How Smartdust, Souveillance, Web 3.0, and Personalized Genetics Will Transform the Future of Medical Diagnostics


There has been a flurry of debate in the military, industrial, and privacy sectors on “smartdust” and the concept of “souveillance” – but no one has yet realized this technology is poised to springboard into medicine and transform medical diagnostics.  Here I wanted to give you an overview of what this idea is and why you should keep your eye on it.

First the general concept background:

“Smartdust” refers to micro devices (called motes) which are detection microchips each potentially the size of a speck of dust.  These grains of sand however can automatically self-network.  So far people have conceived of these low-power distributed sensing networks as having functions for climate control systems, entertainment devices and especially for big brother type surveillance systems.

Wikipedia wrote “the smartdust concept was introduced by Kristofer S. J. Pister (University of California) in 2001 , though similar ideas existed in science fiction before then. A recent review discusses various techniques to take smartdust in sensor networks beyond millimeter dimensions to the micrometre level.  A typical application scenario is scattering a hundred of these sensors around a building or around a hospital to monitor temperature or humidity, track patient movements, or inform of disasters, such as earthquakes. In the military, they can perform as a remote sensor chip to track enemy movements, detect poisonous gas or radioactivity. The ease and low cost of such applications have raised privacy concerns.”  Beyond web 2.0 vast networks of these real time sensors are once possible technology leap of the yet inknown web 3.0.

General concept – What is Souveillance?: is a term from Steve Mann that refers to “bottom up” surveillance using smart dust as opposed to “top down” big brother networks looking at us little people.  Here instead activities are recorded from the “perspective of a participant in the activity, typically by way of small portable or wearable recording devices that often stream continuous live video to the Internet.”  Remember the impact of the Rodney King video and of all the user generated video content on the web.  Now fast forward to a world where a large segment or even a majority of the populace had real time streaming video devices on all the time (no we are not going to discuss the porn angle on this).  This has also been called “inverse surveillance”.

Privacy advocates have been debating the merits or horrors of this type of sensor technology.  I serve on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Lifeboat Foundation which is dedicated to protecting us from future technological threats through advocacy research and education. They have been having a heated debate on the “paradox of smart dust: we may not live without the greater security provided by smart dust, but many think they could not live with smart dust impinging on our privacy.’

Medical Implications: I have a vision that once this type of low power networked microsensor technology exists it will logically lead to medical sensor technology. Potential uses I see include:

  1. mass screening for infectious disease or bioterror agents.  Subjects walking into screening areas could be checked for signature molecules associated with infectious agents.  Just as we have metal detectors and now have molecular signature detectors (the little wipe test for explosives at the airport) we will have such biological screening technology.
  2. The next step will be similar screening for disease states. Metabolomics is one such technology. Metabolomics is the study of the small-molecule metabolite byproducts left behind from cellular processes.  In simple terms it’s like examining poop.  The concept is that by measuring the collection of all the byproducts of the cells metabolism you can get a snapshot of the physiology of a cell or organism that translates to health.  One such sensor is being developed as a breath sensor for disease.  This could lead to Star Trek like medical sensors.
  3. Similarly, such technology will lead to individual genetic screening for disease risk using chips that interact with the tiny bits of DNA we shed every time we touch something. Companies commercializing this approach also already exist and have products.
  4. Taking a clue from smart dust we will then inject such sensors into our bodies where thy could circulate in the bloodstream or sit in the abdominal cavity silently sensing for disease, infectious agents, or the DNA or signature molecules of a cancer cell.  Alternative chips could exist that sit and slowly release drugs when such cell reappear once a patient is diagnosed.

I will be writing more about the details of these concepts and devices being developed in future posts now that I have introduced the concepts.  Let me know what you think!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>