Spark

Data that's easy to stomach

But do privacy issues make it tough to swallow?
This pill is able to transmit biometric data from your stomach. (Diemut Strebe/MIT)
Listen8:20

To think, there was a time when we actually strapped biometric sensors on our wrists!

That may be something we'll all be saying soon if Phillip Nadeau gets his way.
Phillip Nadeau

The Canadian post-doctoral fellow at MIT led a team that has created a small transmitter that you swallow -- and it's powered by the acid in your stomach!

The pill, which is still a prototype, is able to transmit data about temperature, acidity, heart rate and other biometrics.

Ingestibles that transmit data aren't new; there are already pills, for example, that send signals when they've been swallowed, so people can keep track of their medication.

But the difference here is that Phillip's pill doesn't require a battery, because it's able to create an electrical current from the acid in your stomach.

It's not that different from the standard high-school experiment where you make a clock powered by a potato. Except of course that it's inside your stomach.

The voltage isn't enough to cause a shock -- it's millions of times less power than what's required to light a light bulb -- but it is enough to allow the pill to transmit data for around a week before it passes through the digestive system.

Phillip says the pill is able to transmit data a couple of meters - just far enough to reach a smartphone.

And he envisions a world where everyone's biometric data is being recorded, providing new insights into disease prevention and cure.

His colleagues recently created a different pill that expands into a star shape when inside the stomach, allowing the timed-release of drugs for well over a week, and potentially months.

And as up to half the population doesn't take their prescription drugs properly, such a device could save lives, he says.

However, he does acknowledge that his pill raises serious ethical concerns about privacy.

Recent hacking of Internet of Things devices like smart thermostats and refrigerators have created havoc on the internet, and an ingestible IoT device would require considerably more security that a smart lightbulb, he concedes.

Still, Phillip believes we're on the cusp of a whole new era of biometric monitoring, which sends a wealth of information without the user requiring any special hardware.

Except, perhaps, a glass of water.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.