With their ‘electronic tattoo’, MIT and Microsoft Research have developed a new type of interface which can control a smartphone remotely. This simple invention could well go some way towards popularising the ‘Augmented Man’ concept championed by transhumanists.
Researchers working at MIT and Microsoft Research call it DuoSkin. Cut out of gold leaf, this is not however a piece of jewellery but a new type of man/machine interface. All you have to do is to stick the temporary ‘tattoo’ on your forearm to transform it into a tactile surface. You can now use it to control an app on your smartphone or any other connected device.
Marc Roux, President of the Association Française Transhumaniste (French Transhumanist Association) points out that “the principle of electronic tattoos is not new; they’ve been used in laboratories for a number of years,” recognising nevertheless: “However, it seems that here there’s a clear desire to market them. [MIT and Microsoft] have not only improved the functionality of the interface, they have also worked on the aesthetics and the marketing side. Of course there’s an element of the ‘gadget’ about it; all the features are already available on other tools, but what differentiates DuoSkin from a mere gadget is that one can imagine how it might develop. They’re now going to work on refining the product further, on its display resolution, and I’m sure there’ll also be additional functionality in the future.”
Simple, efficient technology
The MIT-Microsoft researchers have come up with a range of configurations and a number of different geometric designs for the tattoos, in one or two dimensions. The basic convenience of the device is clear, but the researchers’ fertile imagination is taking the role of the tattoo beyond that of mere interface. By incorporating thermochromatic pigments, the tattoos can be made to change colour according to the temperature of the wearer. You can also incorporate an NFC chip into the tattoo. Here the gold leaf acts as an antenna to communicate with a reader and so transmit data.
DuoSkin has the advantage of being a relatively basic technology. Its inventors believe that anyone with the right design software would be able to create this type of tattoo and then get it cut out in a nearby store. All kinds of people could wear a tattoo, customised both in appearance and functionality to his/her own needs. You could use it to turn the volume of your MP3 player up or down, play Pokemon Go or unlock the door of your car. It would be up to each of us to decide what we want to use it for. Unlike implanting an NFC chip, sticking on the gold-leaf tattoo is not a painful process, it is temporary, and can be sold at a rock-bottom price. MIT researchers are talking about a cost price of $2.50 for a tattoo a few square centimetres in size.
Tattoo: more acceptable than an implant
Now that no-one can manage without a smartphone and meanwhile tattoos have become fashionable as never before in many countries, DuoSkin could ride the crest of this joint wave. However, this temporary electronic tattoo, which is easy to remove and – in theory at least – without any side effects on the wearer, could be a first step towards transhumanism, the concept of ‘augmented man’ first put forward in the 1960s. The welcome accorded to DuoSkin on the web is far more positive than in 2004 when a Spanish night club offered its regular patrons the opportunity to inject an implant under their skin in order to jump the queue. “The media presented these implants in a fairly negative light,” points out Marc Roux. This may partly explain the lack of enthusiasm for such implants among the general public. In 2015, following an ‘implant party’ hosted by the Bionyfiken group of bio-hackers during the Futur en Seine innovation event in the Paris region, the mayor of the French town of Orange, Jacques Bompard, even submitted a question to the government during a parliamentary session. He asked for the placing of implants in human beings in France to be banned, putting forward the argument that "the fusion of human biology and technology is extremely dangerous."
Given that electronic tattoos are far less invasive, they are likely to arouse much less concern. “From a psychological and symbolic viewpoint, an electronic tattoo has the advantage of being strictly outside the body,” argues Marc Roux. “The tattoo ‘augments’ me, but all I have to do is take it off and its relationship with my body then ceases, unlike an implant, which requires a highly invasive surgical operation and also has an impact on the personality of the wearer, to some extent modifying his/her psychology. DuoSkin is quite useful because it sits on the cusp between a tool and an implant. Some 95% of all philosophers and people working in the field of bioethics would regard this tattoo as a tool – with a reversible effect. Looking to the future, we’ll have to think about how it should evolve, and at what point it will start to have an impact – whether positive or negative – on our biology.”
‘Augmented Man’ concept gradually gaining ground
The idea of transhumanism is in fact making rather slow headway among the general public – especially in France where legislation governing bioethics is quite restrictive – but things are moving faster among the medical community. "In some ways transhumanism has been with us for quite a while already.The first pacemakers date from the 1960s, cochlear implants appeared in the 80s, and the first inserts and deep intracranial implants were placed around ten years ago." Amazing progress has been made in recent years in the development of prostheses (artificial limbs and joints), one example being the robotic hand created by Zhe Xu and Emanuel Todorov, both engineers working at the University of Washington. The artificial hand they have designed copies the entire bone structure of a human hand. Each bone is scanned and 3D-printed so as to imitate the patient’s hand perfectly. The hand is articulated through a discreet network of highly resistant synthetic tendons, and finger movements are driven by ten servomotors placed in the forearm, similar to the muscles of a human hand. This bio-inspired hand demonstrates an unprecedented level of dexterity for a robotic hand. Its users can effortlessly pick up a cup, a coin, an envelope or a towel.
While today engineers are able to create artificial prostheses that are very close to human limbs in terms of functionality, this approach is already becoming outmoded. Recalls Marc Roux: “The first mechatronic prostheses, produced around ten years ago, were not connected to the patient’s nervous system and the freedom of rotation given to the wrist was designed to be equivalent to the movement of a natural hand. So the hand was able to turn no more than 180°,” stressing: “Over the last three or four years however we’ve seen medical and technical teams developing prostheses whose freedom of movement is no longer limited. In some cases, medical teams have fully accepted the idea of going beyond functionality which is regarded as natural.”
Transhumanism: everything remains to be invented
Although prostheses are evolving and becoming more and more advanced, researchers and doctors are now running up against the current limitations of the man-machine interface. At the moment, the programmes allow only fairly simple actions and prostheses have buttons that enable the user to choose from among a set of pre-programmed movements and gestures the ones s/he wants to activate. Better-performing interfaces will have to be developed before complex gestures can be fully guided by the user’s brain. "Neuroscience is still a young science," admits Marc Roux, adding: “Neuroscientists are trying to gain a better understanding of the areas of the brain that are linked to motor functions. We can envisage that in future you will be able to place thinner and thinner implants in increasingly precise areas of this part of the cortex. You will then be able to send a prosthesis increasingly precise impulses and you will undoubtedly be able to attain a higher level of precision than what the brain is capable of achieving today with natural limbs. However, I think a considerable amount of further development will be needed before this becomes reality."
The latest illustration of what researchers are up to is Kernel, a startup created by Theodore Berger, Director of the Center for Neural Engineering at the University of Southern California. The company is developing an implant with no lesser aim than extending the memory in our brains.
While implants and prostheses are one way of moving towards the ‘Augmented Man’ on which transhumanists have set their sights, perhaps the most significant progress is to be expected from the field of genetics. “In my view the most important innovation in recent years is still the development of CRISPR-Cas9 technology, a genome engineering tool used to induce site-directed double strand breaks in DNA,” reveals Marc Roux, underlining: “The number of laboratories that are now implementing this technique continues to rise, both for doing basic research and for more direct medical applications.” The press has reported widely on the first experiments carried out on human embryos in China, though a team led by American scientist George Church was the first to carry out research in this field. Genome editing has already proved effective in curing a patient of beta thalassemia by modifying the genome of the blood cells, making this patient one of the first Genetically Modified Humans (GMH). “This type of treatment is not yet widely used, but rapid progress is being made and leukaemia patients have also been able to benefit from this technique,” points out Marc Roux.
As the arguments rage and the necessary ethical discussions continue to take place, advances in the technology and changes in people’s attitudes will gradually persuade the general public to embrace transhumanism. And who will then remember that all this began with a temporary electronic tattoo?