TCS Daily

Improves Lives

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - July 10, 2002 12:00 AM

I went scuba diving last week, in the Cayman Islands. Like most divers, I use a dive computer that tracks how long I remain at various depths and pressures, and then use that to calculate how much nitrogen is dissolved in my blood and tissues. It tells me how long it's safe to stay down, then how long I should stay above the surface before diving again. If I were somehow to stay down too long, it would display the decompression stops needed to surface safely.

Some dive computers do this for various gas mixtures used at depths down to 300 feet or more, and even connect to the line leading to your regulator so that they can calculate how much nitrogen you're actually breathing, and factor that into their calculations.

This isn't news. Such computers have been around for a while now, are used by most divers beyond the novice level, and don't cost much. The cheapest ones -- which are nonetheless rugged and reliable -- cost under $250. And nobody even thinks about it. That's the news.

It's easy to forget just what kind of an advance this represents. I only realized that I was once again taking a major leap in technological progress for granted because on this trip I was diving with a couple of guys I went to high school with. We were computer geeks back in the 1970s when the Texas Instruments SR-51 and SR-52 were the state of the art in handheld computing, and when the VAX and PDP-11 were major machines. (In our computer science Explorer post, we programmed on punch cards for an old Univac 494, which was already antiquated by then: it proudly boasted that it was solid state.)

At some point we began talking about how bizarre and science-fictional the dive computers would have seemed to us back then: "Strap on the underwater computer!" sounds perfectly sensible now, but in the days of big whirring boxes an underwater computer would have seemed about as likely as an underwater kite-flying contest. Now, on the other hand, such devices seem barely worth commenting on. Even the Navy -- which, as is typical with computing matters these days, is behind the curve of civilian applications -- has begun using dive computers for its SEAL teams.

Once I started thinking about it, I realized that the dive computer probably represents an opening wedge in the cyborgization of healthy people. The cyborgization of people with health issues, of course, is already under way. Diet computers are already in use. Some even weigh food before you eat it, and calculate its calories, fat content, etc. (I don't use one of those, but I do use a Polar heart rate monitor when I run, so that I can keep track of my heart rate and make sure I'm not slacking off. As far as I know, nobody's integrated the exercise computer with the diet computer to keep track of both calories consumed and calories burned in one device, but I may have missed it.) Then, of course, there are computerized insulin pumps that take the place of a pancreas by automatically releasing small amounts of insulin -- some according to computerized blood sugar models not too terribly different in concept from the blood-gas models used by dive computers. The most sophisticated personal computerized medical devices today are probably the implantable cardioverter defibrillators that monitor heart rhythms and administer a shock if the owner's heart stops or goes into fibrillation.

All this stuff, of course, bears the same relation to future devices that the Univac 494 does to my dive computer. But progress is speeding up. Soon, probably within a decade or two, we'll see such devices becoming common, and multipurpose, and -- most importantly -- aimed at people who don't have anything in particular wrong with them. Perhaps a "body computer?" It could measure heart rate, blood chemistry, diet and exercise levels, etc., and export its data to outside devices so that the owner, or a physician, could monitor the owner's health. Perhaps it could take preemptive action, releasing clotbusting drugs at the onset of a heart attack or stroke, or steroids in the event of an allergy attack, providing on-the-spot first aid for many serious problems. Still more advanced versions could fine-tune things in a variety of ways, until we gradually reach the stage in which our bodies are pervaded with nanodevices that maintain health and repair damage without our even thinking about them.

And no doubt when those devices are out, we'll take them for granted too, just as I did with my dive computer, until I stopped to think about it. The engineers do things that the shamans and wizards of previous eras only promised, and they do them so well, and so reliably, that their reward is to be taken for granted. So here's my request: every once in a while, stop and think about the miracles inherent in everyday devices, and send a silent prayer of thanks to the engineers who made them possible. They deserve it.



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