Photo Credit: John A. Rogers

I have written before about the (new) cyborg body, mostly in the form of tattoos and body modification, but new technologies are pushing this trend further in the form of epidermal electronics. John Rogers and his research colleagues, at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaigne have developed rubbery sheets of “elastometer” that mimic the mechanical properties of the human skin. This allows them to embed circuits and semiconductors into the material and apply it to the human skin much like one applies a temporary tattoo. Jon Cartwright reports that this material

“mimics the mass, thickness, and elasticity of the skin. Like an extra-clingy plastic wrap, the elastomer sticks to the skin naturally, using only the weak, short-range, attractive forces that always exist between neighboring molecules for adhesion. It can stay attached for over 24 hours almost anywhere on the body.”

This technology may replace more invasive technologies for monitoring heart, brain, and muscle activity. In recent lab tests, the material was able to successfully monitor a human heart rate on par with an electrocardiogram. When placed on the throat, it can also detect voice commands. Test subjects were able to operate a voice-operated videogame with 90 percent accuracy.

Indicative of the growing prevalence of biotechnology in our daily lives, developments like these may make our wildest science fiction dreams (and nightmares) a reality. The upcoming sci-fi action film In Time (2011) deals with some of these very issues, where the rich are able to maintain their youth through new technologies not offered to the poor. The characters in the film even appear to have similar technology embedded permanently in their forearms, reminiscent of the tattooing of concentration camp prisoners during the Holocaust. Since I know nothing about the movie, I will simply embed the trailer below and let you decide for yourself.

But such technology leads one to wonder what the potential downsides might be. I am thinking specifically of dystopian tropes where technology becomes a form of domination and control. Think The Matrix (1999) or Gattaca (1997). What possibilities does this technology offer for mass surveillance, data mining, and the panoptic principle (Foucault 1995) described by theorists of social control? Will implants and “epidermal electronics” become the new arm of the State, the prison system, or private corporations? Will these technologies be used to track and trace individual activity and behavior? Or worse, will they be integrated with a centralized computer grid that allows others to access our bodies remotely?I draw your attention to the upcoming videogame sequel Dues Ex: Human Revolution (expected release date of Sept 2011), which is orchestrated around these very questions. I have also embedded a trailer for this game below. Enjoy!

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