- In 2020, whipping out your mobile phone to make a call
will be quaintly passe. By then phones will be printed directly on to wrists,
or other parts of the body, says Ian Pearson, BT's resident futurologist.
- It's all part of what's known as a "pervasive ambient
world", where "chips are everywhere".
- Mr Pearson does not have a crystal ball. His job is to
formulate ideas based on what science and technology are doing now, to
guide industries into the future.
- Inanimate objects will start to interact with us: we
will be surrounded - on streets, in homes, in appliances, on our bodies
and possibly in our heads - by things that "think".
- Forget local area networks - these will be body area
- Ideas about just how smart, small, or even invisible,
technology will get are always floating around. Images of devices clumsily
bolted on to heads or wrists have pervaded thinking about future technology.
- But now a new vision is surfacing, where smart fabrics
and textiles will be exploited to enhance functionality, form, or aesthetics.
Such materials are already starting to change how gadgets and electronics
are used and designed.
- So MP3 players - the mass gadget of the moment - will
disappear and instead become integrated into one's clothing, says Mr Pearson.
- "So the gadgets that fill up your handbag, when
we integrate those into fabric, we can actually get rid of all that stuff.
You won't necessarily see the electronics."
- Wearable technology could exploit body heat to charge
it up, while "video tattoos", or intelligent electronic contact
lenses, might function as TV screens for those on the move.
- However, this future of highly personal devices, where
technology is worn, or even fuses with the body itself, raises ethical
- If technology is going to be increasingly part of clothing,
jewellery, and skin, there needs to be some serious thinking about what
it means for us as humans, says Baroness Susan Greenfield.
- At a recent conference for technology, engineering, academic
and fashion industry experts, at the Royal Society in London, neuroscientist
Baroness Greenfield cautioned we "can't just sleepwalk into the future".
- Tuning your overcoat
- Yet this technology is already upon us. Researchers have
developed computers and sensors worn in clothing. MP3 jackets, based on
the idea that electrically conductive fabric can connect to keyboard sewn
into sleeves, have already appeared in shops.
- These "smart fabrics" have come about through
advances in nano- and micro-engineering - the ability to manipulate and
exploit materials at micro or molecular scale.
- At the nanoscale, materials can be "tuned"
to display unusual properties that can be exploited to build faster, lighter,
stronger and more efficient devices and systems.
- The textile and clothing industry has been one of the
first to exploit nanotechnology in quite straightforward ways. Many developments
are appearing in real products in the fields of medicine, defence, healthcare,
sports, and communications.
- Professional swimming suits reduce drag by incorporating
tiny structures similar to shark skin.
- Nanoscale titanium dioxide (TiO2) coatings give fabrics
antibacterial and anti-odour properties. These have special properties
which can be activated in contact with the air or UV light.
- Such coatings have already been used to stop socks smelling
for instance, to turn airline seats into super stain-resistant surfaces,
and applied to windows so they clean themselves.
- Dressings for wounds can now incorporate nanoparticles
with biocidal properties and smart patches are being developed to deliver
drugs through the skin.
- But Baroness Greenfield is concerned about how far this
more personal contact with technology might affect our very being.
- If our clothing, skin, and "personal body networks"
do the talking and the monitoring, everywhere we go, we have to think about
what that means for our concept of privacy.
- Mr Pearson picks up the theme, pointing out there are
a lot of issues humans have to iron out before we become "cyborgian".
His main concern is "privacy".
- "We are looking at electronics which are really
in deep contact with your body and a lot of that information you really
don't want every passer-by to know.
- "So we have to make sure we build security in this.
If you are wearing smart make-up, where electronics are controlling the
appearance, you don't want people hacking in and writing messages on your
- As technology infiltrates our biology, how will our brains
- "We cannot arrogantly assume that the human brain
will not change with this," warns Baroness Greenfield.
- There have already been successful experiments to grow
human nerve cells on circuit boards. This paves the way for brain implants
to help paralysed people interface directly with computers.
- Clearly, the organic, carbon of our bodies and silicon
is increasingly merging. The cyborg - a very familiar part-human, part-inorganic
science fiction and academic idea - is on its way.
- © BBC MMIV