Category Archives: biotech

The future of biometric identification and authentication

If you work in IT security, the first part of this will not be news to you, skip to the section on the future. Otherwise, the first sections look at the current state of biometrics and some of what we already know about their security limitations.


I just read an article on fingerprint recognition. Biometrics has been hailed by some as a wonderful way of determining someone’s identity, and by others as a security mechanism that is far too easy to spoof. I generally fall in the second category. I don’t mind using it for simple unimportant things like turning on my tablet, on which I keep nothing sensitive, but so far I would never trust it as part of any system that gives access to my money or sensitive files.

My own history is that voice recognition still doesn’t work for me, fingerprints don’t work for me, and face recognition doesn’t work for me. Iris scan recognition does, but I don’t trust that either. Let’s take a quick look at conventional biometrics today and the near future.

Conventional biometrics

Fingerprint recognition.

I use a Google Nexus, made by Samsung. Samsung is in the news today because their Galaxy S5 fingerprint sensor was hacked by SRLabs minutes after release, not the most promising endorsement of their security competence.

This article says the sensor is used in the user authentication to access Paypal. That is really not good. I expect quite a few engineers at Samsung are working very hard indeed today. I expect they thought they had tested it thoroughly, and their engineers know a thing or two about security. Every engineer knows you can photograph a fingerprint and print a replica in silicone or glue or whatever. It’s the first topic of discussion at any Biometrics 101 meeting. I would assume they tested for that. I assume they would not release something they expected to bring instant embarrassment on their company, especially something failing by that classic mechanism. Yet according to this article, that seems to be the case. Given that Samsung is one of the most advanced technology companies out there, and that they can be assumed to have made reasonable effort to get it right, that doesn’t offer much hope for fingerprint recognition. If they don’t do it right, who will?

My own experience with fingerprint recognition history is having to join a special queue every day at Universal Studios because their fingerprint recognition entry system never once recognised me or my child. So I have never liked it because of false negatives. For those people for whom it does work, their fingerprints are all over the place, some in high quality, and can easily be obtained and replicated.

As just one token in multi-factor authentication, it may yet have some potential, but as a primary access key, not a chance. It will probably remain be a weak authenticator.

Face recognition

There are many ways of recognizing faces – visible light, infrared or UV, bone structure, face shapes, skin texture patterns, lip-prints, facial gesture sequences… These could be combined in simultaneous multi-factor authentication. The technology isn’t there yet, but it offers more hope than fingerprint recognition. Using the face alone is no good though. You can make masks from high-resolution photographs of people, and photos could be made using the same spectrum known to be used in recognition systems. Adding gestures is a nice idea, but in a world where cameras are becoming ubiquitous, it wouldn’t be too hard to capture the sequence you use. Pretending that a mask is alive by adding sensing and then using video to detect any inspection for pulse or blood flows or gesture requests and then to provide appropriate response is entirely feasible, though it would deter casual entry. So I am not encouraged to believe it would be secure unless and until some cleverer innovation occurs.

What I do know is that I set my tablet up to recognize me and it works about one time in five. The rest of the time I have to wait till it fails and then type in a PIN. So on average, it actually slows entry down. False negative again. Giving lots of false negatives without the reward of avoiding false positives is not a good combination.

Iris scans

I was a subject in one of the early trials for iris recognition. It seemed very promising. It always recognized me and never confused me with someone else. That was a very small scale trial though so I’d need a lot more convincing before I let it near my bank account. I saw the problem of replication an iris using a high quality printer and was assured that that couldn’t work because the system checks for the eye being alive by watching for jitter and shining a light and watching for pupil contraction. Call me too suspicious but I didn’t and don’t find that at all reassuring. It won’t be too long before we can make a thin sheet high-res polymer display layered onto a polymer gel underlayer that contracts under electric field, with light sensors built in and some software analysis for real time response. You could even do it as part of a mask with the rest of the face also faithfully mimicking all the textures, real-time responses, blood flow mimicking, gesture sequences and so on. If the prize is valuable enough to justify the effort, every aspect of the eyes, face and fingerprints could be mimicked. It may be more Mission Impossible than casual high street robbery but I can’t yet have any confidence that any part of the face or gestures would offer good security.


We hear frequently that DNA is a superbly secure authenticator. Every one of your cells can identify you. You almost certainly leave a few cells at the scene of a crime so can be caught, and because your DNA is unique, it must have been you that did it. Perfect, yes? And because it is such a perfect authenticator, it could be used confidently to police entry to secure systems.

No! First, even for a criminal trial, only a few parts of your DNA are checked, they don’t do an entire genome match. That already brings the chances of a match down to millions rather than billions. A chance of millions to one sounds impressive to a jury until you look at the figure from the other direction. If you have 1 in 70 million chance of a match, a prosecution barrister might try to present that as a 70 million to 1 chance that you’re guilty and a juror may well be taken in. The other side of that is that 100 people of the 7 billion would have that same 1 in 70 million match. So your competent defense barrister should  present that as only a 1 in 100 chance that it was you. Not quite so impressive.

I doubt a DNA system used commercially for security systems would be as sophisticated as one used in forensic labs. It will be many years before an instant response using large parts of your genome could be made economic. But what then? Still no. You leave DNA everywhere you go, all day, every day. I find it amazing that it is permitted as evidence in trials, because it is so easy to get hold of someone’s hairs or skin flakes. You could gather hairs or skin flakes from any bus seat or hotel bathroom or bed. Any maid in a big hotel or any airline cabin attendant could gather packets of tissue and hair samples and in many cases could even attach a name to them.  Your DNA could be found at the scene of any crime having been planted there by someone who simply wanted to deflect attention from themselves and get someone else convicted instead of them. They don’t even need to know who you are. And the police can tick the crime solved box as long as someone gets convicted. It doesn’t have to be the culprit. Think you have nothing to fear if you have done nothing wrong? Think again.

If someone wants to get access to an account, but doesn’t mind whose, perhaps a DNA-based entry system would offer good potential, because people perceive it as secure, whereas it simply isn’t. So it might not be paired with other secure factors. Going back to the maid or cabin attendant. Both are low paid. A few might welcome some black market bonuses if they can collect good quality samples with a name attached, especially a name of someone staying in a posh suite, probably with a nice account or two, or privy to valuable information. Especially if they also gather their fingerprints at the same time. Knowing who they are, getting a high res pic of their face and eyes off the net, along with some voice samples from videos, then making a mask, iris replica, fingerprint and if you’re lucky also buying video of their gesture patterns from the black market, you could make an almost perfect multi-factor biometric spoof.

It also becomes quickly obvious that the people who are the most valuable or important are also the people who are most vulnerable to such high quality spoofing.

So I am not impressed with biometric authentication. It sounds good at first, but biometrics are too easy to access and mimic. Other security vulnerabilities apply in sequence too. If your biometric is being measured and sent across a network for authentication, all the other usual IT vulnerabilities still apply. The signal could be intercepted and stored, replicated another time, and you can’t change your body much, so once your iris has been photographed or your fingerprint stored and hacked, it is useless for ever. The same goes for the other biometrics.

Dynamic biometrics

Signatures, gestures and facial expressions offer at least the chance to change them. If you signature has been used, you could start using a new one. You could sign different phrases each time, as a personal one-time key. You could invent new gesture sequences. These are really just an equivalent to passwords. You have to remember them and which one you use for which system. You don’t want a street seller using your signature to verify a tiny transaction and then risk the seller using the same signature to get right into your account.

Summary of status quo

This all brings us back to the most basic of security practice. You can only use static biometrics safely as a small part of a multi-factor system, and you have to use different dynamic biometrics such as gestures or signatures on a one time basis for each system, just as you do with passwords. At best, they provide a simple alternative to a simple password. At worst, they pair low actual security with the illusion of high security, and that is a very bad combination indeed.

So without major progress, biometrics in its conventional meaning doesn’t seem to have much of a future. If it is not much more than a novelty or a toy, and can only be used safely in conjunction with some proper security system, why bother at all?

The future

You can’t easily change your eyes or your DNA or you skin, but you can add things to your body that are similar to biometrics or interact with it but offer the flexibility and replaceability of electronics.

I have written frequently about active skin, using the skin as a platform for electronics, and I believe the various layers of it offer the best potential for security technology.

Long ago, RFID chips implants became commonplace in pets and some people even had them inserted too. RFID variants could easily be printed on a membrane and stuck onto the skin surface. They could be used for one time keys too, changing each time they are used. Adding accelerometers, magnetometers, pressure sensors or even location sensors could all offer ways of enhancing security options. Active skin allows easy combination of fingerprints with other factors.


Ultra-thin and uninvasive security patches could be stuck onto the skin, and could not be removed without damaging them, so would offer a potentially valuable platform. Pretty much any kinds and combinations of electronics could be used in them. They could easily be made to have a certain lifetime. Very thin ones could wash off after a few days so could be useful for theme park entry during holidays or for short term contractors. Banks could offer stick on electronic patches that change fundamentally how they work every month, making it very hard to hack them.

Active skin can go inside the skin too, not just on the surface. You could for example have an electronic circuit or an array of micro-scale magnets embedded among the skin cells in your fingertip. Your fingerprint alone could easily be copied and spoofed, but not the accompanying electronic interactivity from the active skin that can be interrogated at the same time. Active skin could measure all sorts of properties of the body too, so personal body chemistry at a particular time could be used. In fact, medical monitoring is the first key development area for active skin, so we’re likely to have a lot of body data available that could make new biometrics. The key advantage here is that skin cells are very large compared to electronic feature sizes. A decent processor or memory can be made around the size of one skin cell and many could be combined using infrared optics within the skin. Temperature or chemical gradients between inner and outer skin layers could be used to power devices too.

If you are signing something, the signature could be accompanied by a signal from the fingertip, sufficiently close to the surface being signed to be useful. A ring on a finger could also offer a voluminous security electronics platform to house any number of sensors, memory and processors.

Skin itself offers a reasonable communications route, able to carry a few Mbit’s of data stream, so touching something could allow a lot of data transfer very quickly. A smart watch or any other piece of digital jewelry or active skin security patch could use your fingertip to send an authentication sequence. The watch would know who you are by constant proximity and via its own authentication tools. It could easily be unauthorized instantly when detached or via a remote command.

Active makeup offer a novel mechanism too. Makeup will soon exist that uses particles that can change color or alignment under electronic control, potentially allowing video rate pattern changes. While that makes for fun makeup, it also allows for sophisticated visual authentication sequences using one-time keys. Makeup doesn’t have to be confined only to the face of course, and security makeup could maybe be used on the forearm or hands. Combining with static biometrics, many-factor authentication could be implemented.

I believe active skin, using membranes added or printed onto and even within the skin, together with the use of capsules, electronic jewelry, and even active makeup offers the future potential to implement extremely secure personal authentication systems. This pseudo-biometric authentication offers infinitely more flexibility and changeability than the body itself, but because it is attached to the body, offers much the same ease of use and constant presence as other biometrics.

Biometrics may be pretty useless as it is, but the field does certainly have a future. We just need to add some bits. The endless potential variety of those bits and their combinations makes the available creativity space vast.



WMDs for mad AIs

We think sometimes about mad scientists and what they might do. It’s fun, makes nice films occasionally, and highlights threats years before they become feasible. That then allows scientists and engineers to think through how they might defend against such scenarios, hopefully making sure they don’t happen.

You’ll be aware that a lot more talk of AI is going on again now. It does seem to be picking up progress finally. If it succeeds well enough, a lot more future science and engineering will be done by AI than by people. If genuinely conscious, self-aware AI, with proper emotions etc becomes feasible, as I think it will, then we really ought to think about what happens when it goes wrong. (Sci-fi computer games producers already do think that stuff through sometimes – my personal favorite is Mass Effect). We will one day have some insane AIs. In Mass Effect, the concept of AI being shackled is embedded in the culture, thereby attempting to limit the damage it could presumably do. On the other hand, we have had Asimov’s laws of robotics for decades, but they are sometimes being ignored when it comes to making autonomous defense systems. That doesn’t bode well. So, assuming that Mass Effect’s writers don’t get to be in charge of the world, and instead we have ideological descendants of our current leaders, what sort of things could an advanced AI do in terms of its chosen weaponry?

Advanced AI

An ultra-powerful AI is a potential threat in itself. There is no reason to expect that an advanced AI will be malign, but there is also no reason to assume it won’t be. High level AI could have at least the range of personality that we associate with people, with a potentially greater  range of emotions or motivations, so we’d have the super-helpful smart scientist type AIs but also perhaps the evil super-villain and terrorist ones.

An AI doesn’t have to intend harm to be harmful. If it wants to do something and we are in the way, even if it has no malicious intent, we could still become casualties, like ants on a building site.

I have often blogged about achieving conscious computers using techniques such as gel computing and how we could end up in a terminator scenario, favored by sci-fi. This could be deliberate act of innocent research, military development or terrorism.

Terminator scenarios are diverse but often rely on AI taking control of human weapons systems. I won’t major on that here because that threat has already been analysed in-depth by many people.

Conscious botnets could arrive by accident too – a student prank harnessing millions of bots even with an inefficient algorithm might gain enough power to achieve high level of AI. 

Smart bacteriaBacterial DNA could be modified so that bacteria can make electronics inside their cell, and power it. Linking to other bacteria, massive AI could be achieved.


Adding the ability to enter a human nervous system or disrupt or capture control of a human brain could enable enslavement, giving us zombies. Having been enslaved, zombies could easily be linked across the net. The zombie films we watch tend to miss this feature. Zombies in films and games tend to move in herds, but not generally under control or in a much coordinated way. We should assume that real ones will be full networked, liable to remote control, and able to share sensory systems. They’d be rather smarter and more capable than what we’re generally used to. Shooting them in the head might not work so well as people expect either, as their nervous systems don’t really need a local controller, and could just as easily be controlled by a collective intelligence, though blood loss would eventually cause them to die. To stop a herd of real zombies, you’d basically have to dismember them. More Dead Space than Dawn of the Dead.

Zombie viruses could be made other ways too. It isn’t necessary to use smart bacteria. Genetic modification of viruses, or a suspension of nanoparticles are traditional favorites because they could work. Sadly, we are likely to see zombies result from deliberate human acts, likely this century.

From Zombies, it is a short hop to full evolution of the Borg from Star Trek, along with emergence of characters from computer games to take over the zombified bodies.


Using strong external AI to make collective adaptability so that smart bacteria can colonize many niches, bacterial-based AI or AI using bacteria could engage in terraforming. Attacking many niches that are important to humans or other life would be very destructive. Terraforming a planet you live on is not generally a good idea, but if an organism can inhabit land, sea or air and even space, there is plenty of scope to avoid self destruction. Fighting bacteria engaged on such a pursuit might be hard. Smart bacteria could spread immunity to toxins or biological threats almost instantly through a population.

Correlated traffic

Information waves and other correlated traffic, network resonance attacks are another way of using networks to collapse economies by taking advantage of the physical properties of the links and protocols rather than using more traditional viruses or denial or service attacks. AIs using smart dust or bacteria could launch signals in perfect coordination from any points on any networks simultaneously. This could push any network into resonant overloads that would likely crash them, and certainly act to deprive other traffic of bandwidth.


Conscious botnets could be used to make decryption engines to wreck security and finance systems. Imagine how much more so a worldwide collection of trillions of AI-harnessed organisms or devices. Invisibly small smart dust and networked bacteria could also pick up most signals well before they are encrypted anyway, since they could be resident on keyboards or the components and wires within. They could even pick up electrical signals from a person’s scalp and engage in thought recognition, intercepting passwords well before a person’s fingers even move to type them.

Space guns

Solar wind deflector guns are feasible, ionizing some of the ionosphere to make a reflective surface to deflect some of the incoming solar wind to make an even bigger reflector, then again, thus ending up with an ionospheric lens or reflector that can steer perhaps 1% of the solar wind onto a city. That could generate a high enough energy density to ignite and even melt a large area of city within minutes.

This wouldn’t be as easy as using space based solar farms, and using energy direction from them. Space solar is being seriously considered but it presents an extremely attractive target for capture because of its potential as a directed energy weapon. Their intended use is to use microwave beams directed to rectenna arrays on the ground, but it would take good design to prevent a takeover possibility.

Drone armies

Drones are already becoming common at an alarming rate, and the sizes of drones are increasing in range from large insects to medium sized planes. The next generation is likely to include permanently airborne drones and swarms of insect-sized drones. The swarms offer interesting potential for WMDs. They can be dispersed and come together on command, making them hard to attack most of the time.

Individual insect-sized drones could build up an electrical charge by a wide variety of means, and could collectively attack individuals, electrocuting or disabling them, as well as overload or short-circuit electrical appliances.

Larger drones such as the ones I discussed in would be capable of much greater damage, and collectively, virtually indestructible since each can be broken to pieces by an attack and automatically reassembled without losing capability using self organisation principles. A mixture of large and small drones, possibly also using bacteria and smart dust, could present an extremely formidable coordinated attack.

I also recently blogged about the storm router that would harness hurricanes, tornados or electrical storms and divert their energy onto chosen targets.

In my Space Anchor novel, my superheroes have to fight against a formidable AI army that appears as just a global collection of tiny clouds. They do some of the things I highlighted above and come close to threatening human existence. It’s a fun story but it is based on potential engineering.

Well, I think that’s enough threats to worry about for today. Maybe given the timing of release, you’re expecting me to hint that this is an April Fool blog. Not this time. All these threats are feasible.

The future of mining

I did an interview recently on future mining, so I thought I’d blog my thoughts on the subject while they’re all stuck together coherently.

Very briefly, increasing population and wealth will generate higher resource need until the resources needed per person starts to fall at a higher rate, and it will. That almost certainly means a few decades of increasing demand for many resources, with a few exceptions where substitution will impact at a higher rate. Eventually, demand will peak and fall for most resources. Meanwhile, the mining industry can prosper.


Robots are already used a lot in mining, but their uses will evolve. Robots have a greater potential range of senses than humans, able to detect whatever sensors are equipped for. That means they can see into rock and analyse composition better than our eyes. AI will improve their decisions. Of course, we’ll still have the self drive vehicles, diggers and the other automation we already expect to see.

If a mine can be fully automated, it may reduce deaths and costs significantly. Robots can also have a rapid speed of reaction as well as AI and advanced sensing, and could detect accidents before they happen. Apart from saving on wages, robots also don’t need expensive health and safety, so that may see lower costs, but at the expense of greater risks with occasional flat robots in an automated mine. The costs of robots can be kept low if most of their intelligence is remote rather than on board. Saving human lives is a benefit that can’t easily be costed. Far better to buy a new machine than to comfort a bereaved family.

Robots in many other mixed mines will need to be maintained, so maybe people’s main role will often be just looking after the machines, and we would still need to ensure safety in that case. That creates a big incentive to make machines that can be maintained by other machines so that full automation can be achieved.

With use of penetrating positioning systems, specialist wanderer bots could tunnel around at will, following a seam, extracting and concentrating useful materials and leave markers for collector bots to gather the concentrates.


With ongoing convergence of biotech, nanotech and IT, we should expect a lot of development of various types of bacterial or mechanical microbots, that can get into new places and reduce the costs of recovery, maybe even reopening some otherwise uneconomic mines. Development of bacteria that can transmute materials has already begun, and we should expect that some future mines will depend mainly on a few bucketfuls of bacterial soup to convert and concentrate resources into more easily extracted reserves. Such advanced technology will greatly increase the reserves of material that can economically be extracted. Obviously the higher the price, the more that can be justified on extraction, so advanced technologies will develop faster when we need them, as any shortages start to appear.

Deep Sea

Deep sea mines would provide access to far greater resource pools, limited mainly by the market price for the material. Re-opening other mines as technology improves recovery potential will also help.

Asteroid Mining

Moving away from the Earth, a lot of hype has appeared about asteroid mining and some analyses seem to think that it will impact enormously on the price of scarce materials here on Earth. I think that is oversold as a possibility.  Yes, it will be possible to bring stuff back to Earth, but the costs of landing materials safely would be high and only justified for those with extreme prices.  For traditionally expensive gold or diamonds, actual uses are relatively low and generally have good cheaper substitutes, so if large quantities were shipped back to Earth, prices would still be managed as they already are, with slow trickling onto the market to avoid price collapse. That greatly limits the potential wealth from doing so.

I think it is far more likely that asteroid mining will be focused on producing stuff for needed for construction, travel and living in space, such as space stations, ships, energy collection, habitation, outposts etc. In that case, many of the things mined from asteroids would be things that are cheap here, such as water and iron and other everyday materials. Their value in space might be far higher simply because of the expense of moving them. This last factor suggests that there may be a lot of interest in technologies to move asteroids or change their orbits so the resources end up closer to where they are needed. An asteroid could be mined at great length, with the materials extracted and left on its surface, then waiting until the asteroid is close to the required destination before the materials are collected and dispatched. The alternative that we routinely see in sci-fi, with vast mining ships, is possible, and there will undoubtedly be times they are needed, but surely can’t compete on cost with steering an entire asteroid so it delivers the materials itself.

Population growth and resource need

As human population increases, we’ll eventually also see robot and android population increase, and they might also need resources for their activities. We should certainly factor that into future demand estimates. However, there are also future factors that will reduce the resources needed.

Smarter Construction

More advanced construction techniques, development of smarter materials and use of reactive architecture all mean that less resource is needed for a given amount of building. Exotic materials such as graphene  and carbon nanotubes, boron derivatives, and possibly even plasma in some applications, will all impact on construction and other industries and reduce demand for lots of resources. The carbon derivatives are a double win, since carbon can usefully be extracted from the products of fossil fuel energy production, making cleaner energy at the same time as providing building and fabrication materials. The new carbon materials are a lot stronger than steel, so we may build much higher buildings, making a lower environmental footprint for cities. They are also perfect for making self-driving cars as well as their energy storage, power supply and supporting infrastructure.

IT efficiency v the Greens

Miniaturisation of electronics and IT will continue for decades more. A few cubic millimetres of electronics could easily replace all the electronics owned by a typical family today. Perversely, Greens are trying hard to force a slower obsolescence cycle, not understanding that the faster we get to minimal resource use, the lower the overall environmental impact will be. By prolonging high-resource-use gadgets, even as people get wealthier and can afford to buy more, the demands will increase far beyond what is really necessary of they hadn’t interfered. It is far better for 10 billion people to use a few cubic millimetres each than a few litres. Greens also often want to introduce restrictions on development of other advanced technology, greatly overusing the precautionary principle. Their distrust of science and technology is amazing considering how much it can obviously benefit the environment.

A lot of things can be done virtually too, with no resource use at all, especially displays and interfaces, all of which could share a single common display such as a 0.2 gram active contact lens. A lot of IT can be centralised with greater utilisation, while some can achieve better efficiency by decentralising. We need to apply intelligence to the problem, looking at each bit as part of an overall system instead of in isolation, and looking at the full life cycle as well as the full system.

Substitution will reduce demand for copper, neodymium, lithium

Recycling of some elements will provide more than is needed by a future market because of material substitution, so prices of some could fall, such as copper. Copper in plumbing is already being substituted heavily by plastic. In communications, fibre and mobile are already heavily replacing it. In power cables, it will eventually be substituted by graphene. Similar substitution is likely in many other materials. The primary use of neodymium is in wind turbines and high speed motors. As wind turbines are abandoned and recycled in favour of better energy production techniques, as future wind power can even be based on plastic capacitors that need hardly any metal at all, and as permanent magnets in motors are substituted by superconducting magnets, there may not be much demand for neodymium. Similarly, lithium is in great demand for batteries, but super-capacitors, again possibly using carbon derivatives such as graphene, will substitute greatly for them. Inductive power coupling from inductive mats in a road surface could easily replace most of the required capacity for a car battery, especially as self driving cars will be lighter and closer together, reducing energy demand. Self-driving cars even reduce the number of cars needed as they deter private ownership. So it is a win-win-win for everyone except the mining industry. A small battery or super-cap bank might have little need for lithium. Recycled lithium could be all we need. Recycling will continue to improve through better practice and better tech, and also some rubbish tips could even be mined if we’re desperate. With fewer cars needed, and plastic instead of steel, that also impacts on steel need.

The Greens are the best friends of the mining industry

So provided we can limit Green interference and get on with developing advanced technology quickly, the fall in demand per person (or android) may offset resource need at a higher rate than the population increases. We could use less material in the far future than we do today, even with a far higher average standard of living. After population peaks and starts falling, there could be a rapid price fall as a glut of recycled material appears. That would be a bleak outcome for the mining sector of course. In that case, by delaying that to the best of their ability, it turns out that the Greens are the mining industry’s best friends, useful idiots, ensuring that the markets remain as large as possible for as long as possible, with the maximum environmental impact.

It certainly takes a special restriction of mind to let someone do so much harm to the environment while still believing they occupy the moral high ground!

Carbon industry

Meanwhile, carbon sequestration could easily evolve into a carbon materials industry, in direct competition with the traditional resources sector, with carbon building materials, cables, wires, batteries, capacitors, inductors, electronics, fabrics…..a million uses. Plastics will improve in parallel, often incorporating particles of electronics, sensors, and electronic muscles, making a huge variety of potential smart materials for any kind of building, furniture of gadget. The requirement for concrete, steel, aluminium, copper, and many other materials will eventually drop, even as population and wealth grows.

To conclude, although population increase and wealth increase will generate increasing demand in the short to medium term, and mining will develop rapidly along many avenues, in the longer term, the future will rely far more on recycling and advanced manufacturing techniques, so the demand for raw materials will eventually peak and fall.

I wrote at far greater length about achieving a system-wide sustainable future in my book Total Sustainability, which avoids the usual socialist baggage.

Active Skin part 3 – key fields and inventions

This entry only makes sense if you read the previous two parts!


if you have looked at them, time to read this one. Remember, this is onl;y a list of the ideas we had way back in 2001, I haven’t listed any we invented since.

Key active skin technology fields

Many of our original ideas had similarities, so I analysed them and produced a set of basic platforms that could be developed. The following platform components are obvious:

  1. A multilevel device architecture with some of the layers in or on the body, working in conjunction.

Tattoo layer

  1. Sub-surface imprints that monitor various body state parameters, such as chemical, electrical, temperature, and signal this information to higher layer devices.
  2. Permanently imprinted ID circuitry or patterns
  3. Permanently imprinted display components
  4. Permanently imprinted circuitry to link to nerves
  5. Imprinted devices that use chemical energy from the body to power external devices, e.g. ATP

Mid-term layer

  1. Similar technology to tattoo layer but higher in skin so therefore degradable over time
  2. Soluble or body-degradable circuitry
  3. photodegradable circuitry
  4. transparent circuitry using transparent conducting polymers
  5. inconspicuous positioning systems
  6. devices that transfer body material such as DNA or body fluids to external devices
  7. imprinted data storage devices with I/O, or permanent dumb storage
  8. imprinted sensors and recorders for radiation, magnetic fields, electrical or mechanical variation
  9. imprinted signalling devices for communication between body devices and external world
  10. smart monitoring and alarm technology that integrates body or surface events or position to external behaviours such as control systems, or surveillance systems
  11. synthetic sense systems based on synthetic sensing and translation to biological sense and possibly direct nerve stimuli
  12. smart teeth with sampling and analysis functions with signalling and storage capability
  13. imprinted actuators using piezoelectric, memory metal or ‘muscle wire’ technology, interacting with external monitoring to use as interface or feedback devices
  14. infection monitor and control devices
  15. devices that make electrical or magnetic stimuli to assist wound healing or control pain
  16. semi-permanent tags for visitors, contractors, criminals and babies, location and context dependent
  17. medical tags that directly interact with hospital equipment to control errors, hold medical records etc
  18. links to nervous system by connecting to nerves in the skin and to outside by radio

Mid-term & Transfer Layers – Smart cosmetics

  1. semi-permanent self organising displays for applications such as smart nail varnish and smart cosmetics
  2. context sensitive cosmetics, reacting to time, location, person, emotions, temperature
  3. electrically sensitive chemicals that interact with imprinted electronic circuits
  4. semi-permanent underlay for smart overlays to assist self-organisation
  5. smart sunscreens with sensors and electro-active filters
  6. colour sensitive or exposure sensitive sun-blocks
  7. cosmetics with actuators in suspension controlled by embedded electronics
  8. Active jewellery, active Bindies etc , e.g. Led optical control linked to thought recognition system
  9. Smart perfumes that respond to context, temperature, location etc

Transfer Layer

This layer has by far the most opportunities since it is not restricted to materials that can be tolerated in the body, and can also use a factory pre-printed membrane that can be transferred onto the skin. It can encompass a wide range of devices that can be miniaturised sufficiently to fit in a thin flexible package. Many currently wearable devices such as phones and computers could end up in this layer in a few years.

Most of the mid-term and some of the tattoo layer devices are also appropriate at this layer.

  1. Smart fingerprints encompass range of ID, pressure detection, interfacing and powering devices
  2. Use of vibrating membranes as signalling, e.g. ring tone, alarms, synthetic senses etc, allows personal signalling. Possible use for insect repellent if ultrasonic vibration
  3. Use of ultrasound to communicate with outside or to constantly monitor foetus
  4. Use of touch or proximity sensitive membranes to allow typing or drawing on body surface, use of skin as part of input device, may use in conjunction with smart fingerprints for keypad-free dialling etc
  5. Palm of hand can be used as computer in conjunction with smart fingerprints
  6. Use of strain gauges in smart skin allows force measurement for interfaces, force feedback, policing child abuse etc
  7. Actuators built into membrane, allows program interface and force feedback systems, drug dosing, skin tensioning etc, use for training and games, sports, immersive environments etc.
  8. Use of combinations of such devices that measure distance between them, allowing training and monitoring functions
  9. Transfer on eye allows retinal display, ultraviolet vision, eye tracking, visual interface
  10. Transfer based phones and computers
  11. Electronic jewellery
  12. Direct link between body and avatars based on variety of sensors around body and force feedback devices, connection to nervous system via midterm layer devices
  13. Thermal membranes that change conductivity on demand to control heating or cooling, also use as alarm and signalling
  14. Electronic muscles based on contracting gels, muscle wires etc, used as temporary training devices for people in recovery or physiotherapy, or for sports training
  15. Electronic stimulation devices allowing electro-acupuncture, electrolysis, itching control etc
  16. Printed aerials worn on body
  17. Permanent EEG patches for use in thought recognition and control systems
  18. Emotionally sensitive electronics, for badges, displays, context sensitivity etc
  19. Olfactory sensors for environmental monitoring linked to tongue to enhance sense of smell or taste, or for warning purposes. Olfactory data could be recorded as part of experience for memory assistance later
  20. Power supplies using induction
  21. Frequency translation in ear patch to allow supersonic hearing
  22. Devices for pets to assist in training and health monitoring, control nerves directly, police virtual electric fences for cats
  23. Fingertip mouse and 3d interface
  24. E-cash on the skin, use simply by touching a terminal

Smart drug delivery

  1. Allowing variable hole membranes for drug dosing. Body properties used with ID patch to control drug dose via smart membrane. May communicate with hospital. Off  the shelf drug containers can then be used
  2. Control of pain by linking measurement of nerve activity and emotional cues to dispensing device

Fully removable layer

This layer is occupied by relatively conventional devices. There are no obviously lucrative technologies suggested for this layer.

Key Specific inventions

Taking another angle of view, the above applications and platforms yield 28 very promising inventions. In most cases, although humans are assumed to be the users, other animals, plants, inorganic objects such as robots or other machines, and even simple dumb objects may be targets in some cases.

*Asterixes indicate reference to another area from this set.

1         Sub-skin-surface imprints and implants

Sub-skin-surface imprints and implants that monitor various body state parameters, such as chemical, electrical, temperature, and signal this information to higher layer devices.

  • Circuitry is imprinted into the skin using ink-jet technology or high pressure diffusion. e.g. a hand may be inserted into a print chamber, or a print device may be held in contact with the required area.
  • Passive components such as ink patterns may be imprinted, which may function as part of a system such as a positioning system
  • Other small encapsulated components such as skin capsules* may be injected using high pressure air bursts.
  • Some of the circuit components assembled in situ may require high temperatures for a short time, but this would cause only momentary pain.
  • Deeper implants may be injected directly into the required position using needles or intravenous injection, allowing later transport to the required location in the blood flow.
  • The implants may anchor themselves in position by mechanical or magnetic means, their positioning determined in co-operation with higher layer devices.
  • Components may be imprinted higher in the skin to be capable or wearing away, or lower in the skin to ensure relative permanence, or to give greater contact with the body
  • Circuitry may be designed to be transparent to visible light by using transparent polymers, but may be visible under UV or infrared
  • Patterns implanted may be used as part of an external system. An ink-based pattern could be used as an identifier, for holding data, or as a means of positioning. They may be used as part of a, which would effectively be enhanced biometric security system.
  • Other identifiers may be permanently imprinted, which may be active or passive such as inductive loops, bar-codes, digital paper, snowflakes etc. Intra-skin power supplies* may be used to power more sophisticated tags that can be imprinted or injected
  • Circuitry or patterns may be harmlessly biodegradable so that it would vanish over time, or may be permanent.
  • they may be made photo-degradable so that it breaks down under external light of appropriate intensity and frequency, e.g. UV
  • Inks may be used that are rewritable, e.g. they change their colour when exposed to UV or a magnetic field, so data may be modified, and these devices are therefore dynamic data storage devices. They need not operate in the visible spectrum, since external sensors are not limited by human characteristics.
  • Baby tags may be inserted to prevent babies from being abducted

2         Skin conduits

Devices may be implanted that are able to act as a conduit to lower skin layers.

  • This may facilitate drug delivery, monitoring or nerve connection.
  • Probes of various types may be inserted through the conduits for a variety of medical or interface reasons.
  • Even body fluids and DNA samples may be extracted via these conduits.
  • This may provide a means of blood transfer for transfusion or blood cleaning, and a replacement for drips
  • Conduits would be sealed to prevent bacterial or viral entry except when actively in use.
  • The conduits can be implemented in several ways: tubes may be implanted that have muscle wires arranged so that when they contract the holes flatten and thus close; the walls of the tube may be comprised of magnetic materials so can be closed magnetically; the default position may be closed and magnetic repulsion is used to stretch the holes open; similarly, muscle wire may be used to open the holes by rounding a previously flattened hole; the open or closed states can be provided by elongating or shortening a tube; heat may be used to cause expansion or contraction; synthesised muscle tissue may be used to stretch the area and make holes open; shape change and memory metals or plastics may be used. Other techniques may be possible.

3         Implanted or imprinted links to nerves

  • Permanently imprinted circuitry to link to nerves would comprise electrical connections to nerves nearby, by means of conducting wires between nerves and the devices.
  • The devices meanwhile would be in communication with the higher layers.
  • They would signal impulses to higher layers and capable of producing impulses in various patterns into the nerves.
  • The connections would be made using specialised skin capsules* or directly injected wires.
  • These devices would encapsulate very thin wires that propagate out from the device on request until they make electrical contact with a suitable nerve. They may be wound in a spiral pattern inside the capsules and unwound to form radiating wires.
  • These wires may be made of metal today or carbon fullerene ‘buckytubes’ in due course
  • They may be connected by wire, radio or optical links to the external world
  • Being able to stimulate nerves directly implies that body movement could be directly controlled by an external system
  • It would be possible to implant control devices in people or animals in order to remotely control them
  • Although primarily a military technology, this would enable pets to be sent on a predetermined walk, to prevent children from stepping out in front of a car, to prohibit many crimes that are detectable by electronic means and a wide range of other ethically dubious activities
  • Nerve stimulation can be linked extensively into other electronic systems
  • Email or other communications could include instructions that translate into nerve stimuli in the recipient. This may link to emotional stimulation too. A very rich form of intimate communication could thus be achieved.
  • It would be possible to send an orgasm by email
  • Filters can easily prevent abuse of such a system, since the user would be able to block unauthorised nerve stimulation
  • For some purposes, this choice to block stimuli could be removed by a suitable authority or similar, for policing, military and control purposes

4         Sensory enhancement and translation technique

A range of sensors may be implanted that are sensitive to various forms of radiation, EM, magnetic fields, electrical fields, nuclear radiation or heat. These would form part of an augmented sensory system.

  • Conventional technology based radiation monitors worn on a detachable layer may monitor cumulative radiation dose, or record intensity over time.
  • Other conventional technology sensors may also be worn at the detachable layer, some my be imprinted or implanted.
  • They may be connected systemically with the nervous system using implanted or imprinted nerve links* to create nerve stimuli related to sensor activity.
  • An array of synthetic senses may thus be created that would facilitate operation in a range of environments and applications. A primary market would be for sexual use, where sexual stimulation can be produced remotely directly into the nervous system.
  • Nerve stimuli could be amplified to increase sensory sensitivity.
  • Alternatively, stimuli could be translated into vibration, heat, pain, other tactile stimulus, or audio that would be picked up by the body more easily than the original form.
  • Such sensory enhancement may be used to link stimuli in different people, or to link people with real or virtual objects.
  • When connected to deep implants in the brain, this could perhaps eventually be used to implement crude telepathic communication via a network.
  • Remote control of robotics or other external machinery may be facilitated by means of linking sensory stimuli directly to machine operations or sensors. The communication would be via implanted or imprinted antennae.
  • Active teeth* may be used as part of such a system
  • Frequency shifters in the ear would permit hearing outside of normal human capability
  • Ditto visual spectrum
  • People would be able to interact fully with virtual objects using such virtual sensory stimulation

5         Alarm systems

  • Sensors in or on the skin may be used to initiate external alarms or to initiate corrective action. For example, an old person taking a shower may not realise the water temperature is too high, but the sensors could detect this and signal to the shower control system.
  • The most useful implementation of this would be one or more thermocouples or infrared sensors implanted in the skin at or near areas most likely to be exposed first to hot water such as hands or feet.
  • Thermal membranes that change conductivity according to temperature could be used as a transfer layer device.
  • Such membranes may form a part of an external alarm or control system of signal the body by other senses that a problem exists
  • As well as signalling to external systems, these sensors will use implanted or imprinted nerve links* to initiate direct local sensory stimulation by means of vibration* or pain enhancement, or produce audible warnings.
  • Alarms may also be triggered by the position of the person. A warning may be set up by interaction of the implant and external devices. A circuit in the skin can be detected by an external monitor, and warn that the person is moving into a particular area. This may be used to set off an alarm or alert either secretly or to the knowledge of the either only the person or only the external system. This can obviously be used to police criminals on parole in much the same way as existing tags, except that the technology would be less visible, and could potentially cause a sensation or even pain directly in the criminal. A virtual prison could be thus set up, with it being painful to leave the confines set by the authorities.
  • This would permit the creation of virtual electric fences for animal confinement
  • Sensors may measure force applied to the skin. This would enable policing of child care, preventing physical abuse for example. Alerts could be sent to authorities if the child is abused.

6         Skin based displays

  • Permanently imprinted display components may be developed that use the energy produced in this way to produce light or dark or even colours.
  • These may emit light but may be simply patches of colour beneath the skin surface, which would be clearly visible under normal lighting.
  • Small ink capsules that deform under pressure,
  • electrostatic or magnetic liquids, liquid crystals or light emitting or colour changing polymers would all be good candidates

7         Intra-skin power supply

  • Inductive loops and capacitors may be used to power active components that can be imprinted or injected. Inductive loops can pick up electromagnetic energy from an external transmitter that may be in the vicinity or even worn as a detachable device. Such energy can be stored in capacitors.
  • Detachable devices such as battery based power supplies may be worn that are electrically connected to devices at lower layers, either by thin wires or induction.
  • Optical power supply may be adequate and appropriate for some devices, and this again can be provided by a detachable supply via the skin, which is reasonable transparent across a wide frequency range
  • Devices that use chemical energy from the body to power external devices, e.g. ATP
  • Thermal energy may be obtained by using temperature difference between the body and the external environment. The temperature gradient within the skin itself may be insufficient for a thermocouple to produce enough voltage, so probes may be pushed further into body tissue to connect to tissue at the full body temperature. The probes would be thin wires inserted either directly through the surface, or by skin capsules*.
  • Mechanical energy may also be used, harnessing body movement using conventional kinetic power production such as used in digital watches. Devices on the feet may also be used, but may be less desirable than other conventional alternatives.
  • Thin batteries such as polymer batteries may be worn on the detachable layer
  • Solar cells may be worn on the detachable layer

8         Antennas and communicators in or on the skin

  • Some of the many devices in the layered active skin systems require communication with the outside world. Many of these require only very short distance communication, to a detachable device in contact with the skin, but others need to transmit some distance away from the body. Various implementations of communication device are possible for these purposes.
  • A vertical wire may be implemented by direct insertion into the skin, or it may be injected
  • It may be printed using conductive inks in a column through the skin
  • It may be simply inserted into a skin conduit
  • Skin capsules* may eject a length of wire
  • Wires from skin capsules may join together to make a larger aerial of variable architecture
  • This may be one, two or three dimensional
  • Skin capsules may co-operate and co-ordinate their wires so that they link together more easily in optimal designs
  • Self organising algorithms may be used to determine which of an array of skin capsules are used for this purpose.
  • Optical transmitters such as LEDs may be used to communicate in conjunction with photodiodes, CCDs or other optical signal detectors
  • Vibration may be used to communicate between devices
  • Ultrasonic transducers and detectors may be used
  • Printed aerials may be worn as transfers or detachable devices. They may be electrically connected to devices directly or via high frequency transmission across the skin, or by local radio to other smaller aerials.

9         Smart teeth & breast implants

·         Various sampling, analysis, monitoring, processing, storage, and communication facilities may be added to an artificial tooth that may be inserted in place of a crown, filling, or false tooth. Powering may be by piezoelectric means using normal chewing as a power source, or for some purposes, small batteries may be used.

·         Infection monitoring may be implemented by monitoring chemical composition locally.

·         Conventional olfactory sensing may be used

  • Breath may be monitored for chemical presence that may indicate a range of medical or hygiene conditions, including bad breath or diabetes
  • Data may be stored in the tooth that allows interaction with external devices and systems. This could be a discrete security component, or it may hold personal medical records or a personal profile for an external system.
  • Significant processing capability could be built into the volume of a tooth, so it could act as a processor for other personal electronics
  • Small cameras could be built into the tooth
  • Piezoelectric speakers could be used to make the tooth capable of audio-synthesis. This could allow some trivial novelty uses, but could later more usefully be used in conjunction with though recognition systems to allow people to talk who have lost their voice for medical reasons. Having the voice originate from the mouth would be a much more natural interface.
  • Some of these functions could be implemented in breast implants, especially data storage – mammary memory! Very significant processing capability could also be implanted easily in the volume of a breast implant. MP3 players that can be reprogrammed by radio such as bluetooth and communicate with headphones also via bluetooth. Power in batteries can be recharged using induction
  • the terms ‘mammary memory’, and ‘nipple nibbles’ (a nibble is half a byte, i.e. 4 bits) see appropriate
  • breast implant electronics may be the heart of a body IT centre
  • taste and smell sensors in the tooth may be used as part of a sensory stimulation system whereby a sense of taste or smell could be synthetically recreated in someone who has lost this sense An active skin implant in the tongue, nose or a deeper implant in the appropriate brain region may be required to recreate the sense
  • this could be used to augment the range of taste or smell for normally sensed people in order to give them a wider experience or allow them to detect potentially dangerous gases or other agents, which may be physical or virtual
  • smart teeth may also make use of light emission to enhance a smile

10     Healing assistance devices and medical tags


  • Medical tags or semi-permanent tags* such as inductive loops can be imprinted that allow identification and store medical records. They may interact directly with equipment. This could be used for example to prevent operation errors. More sophisticated tags could be installed using skin conduits*
  • Active skin components may be used to apply an electric field across a wound, which has been shown to accelerate healing. These would be imprinted or implanted at a health centre during treatment. Voltage can be produced by external battery or power supply, by solar cells at the detachable layer, or by thermocouples that have probes at different body depths as described above.
  • Infection monitors can be implemented using chemical analysis of the area and by measuring the electrical properties and temperature of the region
  • The infection may be controlled by emission of electrical impulses and by secreting drugs or antibiotics into the area. This may be in conjunction with a detachable drug storage device, which can inject the drugs through skin conduits*.
  • Pain can be controlled to a point by means of electrical impulses that can be provided by the implants
  • The monitors may be in communication with a health centre.
  • Electrical impulses can be used to alleviate itching, and these could be produced by active skin components
  • Electronic acupuncture can be easily implemented using active skin, with implants at various acupuncture points precisely located by a skilled practitioner, and later stimulated according to a programmed routine
  • Electrolysis to prevent hair growth may be achieved by the same means

11     Semi-permanent tags

  • Semi-permanent tags or ID patterns may be implanted in upper skin layers to allow short term electronically facilitated access to buildings. The tags are not easily removable in the short term, but will vanish over a period of time depending on the depth of penetration. They may photo-degrade, biodegrade or simply wear away with the skin over time.
  • They may communicate electronically or optically with external systems
  • They may interact as part of alarm systems*
  • They may be aware of their position by means of detecting electronic signals such as GPS, wireless LANs
  • They may be used to give accurate positioning of devices on the skin surface or deeper, thus assisting automatic operations of medical equipment, in surgery, irradiation or drug dispensing
  • Babies can be secured against mistaken identification in hospital and their tags can interact with security systems to prevent their abduction. Proximity alerts could be activated when an unauthorised person approached them.

12     Self-organising circuits and displays

  • Self-organisation of circuits has been demonstrated and is known widely.
  • Active skin components with generic re-programmable circuitry may be installed and self-organisation used to configure the devices into useful circuits.
  • Components may be printed, injected or deposited via skin conduits* and may be contained in skin capsules*
  • Organisation can be facilitated or directed by external devices that provide position and orientation information as well as instructions to the embedded components
  • Combinations of display components may be linked by wires radiating out from each component to several other components, for instance by using skin capsules*. A self-organisation algorithm can be used to determine which connections are redundant and they can be withdrawn or severed. The remaining circuitry can be used as part of a control system to convert these individual display components into a co-ordinated display.
  • These display components may alternatively be painted onto skin, lip, eyelid or nail surfaces for example, to provide a multimedia display capability in place of conventional makeup and nail varnish. These displays would be less permanent than implanted circuitry
  • This body adornment could be more functional, with informative displays built in for some medical purpose perhaps. Text warnings and alerts could indicate problems.
  • Varnish would provide a high degree of protection for the components. Varnishes could also be fabricated to chemically assist in the self-organisation, by for example, providing a crystal matrix

13     Active Context-sensitive cosmetics and medicines

  • Cosmetics today are stand-alone combinations of chemicals, dies and aromatic agents. The addition of electronically active components either to the cosmetics themselves or into the underlying skin will permit them to be made intelligent
  • Cosmetics containing active skin components that interact with other layers and the outside world
  • Electrically sensitive chemicals would be useful components for such cosmetics. Many chemicals respond to electric fields and currents by changing their chemical bonding and hence optical properties. Some magnetic fluids are known that can be manipulated by magnetic fields. Active components may also be included that can change shape and hence their appearance, that are known in the field of digital ink.
  • Such chemicals may interact with underlying active skin circuits or components, and may respond to signals from external systems or active skin components or both
  • Cosmetics may use underlying active skin to facilitate precision location and some self-organisation
  • Active actuator components may be able to physically move cosmetics around on the skin surface
  • Characteristics of the appearance may depend on time of day, or location, or on the presence or properties of other environmental characteristics.
  • Sensors detecting UV may activate sunscreen components, releasing them from containers as required
  • Sensors detecting the presence of other cosmetics allow combination effects to be co-ordinated
  • Colours may change according to context, e.g. colour change lipstick and eye shadow
  • Kaleidoscopic or chameleon makeup, that changes colour in patterns regularly
  • Perfumes may be emitted according to context or temperature. This circumvents the problem where little perfume is given off when skin is cool, and much is lost outside in wind or when it is hot. Electronic control would allow more sophisticated evaporation for more consistent effect
  • Perfumes may be constructed with variable display properties that can be put on in variable quantities, with their precise effect controlled automatically by intelligence in the makeup or active skin
  • Make-up effects may be remotely controlled
  • Make-up may include light-emitting chemicals or electronics that are co-ordinated using active skin
  • Medicines may be administered on detection of allergenic agents such as pollen or chemicals
  • Active cosmetics may include actuators to contract the skin. The actuators would be based in small skin capsules* that would send thin wires into the skin to anchor themselves, and other wires to connect to other capsules
  • Intelligence in the cosmetics might be in constant or occasional communication with the manufacturer. This permits control of the effects by the manufacturer, and the capability to offer usage based licenses, making makeup into an ongoing service rather than a single product. This is implemented by adding active skin components that together communicate with nearby network connections
  • Cosmetics may adapt in appearance depending on the presence of signals. These signals may originate from other people’s active skin or from environmental systems. People wearing such cosmetics could thus look different to different people. Also, corporate styles could be implemented , controlled by building signalling systems.
  • Cosmetics may adjust automatically to ambient light conditions and local colours, allowing automated co-ordination with clothing and furnishing
  • Cosmetics may adjust their properties as part of an emotion detection and display system. This can be used to enhance emotional conveyance or to dampen emotional signals. They may also act as part of a psychological feedback loop that permits some emotional control

14     Digital mirror

  • A digital mirror, as described on my web site, has a combination of a camera and display that can show an image that may be the true image as the user, or a modified version of the user’s image. This disclosed concept is part of a wider non-disclosed system
  • Smart cosmetics may be used in conjunction with such a digital mirror
  • The cosmetic manufacturer or a service provider may use such a digital mirror to provide the customer with an enhanced view of themselves with various options, co-ordinating the application of smart make-up by means of ‘make-up by numbers’, and controlling its precise properties after application. Active skin components that are clinic installed could be used to provide the positioning systems and intelligence for the upper layers of removable cosmetics.
  • The customer would apply a quantity of makeup and then watch as various potential makeup effects are illustrated. On selection, that effect would be implemented, though several additional effects and contexts could be selected and assigned, and appropriate context effects implemented during the day. The effects could include the mechanical removal of wrinkles by means of actuators included in smart cosmetics*. Skin-based displays* may also form part of the overall effect.
  • Medicines may be applied in a similar way under control by a clinic.
  • Cosmetics may be controlled under license so that customers do not have unlimited freedom of appearance while wearing them. They may only be seen in a limited range of appearance combinations.

15     Active and emotional jewellery

  • Active Bindies, nose studs or other facial jewellery could be used as relatively deep implants to pick up reasonably good nerve signals from the brain as part of an EEG patch system*. These may be used to control apparatus via a signal recognition system.
  • Bindi would be top layer over active skin sub-layers and could contain much more complex chip than could be implanted in active skin
  • May contain battery and be used as power supply for sub-layers
  • Sub layers pick up clean signals from around scalp and send them to bindi for processing
  • Communication between devices may be radio or at high frequency via scalp
  • Infrared or ultrasound transmitter built into bindi relays the signals directly to external apparatus
  • Processing may recognise and process in-situ, transmitting control signals or data to external apparatus
  • Bindi may change appearance or include a display that reacts according to the signals detected
  • May act as emotion conveyance device
  • Signals from sensors in or on the skin can be used to pick up emotional cues, that are often manifested in changes in blood pressure, pulse rate, blood chemistry, skin resistivity and various muscular activity, some of which is subconsciously activated.
  • Collecting and analysing such data permits a range of electronics that responds to emotional activity. The active bind is just one piece of jewellery that may be useful in this regard, and is limited by culture.
  • Other forms of emotional jewellery may use displays or LEDs to indicate the wearer’s emotional state. Almost any form of jewellery could be used as part of this system, since active skin components that collect the data do not have to be in physical contact with the display devices
  • Active skin displays* may form part of this emotional display system
  • Active jewellery may also display data from other systems such as external computers or communication devices. This communication may be via active skin communication systems
  • Displays around the body may co-ordinate their overall effect via active skin devices
  • Emotions in groups of people may be linked together forming ‘emotilinks’ across the network, linking sensors, actuators, drug delivery systems and nerve stimulation together in emotion management systems. Drug delivery systems may instead dispense hormones
  • These systems may be linked into other electronic systems
  • Emotional messages may be sent that electronically trigger emotions in the recipient according to the intentions or emotions of the sender. Emotional email or voice messaging results. This enhances the capability and reach of communications dramatically.
  • Active jewellery such as a smart signet ring could be used as part of an authentication or security system, that may involve biometrics at any active skin layer as well as conventional electronic components and data that may also be housed in active skin

16     Active fingerprints

  • Active skin in the finger tip would greatly enhance interfacing to security systems and also to computer system interfaces, which can be made much more tactile
  • Smart fingerprints may include chips, passive ID, pressure indication, pressure transducers, vibration devices, interface and powering devices
  • Patterns and circuits built into the fingertips can link directly with external equipment by touch
  • Inductive loop in finger tip makes for simple ID system
  • Electronic signals can be conveyed in each direction for identification or programming or data transfer via contacts in the skin
  • A persons personal profile may be downloaded to an external system from data in the skin via such contacts. A computer can thus adapt instantly to the person using it
  • Data may be similarly ‘sucked up’ into body based storage via such contacts
  • Other devices elsewhere on the skin may be temporarily connected via high frequency transmission through the skin to the external system
  • Patterns visible in infrared or UV regions may be used
  • Ultrasonic vibrations may be used
  • Synthetic textures may be produced by keys by means of producing different vibration patterns than material would normally produce. This would assist greatly in the use of virtual environments to create synthetic objects
  • Actuators based on for example muscle wire can be used to stretch the skin in various directions, which conveys much information to the body on texture and other feedback. This can be by means of a rectangular wire with muscle wire between two opposite corners
  • Heat and cold can be produced as a feedback mechanism
  • Positioning systems incorporating the fingertips by means of inductive loop tracking, motion detectors and dead reckoning systems, allow interaction with virtual objects.
  • People could type in air, and feel physical feedback on interaction with objects, particularly useful in surgery using robotic tools.
  • Active skin with muscle wires implanted or imprinted at finger joints give a force feedback mechanism
  • Links between people may be formed by linking sensors in one person’s joints to actuators in another person’s. This would be useful for training purposes.
  • Vibrating membranes may be used as a signalling device. Vibration can be implemented via muscle wires or piezoelectric crystals in the detachable layer. These would allow personal signalling systems, ringing vibration, and development of synthetic senses*.
  • They may have some use in insect repellence if vibrations are ultrasonic
  • Micro-electro-mechanical systems (MEMs) implanted in the fingertips would allow a fingertip to be used as a mouse for a computer, by tracking movement accurately
  • Fingertip sensors could similarly be used to capture textures for re-use in virtual environment applications
  • Textures can be recreated in the fingertips by means of vibration devices
  • Electronic cash could be transferred through active fingerprints which also contain the authentication mechanisms as well as the means to transfer the cash
  • Short term software licenses could be implemented in this way, with the fingertip effectively holding a dongle

17     Ultrasonic monitors

  • An array of active skin devices may be arranged around the abdominal region of a pregnant woman, that would allow easy periodic ultrasonic monitoring of the baby during pregnancy.
  • Some patches of active skin would house ultrasound generators, and others would house ultrasound receivers. The system is therefore capable of bathing the baby in a well defined ultrasound field for monitoring purposes.
  • The patterns of reflections can be analysed by either processors in active skin or by a remote device, either worn or via the network, e.g. at a clinic. This produces images of the baby that can determine whether there is a problem. For instance, heartbeat and baby movements can easily be monitored.
  • Growth of cancers may be monitored in much the same way, with alerts automatically sent to hospital via the network if tumour size or growth rate exceeds a defined limit
  • A simple microphone may be sufficient for just heartbeat monitoring if that is all that is needed.
  • Ultrasonic communication to an external systems or another active skin device nearby.

18     Touch and proximity sensitive membranes

  • A region of active skin on the arm may be used as a data entry device such as a keyboard by means of adding positioning information such as digital paper patterns or other indication of location.
  • A simple circuit completion would suffice that could be implemented by contacts in close proximity that are connected when pressed, or by a sudden change in resistance or capacitance
  • Arm-embedded components can interact with active fingerprint components to enable easy data entry. Data may be transferred between arm and finger components
  • Different components in different fingers increase dramatically the range of combinations available. Different fingers may represent different tools in a drawing package for example
  • Visible patterns on the arm could indicate where the letters or other keys are. This indication could be a simple ink pattern.
  • Alternatively, display components in the skin may be used to create a dynamic keyboard or interface with different inputs according to application
  • Alternatively, a virtual display in a head-up display worn by the user could indicate the position of the appropriate keys without any visible pattern on the skin. Positioning may be by means of image analysis or by means of processing of the inputs from various inbuilt strain gauges
  • With a virtual display, no components at all are actually required in the arm to implement the minimal system (similar systems already exist with purely virtual keyboards).
  • Deeper ink patterns could enable a longer term keyboard
  • Data from the interface can be stored locally in memory implants or relayed at high frequency across the skin to other active skin system components
  • This could be used as a dialling keypad for cellphones
  • It may be used to enter security identification codes
  • A keyboard may be implanted in the palm of the hand as an alternative to the forearm to allow a computer to be effectively a ‘palm computer’, a ‘digital computer’, calculator or
  • interface to any electronic device carried on the person or across the network
  • signals from the interface may be relayed by a radio device elsewhere on the body

19     Use of strain gauges for touch sensitivity

  • A high degree of touch sensitivity is afforded by the body’s own sensory system, so this could act as a very high precision interface for some applications. The amount of pressure, or characteristics of strokes may be easily detected by the wearer to accurately control their input. Detection of this input can be by means of strain or relative position sensors
  • Alternatively, in later generations of the devices, signals may be directly picked up from the nervous system and appropriate analysis used to determine the precise input.
  • Touch or proximity sensors such as capacitors, inductors, piezoelectric strain gauges, movement detectors, or other devices in the arm can detect key-presses or drawing movements and could act as a mousepad
  • Relative movement between active skin components in touch sensitive membranes indicates not only what has been pressed but also by how much
  • Movement may be measured by change of capacitance between components, or change of resistance in conductive polymers attached to the skin, by induction changes, change of skin resistance itself, accumulated mechanical stress measurement or by other means
  • A system comprised of a range of such gauges and position sensors in various parts of the body may be used to gather a great deal of data about the movement of the body.
  • This may be used extensively in training and correction applications by means of force feedback or sensory amplification.
  • Force feedback or other actuator components* would give a signal or apply a force back to the body on detection of various parameter values. Movements may be precisely recorded and recreated via force feedback.
  • An expert recording the correct procedure can use such recording and force feedback to ‘play back’ a correct movement into the student. Repeated practice of the correct movement would enable rapid training
  • Computer games may also make use of this system in a ‘training mode’, where users learn to behave appropriately, thus improving the quality of game play
  • Highly specialised interfaces may be developed using a collection of appropriately configured gauges or sensors, with appropriate force of signal feedback devices
  • Such systems may be used to record the behaviour of people or animals for research, monitoring or policing purposes
  • Signal feedback systems may allow direct correction of such behaviours. See alarm systems.
  • The means to directly associate a movement or behaviour with pain would be a valuable means of training and controlling animals or criminals. Such feedback may also be linked to emotional states to control aggression for example. A combination of movements, position or emotional state may be used to prohibit certain behaviours in certain locations.
  • Strain gauges would be an important component of avatar based communication systems to allow the direct physical interaction of people across a network, whether a handshake or a hug or something more.

20     Force feedback and other actuators in skin


  • A range of actuators may be implanted or injected for various purposes
  • Muscle wires may be used as simple actuators
  • Some polymer gels may be made to respond mechanically to various stimuli. These may be used as synthetic muscles in some systems and membranes composed of these may be key active skin components
  • Membranes with arrays of holes may be used to control drug delivery as part of an active skin system. Such membranes may be dumb, or may contract in response to electronic or thermal stimuli from other components. Obviously holes will contract as the membrane contracts, thereby giving a means of controlling drug dosing
  • Such membranes may provide a convenient means of allowing blood exchange for blood cleaning and processing (e.g. for dialysis)
  • Ultrasonic actuators may be used or signalling between devices
  • Lower frequency may be used to create sensation of texture
  • Stretching, compression and torsion may be used in force feedback and signalling
  • Actuators may be used to open or close holes in the skin or activate skin conduits*
  • These holes may be used usefully as part of drug delivery systems or as a means of implanting devices or other materials
  • They may be used extensively as part of force feedback and interface devices as described above for training, communication, monitoring or corrective purposes
  • Systems using combinations of such force feedback and actuators may be used for medical purposes
  • Holes with actuators mounted across them may be opened or closed on command
  • These work in conjunction with higher layers to allow smart and precise drug delivery in a feedback loop with monitoring systems. Health or nerve signal monitors may allow direct control of such holes and actuators in drug dispensers
  • Actuators may respond directly to skin temperature
  • Actuators may form part of alarm systems
  • Exoskeletal structures based on actuators may be implemented to give physical assistance or support, especially for disabled or frail people. This would require large areas of such actuator membranes
  • Physical appearance may be controlled to a degree by such membranes or implants, that would shape the body, reduce wrinkles, reduce the impact of fat, tone muscles etc
  • They may work in conjunction with electrical stimuli for muscle toning, which currently needs external pads and power supplies

21     Active contact lens

  • Active contact lens has been wholly disclosed in the form of a removable contact lens that acts as a dumb display
  • It could however be differently realised by using active skin instead of a detachable contact lens
  • Active contact lens may include actuator components that stretch or compress the eye to correct vision for all distances
  • Lens components could be implanted in eye surface using above techniques
  • Signals displayed may originate in other active skin components elsewhere on body
  • Processing may be embedded in nearby skin outside the eye
  • Powering could be inductive or ultrasonic
  • Tracking of the eyeball can be in conjunction with other nearby components such as proximity and position detectors
  • Light may be produced externally (e.g. by lasers adjacent to the eyeball) and the lens merely reflects it to its proper destination by means of micromirrors
  • Lens film may contain identification circuitry or data that can be conveyed to an external system by passive recognition or active transmission
  • Images seen by the eye may be processed and recorded by nearby active skin components and relayed to storage or transmitted on a network
  • Appropriate implanted dyes could facilitate ultraviolet vision
  • Appropriate infrared detectors and lasers may be used to enable infrared vision
  • Other sensory data from sensors elsewhere on the skin or fully externally, may be projected in the image produced by the active skin implant

22     Skin-based processing, memory, and consumer electronics


  • Miniaturised circuitry will soon allow very small versions of many popular devices.
  • These circuits may fit in a single skin capsule or be distributed across several capsules.
  • These capsules contain means to connect with others and with the outside as well as housing some electronics capability
  • They will be able to produce phones, calculators, computers, storage devices, MP3 players, identifiers, electronic cash, text readers, scanners
  • Some of these would benefit from being implemented in active fingerprint systems
  • Capsules may be directly injected or inserted into a skin conduit, perhaps facilitated by various actuators for positioning and connection
  • They may be easily ejected by the skin conduits if necessary
  • Ingestion or ejection may be by means of peristaltic motion of the skin conduit, facilitated by means of contractible rings
  • A wide range of sensors are now available in watches and other small wearable devices, to monitor parameters such as air and skin temperature, air pressure, direction, blood pressure, pulse, heart beat, walking distance, GPS location and navigation, paging, infrared controls, voice recording and others. Many of these can be sufficiently miniaturised to be embedded in or on one or more active skin layers. The performance of some of the sensors would be improved
  • Membrane based transfers implementing these devices may be easily attached to the skin and easily removed if required. They may co-operate with other permanent or temporary active skin devices
  • Transfer based electronic jewellery* may interact with smart cosmetics* and other inbuilt processing or memory

23     Body-avatar link

  • Avatars will be an important communication tool in the near future. Avatars may be controlled manually or via video image interpretation, which is complex and invasive. Active skin presents an efficient means of accurately controlling avatars.
  • Sensors in skin at key parts of the body, e.g. finger joints, hands, wrists, elbows and face can be used to detect body movement and position.
  • They may also detect emotional state and audio
  • Data from the sensors may be transmitted to a central body transmitter for collation, pre-processing or simply transmission
  • This information is relayed via active skin or other transmitters to a computer, phone or other conferencing device. The phone may itself be an active skin component
  • The body position and movement information is transmitted across the link, and used to control the avatar movements directly
  • Interactions between avatars in virtual space are relayed back to the people involved via force feedback membranes, pressure transducers, smart fingerprints to convey texture, and direct nerve stimulation using nerve links.
  • A highly sensory realistic communications link is thus established between the inhabitants of the virtual environment which is potentially far richer than that which may be obtained without the use of active skin or a full body suit.
  • Inhabitants need not be real people, but may be synthetic entities such as computer game characters or interactive TV avatars
  • Almost all functions of body suits may be replaced by active skin components, which do not interfere with normal clothing and are therefore much less invasive
  • If all the above components are implemented in active skin, it is possible that avatars may be controlled without the knowledge of anyone else present, making a very discrete interface
  • Instead of controlling avatars, the link may be used to directly control a robot. Sensors in the robot could be linked to senses in the human, allowing a high quality implementation of telepresence and teleaction. This would be very useful for surgery or for maintenance in hostile environments. It would also be useful for police or military use to control robots or androids in hostile environments.
  • Surgical applications could be enhanced by filtering and pre-processing the body movements and possible translating them into a appropriate actions for robotic surgical apparatus. For example, large jerky hand movements may be converted into small smoother scalpel movements.
  • Again, such systems may be used extensively for training or correction purposes, or for interaction with computer games
  • Interactive TV may use such avatar links to permit greater participation of remote audience members
  • Visual systems may be linked to such active skin avatar links so that people can interact with avatars on the move rather than just when confined to a conferencing suite or in front of a computer monitor
  • This permits people to interact fully with virtual objects and characters overlaid in the real environment

24     EEG patches


  • An array of smart skin patches on the scalp could be arranged to collect electrical signals from the brain.
  • Such devices could make it less invasive for EEG patients who need repeated investigation
  • Devices would signal using high frequency electrical signals or by ultrasound to other sensors or collectors or processors.
  • Signals could be relayed to external apparatus by a single contact point or by means of radio aerials, LEDs or an active bindi.
  • Such signals may be used for conventional medical analysis purposes,
  • or may be used for thought recognition purposes, whereby pattern recognition technology is applied to analysis of the signals from the various sensors.
  • Sensors need not only be on the scalp, but could be anywhere on the body, such as fingertips.
  • Lie detection may be implemented using a combination of data regarding such brain signals and other data regarding emotional state, blood hormone or other chemical content, skin conductivity, temperature, pulse etc All of these data types are liable to address by active skin variants
  • Signals from the scalp may be used to control medical prostheses to assist disabled people. The intention to move an arm could result in the arm moving for example. Nerve signals for such applications may be detected on the scalp, or nearer to the prosthesis.
  • Active skin in the stump could be used for this purpose and also to inject synthetic senses back into the nervous system by way of feedback from the prosthesis
  • Such patches may be used as a component of a policing system for criminals, whereupon certain types of thought pattern result in the creation of pain

25     Use with or in place of active clothing


Many of the applications discussed above would work well in harmony with active clothing, most of which is known technology. Active clothing already houses consumer electronics, reacts thermally and optically to the environment, monitors body activity, reports on injuries and casualty location, injects antibiotics, antiseptics and anaesthetics in case of battlefield injury. A wide variety of other ‘smart’ capabilities is also available off the shelf or in prototype.

Some of these clothes require data that can best be obtained by active skin. For example:

  • Active skin can house the identity and personal profile for use by active clothing
  • Active clothing may provide the power supply or communications for active skin
  • Active clothing may contain medical apparatus that is controlled in conjunction with active skin and a remote clinic
  • Active skin may actually replace some clothing in terms of thermal and chemical protection
  • Active skin may act as a final line of defence on a battlefield by filtering out hostile bacteria, viruses or chemicals and in due course act to protect against nanotechnology or micro-technology attack
  • Active skin may physically repair organic skin tissues or augment them with self-organising self-constructing membranes
  • Active skin may contain synthetic hairs that may be extended or contracted to provide variable thermal protection, and also to help filter out bacteria
  • With a high degree of such protection against nature, clothing may be more optional, especially if active inks and other display components are used to change the optical appearance of the body for cultural reasons
  • Key active skin components of this system are displays, actuators, sensors, reservoirs, membranes, processors, signalling and aerials

26     Skin capsules

  • A range of skin capsules for various purposes may be developed, which are capable of being injected into the skin by high pressure air, or inserted through skin conduits
  • Skin conduits themselves may be implanted as a special case of skin capsules. They may start off as a spherical device and then open up into a ‘pore’ once implanted
  • Skin capsules may contain drugs or other chemicals for various purposes
  • They may house substantial quantities of electronics for processing, memory, analysis or sensory purposes
  • They may house MEM devices that are capable of mechanical interaction with surrounding tissues
  • They may house a range of actuator devices or wires
  • They may house wires for the purpose of connection to nearby capsules or devices, for example to make antennas
  • They may house identification devices or data
  • These wires may be metallic, organic polymer, shape memory alloy, memory plastic, or buckminster fullerene tubes
  • Capsules may be made of any materials that is largely inert regarding body tissues. Titanium and its alloys, glass and ceramics, diamond film coated materials, gold, platinum and surgical steel and many plastics, as well as some biodegradable and soluble materials etc would be good for some purposes, but other materials may be better for some purposes

27     Drug delivery system

  • Drugs may be administered under control by means of active skin systems
  • Membranes may be contracted so that the holes shrink and drugs cannot permeate as quickly through the membrane
  • Blood chemistry may be analysed by active skin lower layers to detect the amount of drugs needed in order to control such membranes. They can also monitor the rate of diffusion of the drug into the bloodstream
  • Clinics can communicate via the network with such systems and active skin devices react to such communication to effect drug delivery under remote supervision, while sensors in the body transmit their information via aerials to the clinic
  • Membranes may be made to react to environmental conditions such as pollen content. These can then form part of the sensory array as well as permitting appropriate diffusion of anti-allergy drugs
  • Drugs may be contained in external reservoirs or in skin capsules* or in patches e.g. nicotine patches. The rates of diffusion may be altered by means of active membranes or via skin conduits.

28     Animal husbandry technology

  • Active skin drug delivery systems* may be used extensively on farm livestock to control drugs use on a wide scale
  • Captured wild animals may be tagged and fitted with such systems to control their reproduction or behaviours, or to protect them against diseases
  • Active skin tags may be used to track and monitor the behaviour of such animals
  • Sensory stimulation and translation devices may be used to train animals for certain tasks
  • This may also be used in conjunction with control systems to automatically steer or co-ordinate groups of animals
  • Sensory systems in individual animals may be linked together with others, not necessarily of the same species, to make super-sensory collections of animals with unusual properties
  • Robotic animals may be able to interface with real ones by manipulating their sensory inputs
  • Drug development may be enhanced by gaining extra feedback via active skin technology on the condition of animals being experimented upon

Active Skin part 2: initial applications

When I had the active skin idea, it was obvious that there would be a lot of applications so I dragged the others from the office into a brainstorm to determine the scope of this concept. These are the original ideas from that 2001 brainstorm and the following days as I wrote them up, so don’t expect this to be an updated 2014 list, I might do that another time. Some of these have been developed at least in part by other companies in the years since, and many more are becoming more obvious as applications now that the technology foundations are catching up. I have a couple more parts of this to publish, with some more ideas. I’ve loosely listed them here in sections according to layer, but some of the devices may function at two or more different layers. I won’t repeat them, so it should be assumed that any of these could be appropriate to more than one layer. You’ll notice we didn’t bother with the wearables layer since even in 2001 wearable computing was already a well-established field in IT labs, with lots of ideas already. Slide2 Smart tattoos layer This layer is produced by deep printing well into the skin, possibly using similar means to that for tattooing. Some devices could be implanted by means of water or air pressure injection Slide10 Slide11 Slide6

  1. Display capability leading to static or multimedia display instead of static ink
  2. Use for multimedia body adornment, context dependent tattoos, tribalism
  3. monitor body chemicals for clues to emotional, hormonal or health state
  4. Measurement of blood composition to assist in drug dosing
  5. monitor nerve signals
  6. tattoos that show body’s medical state or other parameters
  7. health monitor displays, e.g.  blood insulin level, warning displays, instructions and recommendations on what actions to take
  8. show emotional state, emoticons shown according to biochemical or electrical cues
  9. may convert information on body’s state into other stimuli, such as heat or vibration
  10. may do same from external stimuli
  11. devices in different people could be linked in this way, forming emotilinks. Groups of people could be linked. People belonging to several such groups might have different signalling or position for each group.
  12. Identification, non-erasable, much less invasive than having an implant for the same purpose so would not have the same public objection. This could be electronic, or as simple as ultraviolet ink in a machine readable form such as barcode, snowflake etc
  13. Power supply for external devices using body’s energy supply, e.g. ATP
  14. Metallic ear implants on ear drum as hearing aid – electrostatic or magnetically driven
  15. Electronic signet ring, electronics that will only function when held by the rightful user
  16. Electronic signature devices

Mid-term layer Slide8 Slide9 Slide7Slide5 These components could be imprinted by printing onto the skin surface. Some could be implemented by adsorption from transfers, others by mechanical injection.

  1. Access technology – temporary access to buildings or theme parks. Rather than a simple stamp, people could have a smarter ID device printed into their skin
  2. The device could monitor where the wearer goes and for how long
  3. It could interact with monitoring equipment in buildings or equipment
  4. The device might include the use of invisible active inks on smart membrane
  5. Components could be made soluble to wash off easily, or more permanent
  6. Components could be photodegradable
  7. Could use ultraviolet inks that may be read by either external devices or other components
  8. Like smart tattoo ID systems, they could use snowflakes, colour snowflakes, barcodes or ‘digital paper’, to give a ‘digital skin’ functionality
  9. This could interact with ‘digital air’ devices
  10. Could be used to co-ordinate external device positioning accurately for medical reasons, e.g. acupuncture, TENS etc.
  11. Ultra-smart finger prints, wide range of functions based on interaction with computers and external devices, other smart skin systems, or digital paper
  12. Outputs DNA or DNA code to external reader for ID or medical reasons
  13. Combine with smart tags to achieve complex management and control systems, e.g. in package handling, product assembly
  14. SOS talismans, full health record built into body, including blood groups, tissue groups etc
  15. Degradable radiation monitors that can be positioned at key body points for more accurate dose measurement
  16. Could signal between such devices to a central display via the skin
  17. Devices might communicate using ad-hoc networks, could be used as a distributed antenna for external communication
  18. Thermometers & alarms. Use to measure heat for alarms for old people with degraded senses
  19. Directly interact with smart showers to prevent scalding
  20. Could monitor peoples behaviour for behaviour based alarms, e.g. fall alarms
  21. Overlay synthetic nervous system, use for medical prostheses, bionics or external interfacing
  22. Synthesised senses, making us sensitive to stimuli outside our biological capability
  23. Smart teeth, checks food for presence of bacteria or toxins
  24. Monitor breath for bad odours or illness
  25. Diabetic supervision, monitor ketones
  26. Monitor diet and link to smart devices in the home or hospital to police diet
  27. Modify taste by directly stimulating nerves in the tongue? Probably not feasible
  28. Calorie counting
  29. Smile enhancement, using light emission or fluorescence
  30. Smile training, e.g. tactile feedback on mouth position after operation
  31. Operation scar monitoring, patch across wound could monitor structural integrity,
  32. infection monitor based on detecting presence of harmful bacteria, or characteristics of surrounding skin affected by infection
  33. semi-permanent nail varnish with variable colour
  34. context sensitive nail varnish
  35. multimedia nail varnish
  36. Baby tagging for security purposes & wide range of medical applications such as breathing monitoring, temperature, movement etc
  37. Operation tagging to prevent mistakes, direct interaction with electronic equipment in theatre
  38. ITU applications
  39. Active alarms, integrated into external devices, directly initiate action
  40. Position based sensors and alarms
  41. Personality badge

Transfer layer This layer could use printing techniques straight onto the skin surface, or use transfers. A thin transfer membrane may stay in place for the duration of the required functionality, but could be removed relatively easily if necessary. It is envisaged that this membrane would be a thin polymer that acts as a carrier for the components as well as potentially shielding them from direct contact with the body or from the outside world. It could last for up to several days.

  1. Tactile interfaces – vibration membranes that convey texture or simple vibration
  2. Tactile stimuli as a means for alarms, coupled with heat, cold, or radiation sensors
  3. Text to Braille translation without need for external devices, using actuators in fingertip pads
  4. Use for navigation based on external magnetic field measurement, GPS or other positioning systems, translated into sensory stimuli
  5. Measurement and possible recording of force
  6. use to police child abuse, or other handling in the workplace as safety precautions. Could link to alarms
  7. motion detection, using kinetic or magnetic detection for use in sports or medical systems
  8. actuators built into transfers could give force feedback.
  9. Could directly link to nerve stimulation via lower layers to accomplish full neural feedback
  10. combine sensor and actuators to directly control avatars in cyberspace and for computer interfacing feedback
  11. interfaces for games
  12. short duration software licenses for evaluation purposes, needs fragile transfer so limits use to single user for lifetime of transfer
  13. sensors on eyes allow eye tracking
  14. direct retinal display, active contact lens replacement
  15. UV phosphors allow ultraviolet vision
  16. Actuators or tensioning devices could control wrinkles
  17. could assist in training for sports
  18. training for typing, playing music, music composition, virtual instruments
  19. keypad-free dialling
  20. air typing, drawing, sculpting
  21. type on arm using finger and arm patches
  22. finger snap control
  23. active sign languages
  24. ‘palm pilot’, computer on hand
  25. digital computer, count on fingers
  26. generic 3D interface
  27. use with transfer phone
  28. education use to explore surfaces of virtual objects in virtual environments
  29. use for teletravel navigation, or use in dangerous environments for controlling robotics
  30. direct nervous system links
  31. could assist in body language in conjunction with emotion sensors for socially disadvantaged people
  32. could act as signalling device in place of phone ring or audible alarms (actuator is not necessarily piezoelectric vibrator)
  33. doorbell on skin, personal doorbell, only alerts person of relevance
  34. active sunscreen using electrical stimuli to change sun-block cream to block UV when UV dose is reached
  35. could electrically alter heat radiation properties to enhance heating or cooling of body
  36. membranes with smart holes allow just the right amount of drug delivery in conjunction with smart tattoos. May use lower layers to accurately position and record dosing data
  37. Could use heat, cold, vibration as signals between people
  38. Electronic muscles – use polymer gel or memory metal or contracting wires
  39. Ultrasonic communication between devices and outside world
  40. Teledildonic applications
  41. Oscillating magnetic patches for medical reasons
  42. Applies voltage across wound to assist healing
  43. Smart Nicotine or antibiotic patches
  44. Painkilling patches using pain measurement (nerve activity) and directly controlling using electric stimuli, or administering drugs
  45. Placebo device patches
  46. Multimedia cosmetics
  47. Smart cosmetics, with actuators, smart tattoos that are removable
  48. Self organising cosmetic circuits, sensor, smart chemicals and actuator matrices
  49. Continuous electrolysis as hair growth limiter
  50. Electro-acupuncture with accurate positioning
  51. Control of itching to allow more rapid recovery
  52. Baby-care anti-scratch patches
  53. Printed aerials on body for device communication
  54. Detect, record, process and transmit nerve signals
  55. EEG use
  56. Thought control of devices
  57. Invisible scalp sensors for thought collection
  58. Emotion badge
  59. Truth badge, using body cues to convey whether lying or not. Could be unknown to wearer, transmitting by radio or ultrasound or in UV
  60. Context sensitive perfumes, emotionally sensitive perfumes
  61. Inverse heat sensitive perfumes, prevent too much being given off when warm
  62. Smell sensitive deodorant, or temperature dependent
  63. Context sensitive makeup, that behaves differently with different people at different situations or times
  64. Colour sensitive sun-block, protects more on fairer skin
  65. Active Bindies (dots on Indian women foreheads)
  66. Active jewellery
  67. Power generation for wearable electrical devices, using body heat, solar power, kinetics or skin contraction
  68. Microphones
  69. Frequency translation to allow hearing out of normal audible spectrum
  70. Bugs – unspecified functions in devices
  71. Mosquito killers, zapping insects with charge, or deterring with ultrasound or electrical signals
  72. Automatic antiseptic injections
  73. Use on animals for medical and pest control purposes
  74. Pet signalling and training
  75. Pet homing
  76. Pet ID systems
  77. Jam nerves
  78. Muscle toning
  79. Image capture, compound eyes, raster scan with micro-mirror and transverse lens
  80. Phones, watches, diaries etc
  81. Chameleon, cuttlefish pattern novelties
  82. Orifice monitoring
  83. Transfer body suit, self-organising polymer coating. Use for sports etc.
  84. Position-based devices
  85. Morse code devices for children’s communications
  86. Movement to voice translation – guidance for blind people or use for everyday navigation, sports feedback
  87. Strain alarms
  88. Use with smart drugs
  89. Smell as ring tone
  90. Smell as alarm
  91. Smell for emotion conveyance
  92. Snap fingers to switch lights on
  93. Tactile interfaces
  94. Emotional audio-video capture
  95. record on body condition
  96. wires on skin as addition to MIT bodynet
  97. tension control devices to assist wound healing
  98. avatar mimicry, electronically control ones appearance
  99. electronic paint-by numbers

100.means to charge up other devices by linking to external electrical device or by induction 101.devices that can read ultraviolet ink on sub layer 102.finger mouse, using fingertip sensors instead of mouse, can be used in 3D with appropriate technology base 103.Use of combinations of patches to monitor relative movements of body parts for use in training and medical treatments. Could communicate using infrared, radio or ultrasound 104.Use of an all-over skin that acts as a protective film so that each device doesn’t have to be dermatologically tested. Unlikely to be full body but could cover some key areas. E.g. some people are allergic to Elastoplast, so could have their more vulnerable areas covered. 105.Strain gauges on stomach warning of overeating 106.Strain gauge based posture alarms on the neck, back and shoulders etc 107.Breathalysers in smart teeth alert drivers to being over the limit and interact directly with car immobilisers 108.Pedometers and weight sensors built into feet to monitor exercise etc 109.Battlefield management systems using above systems with remote management Fully Removable layer

  1. Smart elastoplasts
  2. Smart contact lenses with cameras and video
  3. Smart suits with sensors and actuators for sports and work
  4. Almost all conventional personal electronic devices
  5. Web server
  6. Web sites

Active Skin – an old idea whose time is coming

Active Skin

In May 2001, while working in BT research, I had an idea – how we could use the skin surface as a new platform for electronics. I grabbed a few of my colleagues - Robin Mannings, Dennis Johnston, Ian Neild, and Paul Bowman, and we shut ourselves in a room for a few hours to brainstorm it. We originally intended to patent some of the ideas, but they weren’t core business for a telecoms company like BT so that never happened.

Now, 12.5 years on, it is too late to extract any value from a patent, but some of the technologies are starting to appear around the world as prototypes by various labs and companies, so it’s time is drawing near. We never did publish the ideas, though a few did make it out via various routes and I talk about active skin in my writings more generally. So I thought I’d serialise some of the ideas list now – there are lots. This one will just be the intro.


Today we have implants in the body, and wearable devices such as watches and cell-phones in regular proximity to our bodies, with a much looser affiliation to other forms of electronics such as palmtops and other computers. With recent advances in miniaturisation, print technology and polymer based circuits, a new domain is now apparent but as yet unexploited, and offers enormous potential business for a nimble first-mover. The domain is the skin itself, where the body meets the rest of the world. We have called it active skin, and it has a wide range of potential applications.

Active skin layers

Stimulated by MIT work in late 1990s that has shown that the skin can be used as a communications medium, a logical progression is to consider what other uses it might be put to. What we proposed is a multi-layer range of devices.Slide2

(actually, this original pic wasn’t drawn quite right. The transfer layer sits just on the skin, not in it.)

The innermost ‘tattoo layer’ is used for smart tattoos, which are permanently imprinted into the lower layers of the skin. These layers do not wear or wash away.

The next ‘mid-term’ layer is the upper layers of the skin, which wear away gradually over time.

Above this we move just outside to the ‘transfer layer’. Children frequently wear ‘tattoos’ that are actually just transfers that stick onto the skin surface, frequently on a thin polymer base. They are fairly robust against casual contact, but can be removed fairly easily.

The final ‘detachable layer’ is occupied by fully removable devices that are only worn on a temporary basis, but which interact with the layers below.

Above this is the ‘wearable layer; the domain of the normal everyday gadget such as a watch.

A big advantage for this field is that space is not especially limited, so devices can be large in one or two dimensions. However, they must be flexible and very thin to be of use in this domain and be more comfortable than the useful alternatives.

And another new book: You Tomorrow, 2nd Edition

I wrote You Tomorrow two years ago. It was my first ebook, and pulled together a lot of material I’d written on the general future of life, with some gaps then filled in. I was quite happy with it as a book, but I could see I’d allowed quite a few typos to get into the final work, and a few other errors too.

However, two years is a long time, and I’ve thought about a lot of new areas in that time. So I decided a few months ago to do a second edition. I deleted a bit, rearranged it, and then added quite a lot. I also wrote the partner book, Total Sustainability. It includes a lot of my ideas on future business and capitalism, politics and society that don’t really belong in You Tomorrow.

So, now it’s out on sale on Amazon in paper, at £9.00 and in ebook form at £3.81 (guessing the right price to get a round number after VAT is added is beyond me. Did you know that paper books don’t have VAT added but ebooks do?)

And here’s a pretty picture:


Free-floating AI battle drone orbs (or making Glyph from Mass Effect)

I have spent many hours playing various editions of Mass Effect, from EA Games. It is one of my favourites and has clearly benefited from some highly creative minds. They had to invent a wide range of fictional technology along with technical explanations in the detail for how they are meant to work. Some is just artistic redesign of very common sci-fi ideas, but they have added a huge amount of their own too. Sci-fi and real engineering have always had a strong mutual cross-fertilisation. I have lectured sometimes on science fact v sci-fi, to show that what we eventually achieve is sometimes far better than the sci-fi version (Exhibit A – the rubbish voice synthesisers and storage devices use on Star Trek, TOS).


Liara talking to her assistant Glyph.Picture Credit:

In Mass Effect, lots of floating holographic style orbs float around all over the place for various military or assistant purposes. They aren’t confined to a fixed holographic projection system. Disruptor and battle drones are common, and  a few home/lab/office assistants such as Glyph, who is Liara’s friendly PA, not a battle drone. These aren’t just dumb holograms, they can carry small devices and do stuff. The idea of a floating sphere may have been inspired by Halo’s, but the Mass Effect ones look more holographic and generally nicer. (Think Apple v Microsoft). Battle drones are highly topical now, but current technology uses wings and helicopters. The drones in sci-fi like Mass Effect and Halo are just free-floating ethereal orbs. That’s what I am talking about now. They aren’t in the distant future. They will be here quite soon.

I recently wrote on how to make force field and floating cars or hover-boards.

Briefly, they work by creating a thick cushion of magnetically confined plasma under the vehicle that can be used to keep it well off the ground, a bit like a hovercraft without a skirt or fans. Using layers of confined plasma could also be used to make relatively weak force fields. A key claim of the idea is that you can coat a firm surface with a packed array of steerable electron pipes to make the plasma, and a potentially reconfigurable and self organising circuit to produce the confinement field. No moving parts, and the coating would simply produce a lifting or propulsion force according to its area.

This is all very easy to imagine for objects with a relatively flat base like cars and hover-boards, but I later realised that the force field bit could be used to suspend additional components, and if they also have a power source, they can add locally to that field. The ability to sense their exact relative positions and instantaneously adjust the local fields to maintain or achieve their desired position so dynamic self-organisation would allow just about any shape  and dynamics to be achieved and maintained. So basically, if you break the levitation bit up, each piece could still work fine. I love self organisation, and biomimetics generally. I wrote my first paper on hormonal self-organisation over 20 years ago to show how networks or telephone exchanges could self organise, and have used it in many designs since. With a few pieces generating external air flow, the objects could wander around. Cunning design using multiple components could therefore be used to make orbs that float and wander around too, even with the inspired moving plates that Mass Effect uses for its drones. It could also be very lightweight and translucent, just like Glyph. Regular readers will not be surprised if I recommend some of these components should be made of graphene, because it can be used to make wonderful things. It is light, strong, an excellent electrical and thermal conductor, a perfect platform for electronics, can be used to make super-capacitors and so on. Glyph could use a combination of moving physical plates, and use some to add some holographic projection – to make it look pretty. So, part physical and part hologram then.

Plates used in the structure can dynamically attract or repel each other and use tethers, or use confined plasma cushions. They can create air jets in any direction. They would have a small load-bearing capability. Since graphene foam is potentially lighter than helium

it could be added into structures to reduce forces needed. So, we’re not looking at orbs that can carry heavy equipment here, but carrying processing, sensing, storage and comms would be easy. Obviously they could therefore include whatever state of the art artificial intelligence has got to, either on-board, distributed, or via the cloud. Beyond that, it is hard to imagine a small orb carrying more than a few hundred grammes. Nevertheless, it could carry enough equipment to make it very useful indeed for very many purposes. These drones could work pretty much anywhere. Space would be tricky but not that tricky, the drones would just have to carry a little fuel.

But let’s get right to the point. The primary market for this isn’t the home or lab or office, it is the battlefield. Battle drones are being regulated as I type, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be developed. My generation grew up with the nuclear arms race. Millennials will grow up with the drone arms race. And that if anything is a lot scarier. The battle drones on Mass Effect are fairly easy to kill. Real ones won’t.

a Mass Effect combat droneMass Effect combat drone, picture credit:

If these cute little floating drone things are taken out of the office and converted to military uses they could do pretty much all the stuff they do in sci-fi. They could have lots of local energy storage using super-caps, so they could easily carry self-organising lightweight  lasers or electrical shock weaponry too, or carry steerable mirrors to direct beams from remote lasers, and high definition 3D cameras and other sensing for reconnaissance. The interesting thing here is that self organisation of potentially redundant components would allow a free roaming battle drone that would be highly resistant to attack. You could shoot it for ages with laser or bullets and it would keep coming. Disruption of its fields by electrical weapons would make it collapse temporarily, but it would just get up and reassemble as soon as you stop firing. With its intelligence potentially local cloud based, you could make a small battalion of these that could only be properly killed by totally frazzling them all. They would be potentially lethal individually but almost irresistible as a team. Super-capacitors could be recharged frequently using companion drones to relay power from the rear line. A mist of spare components could make ready replacements for any that are destroyed. Self-orientation and use of free-space optics for comms make wiring and circuit boards redundant, and sub-millimetre chips 100m away would be quite hard to hit.

Well I’m scared. If you’re not, I didn’t explain it properly.

Reverse engineering the brain is a very slow way to make a smart computer

The race is on to build conscious and smart computers and brain replicas. This article explains some of Markam’s approach.

It is a nice project, and its aims are to make a working replica of the brain by reverse engineering it. That would work eventually, but it is slow and expensive and it is debatable how valuable it is as a goal.

Imagine if you want to make an aeroplane from scratch.  You could study birds and make extremely detailed reverse engineered mathematical models of the structures of individual feathers, and try to model all the stresses and airflows as the wing beats. Eventually you could make a good model of a wing, and by also looking at the electrics, feedbacks, nerves and muscles, you could eventually make some sort of control system that would essentially replicate a bird wing. Then you could scale it all up, look for other materials, experiment a bit and eventually you might make a big bird replica. Alternatively, you could look briefly at a bird and note the basic aerodynamics of a wing, note the use of lightweight and strong materials, then let it go. You don’t need any more from nature than that. The rest can be done by looking at ways of propelling the surface to create sufficient airflow and lift using the aerofoil, and ways to achieve the strength needed. The bird provides some basic insight, but it simply isn’t necessary to copy all a bird’s proprietary technology to fly.

Back to Markam. If the real goal is to reverse engineer the actual human brain and make a detailed replica or model of it, then fair enough. I wish him and his team, and their distributed helpers and affiliates every success with that. If the project goes well, and we can find insights to help with the hundreds of brain disorders and improve medicine, great. A few billion euros will have been well spent, especially given the waste of more billions of euros elsewhere on futile and counter-productive projects. Lots of people criticise his goal, and some of their arguments are nonsensical. It is a good project and for what it’s worth, I support it.

My only real objection is that a simulation of the brain will not think well and at best will be an extremely inefficient thinking machine. So if a goal is to achieve thought or intelligence, the project as described is barking up the wrong tree. If that isn’t a goal, so what? It still has the other uses.

A simulation can do many things. It can be used to follow through the consequences of an input if the system is sufficiently well modelled. A sufficiently detailed and accurate brain simulation could predict the impacts of a drug or behaviours resulting from certain mental processes. It could follow through the impacts and chain of events resulting from an electrical impulse  this finding out what the eventual result of that will be. It can therefore very inefficiently predict the result of thinking, but by using extremely high speed computation, it could in principle work out the end result of some thoughts. But it needs enormous detail and algorithmic precision to do that. I doubt it is achievable simply because of the volume of calculation needed.  Thinking properly requires consciousness and therefore emulation. A conscious circuit has to be built, not just modelled.

Consciousness is not the same as thinking. A simulation of the brain would not be conscious, even if it can work out the result of thoughts. It is the difference between printed music and played music. One is data, one is an experience. A simulation of all the processes going on inside a head will not generate any consciousness, only data. It could think, but not feel or experience.

Having made that important distinction, I still think that Markam’s approach will prove useful. It will generate many useful insights into the workings of the brain, and many of the processes nature uses to solve certain engineering problems. These insights and techniques can be used as input into other projects. Biomimetics is already proven as a useful tool in solving big problems. Looking at how the brain works will give us hints how to make a truly conscious, properly thinking machine. But just as with birds and airbuses, we can take ideas and inspiration from nature and then do it far better. No bird can carry the weight or fly as high or as fast as an aeroplane. No proper plane uses feathers or flaps its wings.

I wrote recently about how to make a conscious computer: and

I still think that approach will work well, and it could be a decade faster than going Markam’s route. All the core technology needed to start making a conscious computer already exists today. With funding and some smart minds to set the process in motion, it could be done in a couple of years. The potential conscious and ultra-smart computer, properly harnessed, could do its research far faster than any human on Markam’s team. It could easily beat them to the goal of a replica brain. The converse is not true, Markam’s current approach would yield a conscious computer very slowly.

So while I fully applaud the effort and endorse the goals, changing the approach now could give far more bang for the buck, far faster.

Technology Convergence – What’s your Plan? Guest post by Rohit Talwar

Rohit is CEO of Fastfuture and a long-standing friend as well as an excellent futurist. He and I used to do a joint newsletter, and we have started again. Rohit sends it out to his mailing list as a proper newletter and because I don’t use mailing lists, I guest post it here. I’ll post my bit immediately after this one. I’m especially impressed since his bit ticks almost as many filing category boxes as it uses words.

Here is Rohit’s piece:

Technology Convergence – What’s your Plan?

I have just returned from South Korea where I was delivering a keynote speech to a cross-industry forum on how to prepare for and benefit from the opportunities arising from industry convergence. South Korea has made a major strategic commitment starting with government and running through the economy to be a leader in exploiting the potential opportunities arising from the convergence of industries made possible by advances in a range of disciplines. These include information and communications technology, biological and genetic sciences, energy and environmental sciences, cognitive science, materials science and nanotechnology.  From environmental monitoring, smart cars, and intelligent grids through to adaptive bioengineered materials and clothing-embedded wearable sensor device that monitor our health on a continuous basis – the potential is vast.

What struck me about the situation in Korea was how the opportunity is being viewed as a central component of the long-term future of Korea’s economy and how this is manifested in practice. Alongside a national plan, a government sponsored association has been established to drive and facilitate cross-industry collaboration to achieve convergence. In addition to various government-led support initiatives, a range of conferences are being created to help every major sector of the economy understand, explore, act on and realise the potential arising out of convergence.

I am fortunate to get the opportunity to visit 20-25 countries a year across all six continents and get to study and see a lot of what is happening to create tomorrow’s economy. Whilst my perspective is by no means complete, I am not aware of any country where such a systematic and rigorous approach is being taken to driving industry convergence. Those who study Korea know that this approach is nothing new for them – long term research and strategic planning are acknowledged to have played a major role in the evolution of its knowledge economy and rise of Korea and its technology brands on the global stage. Coming from the UK, where it seems that long term thinking and national policy are now long lost relatives, I wonder why it is that so few countries are willing to or capable of taking such a strategic approach.

Rohit on the Road

In the next few months Rohit will delivering speeches in Oslo, Paris, Vilnius, Warsaw, Frankfurt, Helsinki, Denver, Las Vegas, Oman, Leeds and London. Topics to be covered include human enhancement, the future of professional services, the future of HR, transformational forces in business, global drivers of change, how smart businesses create the future, the future technology timeline, the future of travel and tourism, the future of airlines and airports and the future of education. If you would like to arrange a meeting with Rohit in one of these cities or are interested in arranging a presentation or workshop for your organisation, please contact