Motorola's neck tattoo idea. (Glasses optional, but recommended by the author.)
Hot off patenting some ridiculous hand gestures, Google has now made waves for an electronic version of a stick-on tattoo that could connect to a mobile device with, say, Bluetooth or NFC. People tend to assume that Google's team is capable of building any wild idea that pops into its collective head. But in this case, Google's e-tattoo has been met with an unusually skeptical response. E-tattoos are coming, along with other implantable devices. So why wouldn't one of the largest tech companies in the world try to be the first?
The patent comes from Motorola, which is now a Google company, and is aimed at eliminating background noise from a user talking on a phone or trying to communicate with his or her device. The stick-on "tattoo" would be applied to the neck, where it would transmit any sound "emanating from a throat" to a connected device. Not only could that help with killing room noise, it might also help with preventing random folks from walking by and shouting "OK Google" at your phone. The patent also mentions it could have its display directly incorporated or—why not?—used as a galvanic skin response detector.
Sticking a piece of circuitry to your neck seems a bit of an obtuse way to increase call clarity, but is the idea of the e-tattoo itself really so frivolous? A number of people who discussed the concept seems to think so.
At TechCrunch, Chris Velazco writes that "before you start freaking out at the mental visual of a tattoo artist weaving electronic components into your neck flesh, know that Motorola has a history of playing fast and loose with its interpretation of the word 'tattoo.'" Alexis Madrigal called it Google's "creepiest patent yet." Steve Dent at Engadget huffs, "Okay, where to start with this one?"
We're collectively at a strange point in our relationship with technology: Many of us have come to rely on gadgets so much that we're simply not the same without them, and yet we also don't admit we have such a techno-dependence. The integration of man and machine is a central tenet of futurism, and yet as folks like Kevin Warwick have argued, the tight integration of technology into our daily lives means we're already there.
Google may or may not be wrecking your memory, but the internet's vast stores of information are a significant upgrade that few of us are willing to do without. Every time humans get an easier method to access valuable information and tools, they jump on it en masse. It's happened with worldwide internet penetration, it's happened with broadband, and it's happened with smartphones.
Focusing on the latter, would you go back to a dumbphone? Would you go back to a beeper? Be honest with yourself: You probably wouldn't. Candy Crush (or whatever game is currently cool) aside, it's too important of a tool to give up. Just admit it: Your phone is part of you now. So if tattooing it on the side of your head meant a serious upgrade—eliminating typos and dead batteries, maybe—why wouldn't you go for it?
Way back in 2009, Motherboard had a chance for a nice long chat with Ray Kurzweil about our techno-future.
The likes of Ray Kurzweil think that as technology gets smaller and more involved in our lives, it'll end up right inside our bodies. And guess what? Now he's Google's director of engineering. Physically upgrading ourselves, one of the oldest transhumanist and sci-fi tropes, has more legitimate interest than ever, and yet the idea of an e-tattoo still feels a bit icky. Why's that?
To take things to the extreme, we might as well delve into the sci-fi world. Upgrades, cyberware, wetware, and whatever else you can come up with have appeared in thousands of fictional universes, but one in particular has always stood out to me for the appearance of actual e-tattoos. A major technology in Peter F. Hamilton's Commonwealth Saga is the OCTattoo (or Organic Circuitry Tattoo), which is quite what it sounds like: Circuitry that can be tattooed along the skin to connect whatever implants a user can afford.
Naturally, there's class concern; the wealthiest and most powerful character in the saga is so covered in gold metallic tattoos that he's essentially C-3PO, and naturally has more mental capacity than anyone else. But for average folks, the tattoos remain a sign of wealth, status, and—most importantly—ability.
Of course, we're talking about fiction here, but it increasingly mirrors real life. Think of the first person you knew who had an iPhone. Suddenly she was the go-to person for trivia questions and YouTube viewing. The iPhone's entire marketing premise is based on the same things as an OCTattoo: it represents taste, luxury, and the entire computative and informational firepower of the internet and an App Store right at your fingertips.
And now that we've gotten way past the early adopter phase, the simple reality that you can do more with a smartphone has even the resistant and hesitant jumping aboard. Such is the self-fulfilling evolution of our relationship with tech: If enough people jump on board a technology that makes them more effective, then late adopters are left with the option of either saying yes or being left behind.
But as much as phones are part of our lives, they're not reliable. They die, they break, we lose them. And when they're gone, we've lost all of the abilities we've come to rely on. Sad as it might be to admit, it's a sickening feeling. I just spent a week in London with an old phone that didn't work abroad; I felt like I was missing a hand, and kept checking it reflexively despite knowing it was useless.
Now we've got Google Glass, which is the best attempt yet at more tightly integrating us and the technology we rely on. It's not perfect, sure, but look at why Glass has taken off: Like smartphones, Glass adopters have bought in because it's given them a more seamless interface with their digital enhancements—plus it's exclusive, it's expensive, and some think it's a sign of good taste.
Like smartphones, there are the folks who think it's unnecessary (including myself, I admit), but while Glass and its eventual competitors may not replace smartphones, it's yet more evidence that humans will continue to break down the barriers between themselves and tech. And as soon as the next step of integration hits the mainstream, the need to keep up will drive adoption.
So what happens when the barriers fall completely? We'll all have e-tattoos, implants, or whatever it is that tech giants come up with (or buy in a patent lottery). The interest is already there. Just look at Google Trends: Electronic tattoos have been consistently making hype waves since at least 2007. DIY biohackers like Tim Cannon are pushing things forward by simply sticking electronics in their arms, a move that remains controversial. But advances are also being made in the mainstream medicine world—and they're being backed by people like Dmitry Itskov, who has managed to galvanize much of the transhumanist movement behind the cause.
And now we've got Motorola/Google interested in their own version of an e-tattoo. Whether that specific patent ever comes to fruition or not, humans will end up integrating their bodies more intimately technology as soon as it becomes too valuable not to. From a philosophical standpoint, that's what we've already done—and at this point, it's philosophy and ethics that are creating the barriers, not technological capability.
So why laugh at the Motorola e-tattoo? Sure, its current potential use case is pretty ridiculous; we've no need to stick things on our neck to cut down on ambient noise. But the larger reason we're so quick to say "ew" is the fact that if Google, Apple, Samsung, or whoever offered a smartphone tattoo that actually had an upside—even if it all it did was eliminate the need to charge—a whole lot of us would probably take them up on the offer.