The Internet of Things (IoT)

The Internet of Things (IoT) is about connecting devices (things) over the internet, allowing them to talk to us and each other. The most popular example given when trying to explain the IoT is the fridge that is connected to the web and can tell you when you’re milk is out of date. The IoT isn’t exactly a new concept. In 1990 an internet connected toaster was developed, but the concept is becoming more popular and the technology more widespread (for example in smart meters and Amazon’s recently released Echo). The technology enables more efficiency (for example automatically adjusting the heating when it is warm outside) but also provides companies with a wealth of data and information about users, although this raises privacy and insurability issues.

The Internet of Living Things (IoLT)

The use of wearables connected to the internet in the healthcare market isn’t a new thing, but the miniaturisation of technology and using it similar to an industrial application has enabled people to become truly connected to the internet. This is the internet of living things (IoLT): connecting living things to the internet to collect and analyse real time information. The biological state of anything becomes an extension of the internet, and analytics of the data this produces then provides a new found intelligence about our natural world. One step further, the IoLT could even involve applying new functions to organisms and thus allowing the manipulation and control of biological systems.

“The machine does not isolate man from the great problems of nature but plunges him more deeply into them.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

For and Against

Is this a good idea? In the world of healthcare the benefits are obvious: the accumulation and analysis of data helps diagnose, treat, and prevent diseases. However, could applying the technology to humans in a similar way we would to industrial machines be erroneous? We didn’t build the human body and don’t always fully understand what is needed to fix it, so it isn’t a case of just ‘replacing a part’.

Another issue is the obvious privacy concerns. Healthcare data is notoriously sensitive and there could be a question mark whether people would be happy to connect their biological functions to the web. No doubt security and anonymisation would be high on the agenda for technology manufacturers and service providers, but as we have all seen in the last decade, everything on the web has vulnerabilities.

However, the best way to generally decrease the costs of healthcare is to try to prevent diseases in the first place. In the manufacturing and maintenance of vehicles for example, companies are using the IoT model to assess the condition of components and replace only when they need to, bringing both operating efficiencies and economic benefits. But the same principal can be applied to the human body: monitoring and tracking vital signs to prevent ‘malfunctions’ is therefore surely a good idea if we want to improve our physical health and reduce associated healthcare costs.

Early detection of ailments is often the difference between life and death, but often the degradation of organs has been the result of decades of incremental damage that our body sometimes doesn’t alert us to until the last minute. If we were able to detect this and make changes years before it became critical, this would have a profound effect on the healthcare industry and the health of society as a whole. $2.7 trillion is spent on sickcare. Healthcare systems are currently set up to treat sickness when a symptom becomes apparent. The IoLT model changes this by promoting more general wellbeing due to the constant monitoring and analysis of biological functions, ensuring that early signs are treated and people therefore take action.

Not only can it help people on an individual level, but using large scale data to collect information about people and diseases can mean statistical models can be employed to predict commonalities and trends on a general scale and thus help to create remedies.

Current Examples

Although there are not many commercial IoLT examples, some are emerging in the healthcare industry, including ingestible sensors, wearable patches, and sensors that connect to the internet and provide insights into the patient’s health patterns and biometrics.

It can also be used to effectively prescribe the correct medication. Antibiotics for infections cost the NHS in the UK a lot of money, and very often the wrong one is prescribed. MinION is a portable real-time device that can be used for DNA sequencing, biomarker sensing and quantification. Data analysis is provided by cloud based services and could allow a doctor to swab the infection, run it through the device and know exactly what the infection is and what antibiotics are effective within minutes.

But going further into the future, the founders of MinION are thinking about applications for the future. A big focus for this technology could be self-quantification (people regularly testing themselves) or this being done automatically, testing their DNA to measure their health and spot any signs of disease. Devices like toothbrushes to collect, process and send data to the internet could be a realistic possibility. It could even be integrated into mobile phones.

Buzzword or the Future?

The IoLT might be a buzzword at the moment and the concept raises questions about privacy and security of sensitive personal information; but it is clear that using the latest nanotechnology coupled with internet connection and the benefit that brings cannot be ignored (instantaneous accessibility and analysis at scale, which leads to better diagnosis, treatment and prevention) and may change the way our healthcare processes are structured in the future.