I’ve written about it countless times before but I’m gonna mention it at least 52 more times on this website so buckle in : I love sci-fi books. There’s something about the scope of them, the endless possibility, the strangeness and the prophecy of it all.
Most of all I love the worlds that the authors manage to craft, with worlds like ours but different in so many ways. Worlds where atomic structure is different so people live in three distinct parts. Worlds where humans accidentally create intelligent spiders on a distant planet and have to grapple with the philosophical implications of creating new life. Worlds with little weird alien guys with three eyes.
This tendency to look for the weird and wonderful is the reason that I (and a lot of nerds like me) are drawn to tech trends and developments that feel like sci-fi. And that’s why I am now 151 words into an introduction on a blog about eating electronics.
Now when I say (should be ‘write’ but can’t fix it now, the internet is written in indelible ink) the phrase “eating electronics”, that’s probably going to freak you out, and it should, unless you already have your phone in your mouth in which case, fair play, not much I can do now, you go for it you trailblazer.
However, the very infantile field of edible electronics can be broadly separated into two parts : medical technology and environmentally friendly production techniques. Let’s start with the more developed (and sane) use case and then get to the weirder stuff later.
What’s annoying about the human body (amongst many things) is that mostly, the stuff that goes wrong with it is on the inside, you know the bit that’s blocked by all the other bits like skin and organs etc. Due to this fact, doctors are obsessed with having a poke around inside of people.
Currently, technology exists where you can look inside another person if you so well please, but this technology is made up of things like gamma rays, metal, plastic and pipes and stuff i.e. things the human body has a tough time adapting to having inside it. Once you have had a look inside a person and figured out what is going wrong in there, you can also prescribe them stuff for them to ingest i.e. medicine, but this has to be very carefully monitored and controlled as, like the diagnostic tools, if done incorrectly, these can be harmful to the patient as well.
And this is where safely edible tech comes into play.
It’s envisioned that instead of invasive medical procedures like x rays, scans, colonoscopies and the like, in the future, doctors will be able to prescribe an edible piece of tech that passes into the system of the patient, isolates the problem, and even provides medicine at precisely the right time by reading the body's signals.
And the best part is that, once it has done its job, this tech will then be safely passed through or metabolised by the body instead of having to be removed by a medical procedure.
This means patients receive a better, quicker and more personalised standard of care, and time in hospitals is reduced as people aren’t having to ferry back and forth to have something dug out of their body. It stands to reason that this could be an incredible leap forward for medical technology, reducing workload for providers and increasing quality of care for the receivers.
This is the main use case of edible tech, but there is also the aspect of creating tech out of biodegradable/edible materials in a bid to reduce ecological impacts of tech production.
I love technology as much as the next straight white dude in his mid twenties that works in tech. But it’s important to put your hands up and admit when your favourite things are a little bit harmful. And boy, can tech be harmful. When it’s not melting the brains of children or invoking the absolute worst kind of human behaviour, tech is also destroying the planet in the form of hard-to-break-down materials, unsustainable manufacturing methods and frankly evil mining practices.
There’s a kind of veneer to tech of this industry working towards a better future that has no downsides, or that the upsides are worth the downside, but if we want to actually make a more equitable society and planet through technology, then the technology itself, i.e. the things that actually comprise it, needs to do no harm to the planet.
So that is why you are going to have to eat your phone when you are done with it.
The classification of “edible” here is a little bit overstretched. The minds behind these projects mean to make tech edible in the same way that ants are edible. You really shouldn’t, and you would be pretty weird to, but at the same time it isn’t going to kill you.
Currently the things found in most pieces of technology, manganese, magnesium, silicon, and copper etc, don’t feature anywhere on the food pyramid, and are a bastard to recycle. I recently had to walk 3 miles holding an old TV just to find appropriate recycling options, and if I had the option to just eat the thing, I would have gone to town like Kobayashi.
Researchers are looking into how to make technology out of silk fibroin, pea protein and apple extract, and caramelised sugar just to name a few eclectic materials so that the tech can biodegrade once its task is completed, or is more easily reusable and recyclable.
Obviously, this poses so many problems as tech has to be sturdy, in some cases long lasting, and not prone to failure because a badger ate it.
This field of study is incredibly new, but is actually part of a trend started in the 1970s called “green engineering” which intends to make products and tech that limits its own impact on the environment.
Keep an eye out for buzzy start ups, especially in areas like semiconductors where we are experiencing a supply chain nightmare, as this out of the box thinking is exactly the way markets are disrupted.