On digital pills, humans and beasts

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) just approved the first digital pill for human use, an antipsychotic drug paired with a sensor that will tell whether, and when, a patient has taken the prescribed medication.

The mix of drug and digital device works so the sensor issues an electrical signal from the stomach to a patch worn on the rib cage. Then, the patch relays the date and time of the pill ingestion to a phone app. If the patient has authorized it, this information is sent to a database accessible to the physician and other people, as per the permit.

The innovation of the digital pill does not lie on the superior quality of the drug, which is the same, but in the intervention on the individual’s behaviour – the value proposition highlights helping those who forget to take their medication. In this regard, it is not different from other public health interventions that target to shift the patients’ conduct – exercise more, eat better, sleep longer, don’t smoke. The digital pill just adds to the list of behavioural targets designed to improve our health condition and strengthen the overall system.

Or does it?

My guess is your answer will vary depending on your primary social group on campus.

If you are a student, you are in. Consider having a device approved that has been made possible thanks to an extraordinary technological achievement. It is not, by chance, that some of our best colleagues on campus are working on similar ideas as you read this. This is the positive side.

But the integration of a digital device inside your body that has been made possible thanks to the changes in behaviors and habits rapidly spread thanks to social media. Two come to mind: the normalization of piercings and tattoos as part of the experience of the self, and the design of cell phones to make them inseparable from our bodies.

A digital pill is just one further step in these practices towards crossing the final frontier besieged by phones and tattoos: your skin.

Once the skin has been trespassed by digital devices, we really become part of the same global network of communications – half-humans, half-machines, made up by ourselves (the body sends signals and is subject to genetic editions), our cell phones, iPads, computers, social networks, the Internet, the 1.7 billion users of Facebook and anyone who owns a phone around the world.

This move towards a new kind of human being has received several names, from the traditional ‘post-human’ condition, to the advent of the singularity age, to the most recent brand exponential life. In the horizon, a new humanity.

Are we ready for this? Do we want it?

That the company making the digital pill started this practice on patients with mental problems like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depressive disorder, is both a provocation and a dream come true for our researchers dealing on postmodern and Marxist concepts. In fact, some of the concerns about this type of digital medication expand the issues raised by French philosopher Michael Foucault about the punitive intervention of the state (in this case just as a vehicle for the pharma an insurance industries) in the vigilance and punishment of the bodies and minds of those living at the margins of society – those who sometimes don’t look like humans to the rest of us.

While we keep walking towards this complex of humans, machines and networks in which the boundaries are becoming difficult to ascertain, some of our colleagues are working to understand and eradicate the causes of poverty, abuse and inequality that plague so many families and, especially, so many women around us in London. In this area, the innovations are social and come from a shift in research methodology.

By partnering with those affected by these issues of basic humanity, we take advantage of the implicit knowledge they have as agents in those ecosystems to formulate the problem right, co-invent the solutions and maximize the buy-in. For these researchers, the goal is to make a society that fosters and protects human beings, as defined by our traditions of social justice and by our legal obligations around human rights.

We also have colleagues working on children and youth. Eliminating violence, improving mental health, creating better curricula in schools, understanding their cognitive processes are some of the aspects they engage in. Here, the perspective is that fixing our social and educational environments early on, and providing the help needed to overcome certain barriers, are the most effective ways for our children to achieve their potential. Our colleagues pave the road so our children can walk it seamlessly on the way to full, happy, lives.

Another frontier in the research on humans is being drawn by our colleagues working on women and feminist issues. The types of discrimination, as well as the rich and unique contributions of women to our world, are being studied in multiple contexts: post-war scenarios, participation in the green economy, their situation in international courts, and sexuality and citizenship, among others. The participation of women in the research enterprise at Western is also being reframed at the institutional level through the engagement with the federal directives and initiatives about equity, diversity and inclusion in research in Canadian universities. We create and find micro- and macro-inequalities every day, and the university have decided to be part of the solution.

Not so different is the objective of our Indigenous colleagues on campus. The definite separation from a history of abuse, abandonment and neglect traverses their research endeavours as much as their efforts to make Western a safe campus and an equitable institution. Can we become innovators in this area and remove unfair behaviours, insufficient practices and inefficient mechanisms? Are we ready to be world leaders in Indigenous research? Is it fair to aspire that we all are treated as equal human beings before we move into post-humans?

As I reflect on the challenges we face as a species, I can’t avoid thinking of the role a university is to play in a scenario in which the very conception of humankind is in question.

Do we follow the path to an exponential life and get distracted by digital pills, physical enhancements and new forms of entertainment? Or do we put the emphasis, and the resources, on all the places in which we still need to create social and economic ecosystems apt for humans to survive and thrive? Maybe the most necessary path for us as a university of the 21st Century is in which we define a framework for scientific, technological and social innovations to go hand-in-hand in pursuit of the same goal.

Western has some of the brightest researchers and the best groups working on digital devices for health, genetic editing and synthetic biology, medicine, the brain and the mind, privacy laws and practices, social justice, women, Indigenous research, child and youth, philosophy, natural resources, alternative energies, sustainability, culture and music. It is my impression the horizon of all these endeavours is the betterment of the human condition.

In a moment in which we embrace robots, while still trying to remove our less human-like behaviours and institutions, only by talking to each other and composing a full picture of the situation will we be able, as a comprehensive university, to have a say in the debate and actions about the future of humankind.

I confess if I were to be a human being living in Canada in 2017, and a human professor working at Western in the coming decades, I’d like our mission to follow the wise words of our Indigenous colleagues – nothing about us without us. All of us.

Western professor Juan Luis Suárez, appointed in both Modern Languages and Literature and Computer Sciences, is an Associate Vice-President (Research).