I read an article the other day about delivering vaccines using microneedle arrays:
The patch described in the article contains 5000 micro-needles and is intended for COVID vaccine delivery. I do not believe it has any other intent. However, it reminded me of some work I did decades ago.
Just over twenty years ago, I invented a whole new field of technology that I called Active Skin, a 5 layered system comprising two layers in the skin (dermis and epidermis), one printed on the skin surface, a stuck on ‘membrane layer’, and a detachable device layer. Over the next few hours, we came up with 250 potential uses, and that expanded to 600 over the following month. My employer at the time didn’t consider the invention ‘core business’ so didn’t back it with any development funding or even patents, but that reflects on the wisdom of having accountants run what should be a technology company, not on the value of the invention.
Active skin is a vast field with very diverse functionality, which is open to very diverse motivations. I started my career in the defence industry and as a career habit, I’ve always looked on any new concepts first with my defence hat on, looking at how it may be used in conflict or to gain advantage over an adversary, and how an adversary (whether a lone wolf, a state, a criminal or or terrorist groups) might use it with nefarious intent. If nothing else, those tend to be the most interesting areas to look at, even if commercial interests in a regulated environment might dictate alternative directions of development.
You don’t want to read a long blog, so here is the idea in a nutshell:
A patch housing a micro-needle array can be used to implant invisibly small skin conduits (tiny tubes) into an area of skin, e.g. on your wrist. They can be opened and closed electronically. (An alternative delivery technique is to use puffs of compressed air, such as that developed by Powderject to blast small particles into the skin. That was also developed for pain-free inoculation. But a microneedle array would enable higher capability and precision.)
Either or both the micro-needle array and the area of conduits can be used to dispense medication or other substances or small devices into the skin.
Prior to implanting, conduits can be pre-loaded with invisibly small skin capsules – micron-sized devices that fit easily and invisibly among skin cells, coated with titanium alloy or any alternative that prevents rejection by the body’s immune system.
Subjects could be told that the patch (or compressed air device) is simply a painless way of delivering medicine such as vaccine. They need not know of anything else it does and would not be able to tell simply by inspection or sensation. Alternatively, they could be knowingly having electronic functionality implanted for many potential reasons. The point here is that disclosure is optional and suspicion can easily be diverted.
By opening the skin conduits at any future time, capsules can be added, removed, serviced or replaced. Benign devices could be replaced by malign ones.
Without any need for physical contact, innocent devices could be remotely reprogrammed for alternative purposes.
Skin capsules may contain a wide range of electronics, sensors, or micro-mechanical devices. They can be charged using induction, store electrical charge in capacitors, and discharged for electronic stimulation purposes.
Capsules could communicate with external IT over variable range from microns to meters.
A digital ID can easily be temporarily or permanently implanted either via microneedles, puffs of air, or via skin conduits. It could be read electronically (e.g. via smartwatch, fitness device, medical equipment, or any skin contact such as touching a display or button), optically (e.g. a distant IR laser or LED) or by conventional radio means (e.g. RFID, NFC).
A skin capsule that is 5 microns across could house a 3 micron sphere packed with electronics. In 2001, we assumed 10 nanometre electronics would be around by the time the active skin field emerged, and in 2021 that has been commonplace for years. It would be possible to pack many thousands of transistors into each capsule. It doesn’t have to be 10nm, but that level allows highly sophisticated devices. Anything smaller allows even more.
Given their close proximity and relatively easy passage of IR light through skin tissue, they could also link optically to each other to make up a very sophisticated appliance.
An array of 5000 skin capsules could easily provide a wide range of IT functions, such as sensing blood chemistry and nerve activity, recording nerve activity and skin temperature/resistance/blood flow, and use embedded AI to interpret the activity and then report to an external device. It could be programmed and updated every time the person comes within range of a transmitter, and in between, act under control of the AI. Obviously it could also do anything a Fitbit can, as well as record your conversations. Precision relative location coupled to nerve monitoring means it could also detect what you type, e.g. usernames and passwords, messages.
A patch of active skin that you didn’t even know you had could monitor and record your nerve activity, your emotions (to some degree), your health, location, proximity to others and their identities, and record and analyse your conversation – by voice or social media.
Another of the initial inventions for active skin was military use to police prisoners. The idea was that captured soldiers could be quickly printed with a patch of active skin, then rounded up, and literally a line in the sand drawn around the group. Any prisoner attempting to cross that line would receive a pulse of intense pain which would continue until they returned to the enclosed area.
In 2001, this technology was all easily foreseeable. Microneedle arrays have been around for over a decade, the Powderject drug delivery system even longer. As far as I know, skin conduits and skin capsules don’t exist yet, but they could be made now. 10nm electronics has existed for years, and body-safe encapsulation of tiny electronic devices is feasible even if it isn’t publicly available yet. So in principle, a sufficiently capable manufacturer could make all of this tomorrow. In fact, they could have made it at any time in the last several years.
A large company or state could therefore make a system tomorrow that uses a widespread vaccination programme to gain access to implant an array of skin capsules in the skin of most of the population without anyone knowing (skin conduits are optional, since the capsules could easily be implanted via microneedles if they won’t need to be extracted later, but conduits would add the capability to maintain the system more easily).
That system could act as a full digital identity that can be read from far away, that records and analyses every person’s behaviour, health, conversation and activity, and is capable of detecting and automatically punishing them if they were to disobey a rule. It would be easy to link level of monitoring, level of punishment, or appropriate rule-set to a person’s identity and social credit score. Obviously, using it to create pain in recipient would give the game away, so that function wouldn’t be activated by the controllers until everyone has been treated, otherwise people might resist.
This almost certainly doesn’t exist anywhere yet, but it could any time soon. Makes you think, doesn’t it?