a tweet to..."

On a slightly more sinister note, digital security could suddenly take on a whole new level of significance should human embedded circuitry prove vulnerable to hackers.

Making work colleagues literally kick themselves or tattoo spell out something obnoxious might become the new office prank. But given the role the central nervous system plays in controlling a range of human body functions, would-be cyber assassins could theoretically shut someone down with, say, an embedded pacemaker.

The silk/silicon technology is still however in its infancy with the amount of electronics able to be implanted still fairly limited.

At present, making devices involves 1mm silicon transistors and 250 nanometres thick being transferred onto a thin film of silk which is implanted and wetted with saline, causing it to conform to the curvature of the tissues' surface.

Source: NZ Herald

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