Do you often find yourself working your nine-to-five job on a computer, later arriving home to whip out your five-to-nine laptop to binge-watch Netflix instead? If so, have you ever felt the urge to yeet your digital devices across the room or even Google ‘what would happen if I ate my phone?’ at 3 am? Well, either way, scientists across the world are currently on a quest to make the latter possible. Introducing edible electronics, a field of research with the vision to serve humans computers at their dinner tables in the near future.
For starters, think of our gastrointestinal (GI) tract as the primary interface between the external and our internal environment. This provides a huge surface area for digital devices to reside and deliver drugs, measure pH levels, monitor our health and even perform complicated surgeries. Edible electronics aim to administer these devices orally, hence making them non-invasive, using materials that are ingested in common diets.
“The idea is for the patient to consume a pill that encapsulates the device,” Christopher Bettinger, who has been working on biodegradable electronics for several years at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, told Chemistry World. “The pill will have a form that is similar to a vitamin. The device will then undergo programmed deployment in the GI tract or the small intestine—depending upon the packaging—after which the battery will activate.”
The technology in question has countless applications. First comes a process called capsule endoscopy, where you would be made to ingest a camera embedded in a pill (similar to the one in the image above). It would then take pictures of your GI tract as it passes through your system, therefore eliminating the need for tube insertions altogether. The possibilities of this application could even be extended to a future where doctors could observe a patient’s internal health remotely without the necessity of a hospital visit. This revolution, of course, opens up a conversation about ethics in the upcoming field, but if successful, it could enhance telehealth significantly.
Edible electronics also harbour the potential of performing complicated internal procedures, where the tiny robot surgeons could later exit through the digestive tract, and even deliver drugs to specific locations in the body. In the latter case, the ingested device could head to the designated spot and release medication at the right time. Oh, you forgot to take your pills? That’s so 2022 of you.
Origami robots are yet another edible innovation on the list. Unfolding themselves from a swallowed capsule, these mini robots—demonstrated by the researchers at MIT, the University of Sheffield, and the Tokyo Institute of Technology—are designed to steer themselves with the help of external magnetic fields and crawl across the stomach wall to patch wounds and remove harmful materials that one may have accidentally ingested.
Then comes the alternate applications of the technology. Back in 2013, US smartphone firm Motorola introduced an edible “authentication vitamin” pill—capable of turning you into a human password for all of your digital devices. When ingested, the gastric juices would act as an electrolyte to activate the pill, which will then trigger it to transmit an 18-bit, electrocardiogram (EKG)-like signal from your insides. This would automatically unlock your smartphone and other gadgets as long as the edible device is still inside your body.
At the time, Motorola’s authentication pill came with its own uncertainties. How much would it cost? Will you need a prescription to purchase it? Does the pill really stop emitting a signal after it’s expelled out of our bodies? Despite the company deeming the edible device “medically safe” enough to swallow up to 30 times a day, it never hit the market. Officially, at least.
Every year, more than 3,500 people of all ages in the US swallow button batteries, the small silver chips used to power everything from toys to musical greeting cards. While most of them pass through our digestive system and are ultimately expelled out, some get embedded in the inner lining of our stomach, in turn, causing serious internal damages—not to mention the initial choking hazards and heavy metal poisoning.
But batteries aren’t the only form of toxic indigestion humans have been enduring to date. The optical drive, the part of the computer used to read and write data on CDs, is covered with a light-sensitive substance called a photoresist application. When scientists exposed the substance to mice and rabbits, it caused inflammation around their eyes and skin, as well as weight gain. Flame retardants, that keep your electronics from combusting easily, are further proven to disrupt fertility and hormones when they’re burnt or crushed as waste.
Simply put, the ingestion of technology can be fatal. They’re not exactly delicious or nutritious either, so to speak. In terms of edible electronics, this is exactly where researchers need to get inventive.
As of today, biodegradable polymers like silk fibroin, caramelised sugar, pea protein and apple extract are being trialled as mediums to contain electronic materials. Gold and silver, which are inert and already permitted as food additives, are also being tapped as conductors. Gatorade and Vegemite additionally have the potential of being used in the process, given how they contain charged electrolytes. Certain proteins, DNA, pigments and dyes are also on the list as they’re being explored as semiconductors—alongside small amounts of silicone.
With prototypes already existing for astronauts, firefighters and football players to make sure they do not overheat, edible electronics are set to be the future of biotechnology as we speak. Microchip and dip while we wait, anybody?
In 2010, NASA researcher John Vickers introduced the world to the concept of ‘digital twins’—the virtual representation of a physical object or process. With an industry estimated to hit $50 billion by 2026, the concept has now bled into manufacturing and aerospace. In fact, there are even digital doppelgängers of cities, ports and power stations aimed to optimise operations in ways which we could previously only imagine.
Then, in 2016, William Ruh—the ex-CEO of GE Digital (a subsidiary of the American corporation General Electric)—predicted the application of the concept in biology, stating that “we will have a digital twin at birth, and it will take data off of the sensors everybody is running, and that digital twin will predict things for us about disease and cancer and other things.” Simply put, virtual clones of our body could inform us about the development of diseases and suggest tailored medications for the same. The concept also harbours the potential of trialing several treatments on the clone without testing them on the physical body, thereby eliminating the entire risk that comes along with the process.
As of late, research programmes like ECHOES (Enhancing Cardiac care tHrOugh Extensive Sensing) have been in the pursuit of building digital counterparts of human hearts. A recent investigation by WIRED additionally noted how Siemens Healthineers, a medical device company based in Germany, and French software corporation Dassault Systèmes are also part of the same race.
While the latter has teamed up with the US Food and Drug Administration to approve what it terms “The Living Heart,” Austrian company GOLEM is currently creating virtual twins of vulnerable people who live alone. “The idea is that the digital twin continuously monitors their health, alerting caregivers if they fall ill and need help,” WIRED explained.
More recently, digital twins have been the focus of a European Union-funded project that seeks to clone a patient’s entire brain. Dubbed Neurotwin, the research project aims to create virtual models that can be used to predict the effects of stimulation for the treatment of neurological disorders—including epilepsy and Alzheimer’s disease. When it comes to epilepsy, non-invasive stimulations (where electrical currents are painlessly delivered to the brain) have proven effective in tackling seizures. Given how drugs don’t help a third of epilepsy patients, the technology is coveted yet needs refinement. This is where virtual clones come in.
“The digital avatar is essentially a mathematical model running on a computer,” Giulio Ruffini, coordinator of the Neurotwin project, told WIRED. Including a network of embedded “neural mass models,” the technology hopes to create a map of the neural connections in the brain—a concept termed as the ‘connectome’. “In the case of epilepsy, some areas of the connectome could become overexcited,” the outlet mentioned. “In the case of, say, stroke, the connectome might be altered.” Once the digital clone has been created by the team, with about half an hour-worth of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) data and ten minutes of electroencephalography (EEG) readings to capture electrical activities and realistically simulate the brain’s main tissues (including the scalp, skull, cerebrospinal fluid, and grey and white matter), it can then be used to optimise stimulation of the real patient’s brain.
According to Ruffini, this is possible “because we can run endless simulations on the computer until we find what we need. It is, in this sense, like a weather forecasting computational model.”
“For example, to improve treatment for an epilepsy patient, the person would wear a headcap every day for 20 minutes as it delivers transcranial electrical stimulations to their brain,” WIRED added. Using the digital twin, on the other hand, Ruffini and his team could optimise the position of stimulating electrodes, along with the level of current applied.
With digital twins of biological organs gaining traction, the technology opens up a conversation about ethics in the upcoming field. For starters, who should own one’s digital clone? The patient in question or the company building it? What will happen to it after the patient dies? And if the patient is predicted to have a stroke in two weeks, shouldn’t they have the right to know or refrain from knowing the same?
As per Matthias Braun, an ethicist at the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg, “In order to not be an infringement on autonomy or privacy, it is important that this specific person has control of the use [of their digital twin].” Not having these rights would result in what the expert calls “digital slavery.”
Nevertheless, Braun believes digital clones offer exciting and revolutionary pathways to develop new treatments. As of today, Neurotwin is planning to kick off clinical trials in 2023 and create virtual clones of around 60 Alzheimer’s patients—who will receive a stimulation treatment that has been optimised specifically for their brain. The second phase of the trials has similar objectives, but for patients with treatment-resistant focal epilepsy.
“Both are proof-of-concept trials to determine whether the approach works and can improve treatment outcomes for these patients,” WIRED concluded. If successful, Ruffini and his team hope to apply the technology to study other aspects of the brain, like those involved in multiple sclerosis, stroke rehabilitation, depression and the effects of psychedelics.