Computers That You Eat (or That Eat You?)

Computers That You Eat (or That Eat You?)

Ray Kurzweil’s dream of internal nanobots floating around our bloodstream making us immortal by eradicating diseases and slowing down the aging process may actually be a reality sooner than any of us ever thought. Nick Bilton of the New York Times recently reported on two different companies – Proteus Digital Health and HQ – that are working on next generation “ingestible” computers -- tiny pill-like computers that you can swallow with a glass of milk or water. Once inside your body, tiny sensors and transmitters go about their business, whether it’s tracking your internal biorhythms or wirelessly reporting back on your body’s current health status to your doctor.


While there are many possible uses for these ingestible computers - everything from acting as bio-passwords to helping to activate digital devices in your immediate proximity - the most attractive area for now is healthcare. As Kurzweil has suggested in the past, the only way to prolong human life and eradicate diseases like diabetes or obesity is by implanting tiny computers and sensors within our own bodies that are capable of troubleshooting all the little problems that cause our bodies to age. Ingestible nanobot computers, for example, would search out the cells and organs in need of repair and go about fixing things in real-time. As of now, these computers enter the body and are flushed out within 24 hours, at which point they could either be reused (after a vigorous scrubbing, no doubt) or replaced with new computers. In the future, these nanobots may be permanent, functioning parts of the human body. 

In many ways, ingestible computers are the next logical progression of the wearable computing trend. Only this time, computers are on the inside, not the outside, of the body. In the case of Proteus Digital Health's ingestible computers, they are actually powered by your own stomach: copper and magnesium interact with acids from your stomach to create real-life batteries. (In the future, acid indigestion and heartburn may actually be desirable side-effects!) As humans, we are becoming more and more comfortable with the idea of computers working ambiently in the background, reporting back on our behaviors and bodies to other computers and devices. It only takes a minor stretch of the imagination to see them being hard-wired into our bodies' natural internal processes.

So what could possibly go wrong when you’re swallowing new computers every 24 hours or so?

The biggest concern for now involves privacy. You would essentially have sensors and computers reporting back on you. As John Perry Barlow of the Electronic Frontier Foundation suggests, these new ingestible computers could either be “wonderful” or “terrible,” depending on your perspective. If you’re concerned about a loved one taking the right medications on a regular basis, then it’s a wonderful innovation. If you’re concerned, however, that your insurance company could jack up your premiums if it discovers something about you that even you don’t know, then it could be terrifying.

There's another, even scarier, scenario, however: What if the tiny computers floating around inside of you get hacked?

Even Ray Kurzweil, the self-proclaimed prophet of the Singularity, admits that, sometime within the next 30 years, we may get to a point where these internal nanobots would be able to self-replicate. And, within a certain number of replication cycles, vast colonies of nanobots would eventually be able to “devour” the human body. If this happens on a grand enough scale, it would be the first-ever case of a non-biological plague.

So, are we ready for the future of ingestible computing? The coming wave of wearable computing should be a good early warning of how good we humans are at co-existing with computers. Once we've got smartwatches, smart Glasses and smart wristbands hooked up to our bodies, we'll have a much better idea of how to get along with our nanobot friends. Maybe, at some point before the Singularity actually kicks in, we'll all learn to just stop worrying and love the nanobot.

Image: Nanobots Going Through the Bloodstream and Repairing Some Blood Cells / Shutterstock

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images
Surprising Science

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Credit: Pixabay
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