Hacking my Heart

by Gary Woodill on April 6, 2009


I spent a portion of today getting a software upgrade for my implanted defibrillator, as part of the checkup I get every six months to see how this life-saving device is functioning. It has already been subject to one recall, for the wire that goes into my heart, which in some cases can fray and malfunction.

The software upgrade is to allow me to connect with a box near my bed that will be in constant wireless contact with the device in my chest. It will take scheduled readings on the state of my heart while I sleep and send the results to a server in Chicago, where they can be accessed and read by the cardiac health professionals at my local hospital. I won’t even know that the readings have been taken or that the data has been sent. So much for privacy!

The checkup today allowed the friendly nurse at the clinic to read the functioning of my heart for the past six months, to test the device by turning a dial to make my heart go faster or slower, and to check that everything is functioning as it should.

This amazing capability is only one example of how new medical devices area attaching themselves to our bodies like electronic leeches, purporting to cure but also turning us slowly into involuntary cyborgs.

There is more of this on the way. Toto, a toilet manufacturer in Japan, has a model that checks your urine stream, and sends the results to your doctor via the Internet.


And various types of smart underwear are now being used to monitor both the health and location of individuals in case they have a heart attack or wander too far. UK researchers have developed a “smart bra” that checks the woman wearing it for breast cancer.

All these wearable and implanted devices are converging – soon there will be a pacemaker with built-in GPS in the same unit, and perhaps a Bluetooth transmitter to play digital music into your brain implant.

If you think all this is far-fetched, check out Lynn Marentette’s post on User Interface Engineering; she writes about ambient kitchens to help cooks with memory loss, digital jewelry to help track people with Alzheimer’s Disease. 

This new world is already here.


Early Adoption of Technology

by Gary Woodill on March 6, 2007

I am an early adopter…when I met my wife 25 years ago, she had a VAX terminal in her apartment connected to the university’s computer by a acoustic modem that featured rubber cups placed over the phone. It was love at first sight! One of our first joint purchases was a “luggable” Kaypro computer with a TV monitor in a metal case that used the CPM operating system. Since then we have owned a Hyperion “portable” computer, a Radio Shack Model 100 (an early laptop with 32K RAM), a TI-99/4A desktop, a Coleco ADAM, an IBM-PC Junior, a Commodore 64, an Atari ST, an early Macintosh, and a host of MS-DOS and Windows based computers. In the late 1970s I was designing educational programming for Canada’s Telidon Videotext system, and have been in the business of educational computing ever since.

So in the spirit of early adoption, last week I had a Medtronics GEM II implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) placed into a “pocket” just below the left side of my collarbone. It’s actually a three in one device — it limits how fast or slow my heart can beat, it corrects irregular rhythms and it will give me a fierce electric shock if I go into cardiac arrest (aka “defibrillation”). I asked for the model that had an MP3 player and a GPS receiver, but they said that these were still drawing board.

The main problem with this device is that occasionally it will give you an electric shock to restart your heart even though you’re not having a heart attack. The sensation was described by various medical personnel as similar to “getting kicked in the chest by a horse”. And while the devices are getting much better, the rate of false positives is quite high – between 3% and 5%. The good news is that I am unlikely to die in the next 20 years of sudden heart attack.

That is the risk of early adoption. You hope for a major benefit but often have to put up with a significant amount of crap. Recently, for example, I was a flight from Vancouver to Toronto on Air Canada. There were new video screens installed in the back of each seat so that each passenger had a personal media center. However, the service manager warned us not to touch the screen too fast or too many times or the computer that controls each personal video screen would freeze your system. Then they would have to come to your seat and reset everything. This process could take up to 10 minutes. My thought was, “what kind of dumb ass would have ordered such a system?” Then I realized the answer…an early adopter.