Wireless at the Fringe – Of Human Intranets, Brain-Machine Interfaces and Enhanced Humans

CTN Issue: September 2016

Alan Gatherer, Editor in Chief, ComSoc Technology News

After their article a couple of months ago, I asked the good folks at BWRC to expand on the work they are doing in implantable electronics, as well as its potential health implications. BWRC’s approach focuses not only on functionality but on battery-free, extreme miniaturization and wireless access for very specific quantification of the host health. They also point us toward a future where such devices might link up and literally talk about you behind (as well as under and inside) your back. Hope you enjoy, and comments as always are welcome.

Jan M. Rabaey and Rikky Muller, BWRC

Jan M. Rabaey
Jan M. Rabaey
Rikky Muller
Rikky Muller

When one generally thinks of wireless technology, mobile phones and cell-towers come to mind. Over the past decade, this picture has been augmented with ubiquitous WiFi access points and more recently with IoT objects littered all around us. However wireless technology has a far broader reach. At one extreme, massive radio astronomy telescopes have helped us peer into the distant wonders of the universe. At the other end, tiny wireless interfaces enabled by technology advancement, miniaturization and integration now allow us to directly communicate to the biological cells that are at the core of our human being. The potential outcomes of these advancements are legion and could fundamentally change how we interact with the world around us and our fellow beings as well as how we perceive ourselves.

Figure 1
Figure 1: A mote of neural dust.

At the Berkeley Wireless Research Center (BWRC), we are engineering systems that interface directly and seamlessly with the human body. We are building on a decade of groundbreaking work in wireless brain-machine interfaces in a transition to true cyberbiological systems. For example, in collaboration with researchers from the UC Berkeley/UCSF Center for Neural Engineering and Prostheses (CNEP), we recently announced a peripheral nerve sensor called Ultrasonic Neural Dust, where ultrasound is the vessel for wireless power delivery and data communication in a mode analogous to an ultrasonic RFID tag. The use of ultrasound enables extremely low power (and hence safe) operation of extremely miniaturized batteryless sensors located subdermally or in deep tissue giving access to a broad range of unique biomarkers. Today’s neural dust can be used to monitor peripheral nerve signaling waveforms and other electrical signals within the body such as electrocardiogram (ECG ) and electromyogram (EMG ) signals. The 3mm3 mote is implanted 1cm below the surface of the skin and powered with only 120μW emitting from the external transducer. We are working with our colleagues at CNEP to expand Neural Dust’s capabilities though the integration of high-performance ASICs that will enable therapeutic applications such as neuro-stimulation. Stimulating neural dust would open the door to a vast array of interventions involving untethered stimulation of human nerves and neurons, and record-and-stimulate closed loop systems.

Looking beyond Neural Dust, we are exploring the limits of high-performance and cutting edge microelectronic and heterogeneously integrated systems to chronically measure bio-signals (eg. ionic concentration, blood-oxygenation, pressure, etc.) deep in the body, or provide targeted, therapeutic interventions that respond on demand and in situ. Yet, to treat disease at the systems level, and to gain a holistic view of a person’s health, these sensors and actuators must communicate and collaborate with each other. The Holy Grail is scale: first in size toward the nanomorphic cell and second in number, toward thousands of individual motes, each with a unique location and function. As a framework, we envision a Human Intranet: an open, scalable platform that seamlessly integrates an ever-increasing number of sensors and actuators, computation, storage, communication and energy nodes located on, in, or around the human body and acting in symbiosis with the functions provided by the body itself.

Figure 2
Figure 2: A Human Intranet, consisting of a mesh network with hub concentrators

In its full incarnation, the Human Intranet would go beyond pure health and wellness related issues, and change the way humans interact with the surrounding (augmented) world by boosting the human input-output modalities and performance. Getting to that point in a setting that is convenient, efficient, safe and private however requires progress on many fronts ranging from the devices all the way to the integrated distributed system level. Addressing these challenges is what drives a major part of the BWRC research agenda today.


  1. http://www.cnet.com/news/beyond-fitbit-neural-dust-puts-invisible-cyborg-tech-deep-inside-you/
  2. http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/xpl/articleDetails.jsp?arnumber=7030200&filter%3DAND%28p_IS_Number%3A7030135%29


Editor-in-Chief: Alan Gatherer (alan.gatherer@huawei.com)

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