Suresh Menon

Friday - - News -

Our colum­nist on the in­tru­sive in­gestible mi­crochip pills that can mon­i­tor your health.

They look like nor­mal pills, sci­en­tists as­sure us. But they are ac­tu­ally in­gestible com­put­ers. And well might your doc­tor tell you as he pre­scribes them, “Take two of th­ese and they will email me in the morn­ing.”

As the pill trav­els through your sys­tem, it be­haves like a tourist in­side your body, tak­ing pho­to­graphs, email­ing friends in the med­i­cal pro­fes­sion, sug­gest­ing places of in­ter­est (“Why don’t you take a look at the pan­creas, doc­tor?”, or “Don’t miss the liver, it is a sight”), and mak­ing a study of the na­tives for fu­ture jokes (“Did you hear the one about the two mi­crobes walk­ing into a blood­stream?”).

In­tru­sive? Pos­si­bly. But what if it man­ages to catch a heart at­tack be­fore it oc­curs or an in­cip­i­ent bald­ness be­fore it be­comes em­bar­rass­ing? This is the sci­en­tists’ ar­gu­ment. The pill (or com­puter) is a friend they say, and a trib­ute to how science can com­bine with tech­nol­ogy to make our lives eas­ier. I mean, you don’t even have to re­mem­ber your pass­word – the com­puter emails in­for­ma­tion to the doc­tor di­rectly (pre­sum­ably with copies to you and who­ever else you want on the list, in­clud­ing the edi­tor of your school mag­a­zine who pre­dicted your liver might pack up be­fore you reached 40).

And that’s my prob­lem. Like ev­ery­body else, I have friends who spend the first half hour of a meet­ing dis­cussing the state of their in­sides. Now imag­ine if that lot de­cided to copy you in on all com­mu­ni­ca­tions the pill might have with the doc­tor? “Hmm… this one needs surgery,” it might say of a friend’s favourite kid­ney, and the in­for­ma­tion is con­veyed to you pronto. How­ever deep the friend­ship, it thrives best on not know­ing the con­di­tion of each other’s kid­neys. No longer will we greet each other with a “How do you do?” Some­how, “How do I do?” will seem more ap­pro­pri­ate.

Nor can any friend­ship sur­vive a se­ries of, “Of course I know” when one of the par­ties com­plains about his in­ter­nal or­gans. It is good to know what your friends think, not so good to keep abreast of the acid con­tent of their stom­achs. And what if in­sur­ance com­pa­nies get hold of all this in­for­ma­tion float­ing around so freely? What ef­fect will that have on pre­mi­ums? On pay­ments, or Christ­mas deals?

There is an­other prob­lem too. What of hack­ers? What if some­one hacks into my in­gestible pill and rewrites the in­for­ma­tion or mixes it up with that of the Pres­i­dent of the United States, for ex­am­ple. Poor Barack Obama will suf­fer my headaches, while I will have to deal with his bas­ket­ball in­juries.

So, on the whole, it’s as­pirins for me. I’ll take two and call the doc­tor in the morn­ing.

Suresh Menon is a writer based in In­dia. In his youth he set out to change the world, but later de­cided to leave it as it is.

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