The Frontier Within (Part 1): Digitizing the Human Body

This is the first in our blog series on “Digitizing the Human Body.” (See Part 2 here.) 

Populating the human body with powerful technologies is no longer just a sci-fi fantasy. 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 digitisation 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 digitisation 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 digitisation is actually already happening. For example:

  • The implantation of RFID devices is finding increased receptivity than when first introduced a decade ago by VeriChip. We’ve grown accustomed to bionic joints and wearable robotics, artificial hearts and other embedded technologies ripe for IoT control.
  • While digitisation 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 digitised with advanced imaging.
  • Augmented vision is within sight. Though Google Glass was considered by most to be an “epic fail,” 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 eyeballs.
  • Undetectable bionic ears are on the horizon.
  • Data sets of detailed digitised 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 and cryosectional technologies – all of which will facilitate anatomy visualisation applications.
  • Designing and building new organisms through synthetic biology technologies is a reality. Ginkgo Bioworks can now reproduce any fragrance or flavour 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. Our pilot initiative on using face recognition technology to measure the pain level of sick farm animals has proved to be very accurate. 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 to automatically unlock a door, pay for a purchase and perform other mundane tasks. But the possibilities of the technologies we describe are much farther-reaching, including the enhancement of intellectual and physical prowess. We believe that 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:

  • Tesla founder/inventor 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 digitisation 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 farther 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 digitisation 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 US 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 digitisation technologies.

Human digitisation also engenders real concern for incursions of surveillance and control by “Big Brother,” as depicted in media scenarios such as 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.

In future blogs, I will explore the burgeoning field of human digitisation, illuminating the personal and professional performance-boosting possibilities while not shying away from the challenges faced, including the ethical and moral considerations involved in making this technological leap.


This article was previously published on Digitally Cognizant.

Pratik Maroo is Chief Digital Officer in the Life Sciences business unit at Cognizant. He leads Cognizant thinking in defining digital for life sciences value chains by combining the creative and design experience of a marketing agency with deep domain knowledge, patient centricity, commercial data analytics, data sciences capabilities and global delivery execution. Pratik has 15+ years of life sciences experience, covering start-ups and large pharma, M&A and divestitures, consulting and digital transformation, solution architect and delivery. He holds an MBA from IIM Bangalore and is passionate about leveraging innovative technology to deliver value.

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