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I, smartphone

As we try to wrap our heads around Google Glass, a new generation of wearable computers is on the way. Will digital pills prove too much to swallow?

Author Boyd Farrow Illustration Viktor Koen


Motorola, the company responsible for those oversize mobile phones of the mid-1980s, is making a David Bowie–like comeback this month. Enter Moto X—a smartphone riddled with sensors that will anticipate your every move. You won’t even have to push a button to turn the thing on. Moto X will know it’s ready for business when you pull it out of your pocket. Want to take a picture? Twist your wrist and it’s in camera mode.

It’s the first buzzy launch for the company since Google bought Motorola Mobility last year, and according to insiders, it’s merely an opening salvo in Motorola’s quest to own the wearable tech space. Regina Dugan, head of the firm’s Advanced Technology & Projects group, says the company is currently exploring the commercial production of RFID (radio-frequency identification) tattoos, flexible electronic circuits that can be attached to users’ skin. Thinner than a human hair, they can even be disguised as a regular tattoo.

These “biostamps,” developed by Massachusetts-based MC10, were originally designed to monitor health, but Dugan, who sported one at a recent Dow Jones All Things Digital conference, sees huge potential for the technology in the wider “wearables” market, which has taken off with the Nike wristband and various Fitbit clip-on devices, and is expected to really explode with Google Glass.

Indeed, Dugan says these tattoos will jibe with a generation more accustomed to wearing ink than watches (which sounds like an oblique dig at Apple and its ballyhooed smartwatch). Moreover, the RFID tattoos could also authenticate password-protected online transactions, making cyberspace a much more secure place to do business.

And e-tats aren’t even the freakiest thing Motorola has been working on lately. The company has been collaborating with another pioneering medical outfit, California’s Proteus Digital Health, on a pill that contains minuscule sensors, to be swallowed and retained in the user’s stomach.

The information contained in the sensors allows your whole body to act as a password. After taking the pill, you can bring your smartphone to life simply by touching it. But you could just as easily start your car just by sitting in it, or unlock  your apartment door by touching it. “Essentially, your entire body becomes your authentication token,” says Dugan. “This is not science fiction. These things exist.”

And the line between fact and fiction looks set to blur further. MC10 is already using its technology to track muscle movements and brain signals with enough accuracy to control a computer. Samsung, for its part, is looking to bring thought control to all its mobile devices. The Korean giant’s Emerging Technology Lab is working on software that will allow us to use our thoughts to launch apps, select songs from a playlist, or even write on a Galaxy Note.

While Samsung is hardly ready to launch the first mind-controlled phone—early-stage research involves a rather unflattering cap studded with electrodes to monitor electrical activity—Insoo Kim, the company’s lead researcher, is given to saying things like, “Improvements in man-machine interfaces seem inevitable,” which is as close as tech conglomerate researchers get to making promises.

As always, there are buts—as in, “But will all this really help stamp out digital fraud?” The answer is: possibly not.

Already there has been ominous talk about “brain spyware.” Computer guru Ivan Martinovic recently described a scenario in which thought hackers embedded their spyware in brain-enabled digital technology. If this were to happen, merely thinking about making a credit card payment could result in somebody, somewhere, buying a speedboat at your expense.

Leading tech analyst Jeff Kagan foresees serious, albeit far less dramatic challenges for those who are developing these technologies. He points out that mind-controlled phones, smart tattoos and ingestible sensors are only some of the many ideas cooking, and nobody knows which the public will go for. “It’s like throwing spaghetti against the wall,” he says. “Some will stick, the rest will fall away.”  

BOYD FARROW, a London-based editor and writer, is looking forward to the day when he can sport an electronic tattoo that reads “Born to Tweet.”

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