Swallow the Doctor — The Present and Future of Robots Inside Us

I recently finished the Silo series by Hugh Howey, a self-published collection of novellas that details life in a near-future, post-apocalyptic world where all that remains of humanity has been stuffed into subterranean silos. It has a great plot with some fun twists and plenty of details to keep the hacker and sci-fi fan entertained.

One such detail is nanorobots, used in later volumes of the series as both life-extending tools and viciously specific bio-weapons. Like all good reads, Silo is mainly character driven, so Howey doesn’t spend a lot of eInk on describing these microscopic machines – just enough detail to move the plot along. But it left me wondering about the potential for nanorobotics, and where we are today with the field that dates back to Richard Feynman’s suggestion that humans would some day “swallow the doctor” in a 1959 lecture and essay called There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.”

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Reusing an old pacemaker as a flash timer


Most people use pacemakers to, you know, keep their heart pumping at a steady rhythm. [David Prutchi] on the other hand has found a pretty novel use for some of the old pacemakers he has in his collection.

We really had no idea that pacemakers had uses outside the world of medicine, but [David] has taken advantage of their reliability in one of his favorite hobbies – high speed photography. In a darkened room, he set up an infrared barrier which feeds its signal to the atrium input of an old pacemaker. The signal is relayed through the ventricular output, which then fires his camera’s flash.

The pacemaker allows [David] to set an “AV” delay, which is the interval between when the atrium input receives an electrical impulse and when that signal is repeated from the ventricular output. This allows him to finely tune how much time elapses from when a drop of milk breaks the IR barrier to when his flash actuates.

We think this is a pretty cool way to reuse an old pacemaker, but check out the shots he has captured and judge for yourself.

Defcon 16: Pacemaker-B-Gone

A collaboration of various medical researchers in the academic field has led to proof that pacemakers can be remotely hacked with simple and accessible equipment. [Kevin Fu], an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, led the team. [Kevin] first tried to get documentation from the manufacturers, believing they would support the effort, but they were not interested in helping. They were forced to get access to an old pacemaker and reverse engineer it. They found that the communication protocol used to remotely program the device was unencrypted. They then used a GNU radio system to find access to some of the machine’s reprogrammable functions, including accessing patient data and even turning it off.

Although this was only done with one particular pacemaker, it proves the concept and should be taken seriously by the medical companies who produce these devices. If you are interested in the technical aspects, check out the paper the team released in May disclosing the methods.