Bionic Ears and Microphone Fingernails – Oh My!

Everywhere you go, you can find scientists and engineers doing 3-D printing. They may be using it to print bridges over water, or buildings and houses, or even hearts and livers and skull parts. In fact, we’re hearing so much about 3-D printers creating the normal and ordinary stuff all over again, that it’s becoming pretty boring.

This, of course, is how technology makes progress: slowly, and with iterative changes being added all the time. We’re currently using 3-D printers just to create all the old stuff, which we’re used to. The makers and creators are mainly interested today in demonstrating the capabilities of the printers, and put less emphasis on actually innovating and creating items that have never existed before, and of course, the clients and customers don’t want anything too extraordinary as well. That’s the reason we’re 3-D printing a prosthetic ear which looks just like a normal ear, instead of printing a Vulcan ear.

What happens if we let go of the ordinary and customary, and begin rethinking and reimagining the items and organs we currently have? That’s just what Manu S. Mannoor, Michael C. McAlpine and their groups did in Princeton and Johns Hopkins Universities. They made use of a 3-D printer to create a cartilage tissue the shape of a human hear, along with a conductive polymer with infused silver nano-particles. The end result? A bionic ear that should look and feel just like an ordinary ear, but has increased radio frequency reception. It is not far-fetched to say that Mannoor and McAlpine have printed the first biological ear that could also double as a radio receiver.

Mannoor, McAlpine and team's 3D-printed bionic ear, with enhanced radio reception capabilities. Originally from paper "3D Printed Bionic Ears"
Mannoor, McAlpine and team’s 3D-printed bionic ear, with enhanced radio reception capabilities.
Originally from paper “3D Printed Bionic Ears

Where else may we see such a combination between the biological and the synthetic? This is a fascinating thought experiment, that could help us generate a few forecasts about the future. If I had to guess, I would venture a few combinations for the next twenty years –

  • Radio-conductive bones: have you come for a hip replacement, and also happen to have a pacemaker or some other implant? The researchers will supply you with a hip-bone printed specifically for you, which will also contain conductive elements that will aid radio waves go deeper into the body, so that the implants can receive energy more easily from the outside by radio waves or induction of some kind.
  • Drug delivering tattoos: this item is not 3-D printed, but it’s still an intriguing combination of a few different concepts. Tattoos are essentially the result of an injection of nano- and micro-particles under the skin. Why not use specific particles for added purposes? You can create beautiful tattoos of dragons and princesses and butterflies that can also deliver medicine and insulin to the bloodstream, or even deliver adrenaline when pressed or when experiencing a certain electrical field that makes the particles release their load. Now here’s a tattoo that army generals are going to wish their soldiers had!
  • Exquisite fingernails: the most modern 3-D printers come with a camera and A.I. built-in, so that they can print straight on existing items that the user places in the printer. Why don’t we make a 3-D printer that can print directly on fingernails with certain kinds of materials? The fingernails of the future – which will be printed anew every day – might contain tiny batteries that will power smartphones by touch, or microphones that could record everything that happens around the user.
3D printed fingernails by TheLaserGirls. Offered for sale on Shapeways.
3D printed fingernails by TheLaserGirls. Offered for sale on Shapeways.

These are obviously just three rudimentary ideas, but they serve to show what we could gain by leaving behind the idea that new manufacturing technologies should adhere to the “old and proven”, and advance ahead to novel utilities.

In the end, the future is never just “same old same old”, but is all about shedding off the customs of the past and creating new ones. And so, if I had to guess, I would wager that such a unification of concepts into new and bizarre devices would give us a much more accurate view of the future than the one we gain in the present by showing how 3-D printers can build yet another house and another human organ.

What are your ideas for future combinations of biological and synthetic components? Write them down in the comments section!

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Tattoos, replacement limbs and body modifications – oh my!

Maggie had never worn shorts around her parents. She had a secret she never wanted them to find out about: under her clothes, her body is covered in secret tattoos. The tattoos range in size and shape, from a tiny cross-shaped drawing on her hip, to a large one covering her entire side, depicting a colorful heart with the words MOM and DAD etched above it.

Many people would view Maggie’s body and skin as beautiful, but her parents are conservative Christian folks. Maggie believes they consider tattooed people as people “…who probably dabble in drugs”. Nonetheless, when she decided to reveal her painted body to her parents, she found out to her great surprise that they accepted her, and that they had no problem with her tattoos.

When Norms Change

As Maggie’s story demonstrates, the public acceptance of tattoos in America has undergone a sharp change over the past fifteen years. In 1936, Life magazine assessed that only 6% of Americans had a tattoo. Today, the total percentage of American individuals who have at least one tattoo has more than doubled itself to 14%, and of all American adults aged 26 – 40, a whopping 40% are tattooed. That’s basically almost half of all the population at that age category.

Why are tattoos gaining in popularity all of a sudden? Nobody really knows. Some academics, like Anne Velliquette, believe that people use tattoos to adhere to a certain aspect of themselves that exists in the moment. In a recent article in The Atlantic, Vellinquette describes our current society as chaotic and fragmented, leading people to look for anchors to feelings and states of mind that will never go away.

Whether the explanation is right or wrong, the acceptance of tattoos in society demonstrates how quickly the horrors of the previous generation can become the norms of the present one. So here’s an interesting and entertaining question for us to consider: what body modifications that we view with horror today, will our children consider to be absolutely normal, and possibly even necessary for the expression of the self?

The list of possible body modifications can be quite large. It includes tattoos, ear stretching, horn implants, changing iris color, changing the color of your skin, and even implanting magnets under your skin, and hanging electric appliances on them. If you feel sure that one of these (or another which I haven’t mentioned) is going to become widespread in the future, feel free to say so in the comment section. In the meantime, I’d like to highlight just one category of body modification that has never been applied to a healthy human body so far – but may become a reality within the next few decades.

Replacement Limbs

You walk into a body modification parlor. All around you are samples of the art that you can graft onto your body: from colorful tattoos, to small horns to be implanted on the forehead. After spending a long time staring at the possibilities in front of you, you finally select one.

“I’ll take this robotic hand.” You tell the modification artist. He explains to you, slowly and carefully, that to graft the hand onto your arm he would have to remove your biological, original hand, fingers and all. You just shrug. The biological hand you currently possess has way too many tattoos on it anyway, of past memories you’d rather forget.

This scenario is obviously quite detached from the present, in which every kind of surgical intrusion into the body is considered taboo without a good medical reason. However, the taboo is there for a very specific reason: to protect people from undergoing medical procedures that could expose them to infections. According to the CDC, even if you’re being treated in the most sterilized surgery rooms in the world there’s still a chance of somewhere between 1.9% and 3% for infection.

Let us assume that medicine is about to experience exponential development in the next few decades – an assumption that is very hard to dispute, but which is a topic for another blog post. Such exponential development would result in a society in which infections are a thing of the past, body parts are being grown in vats or printed fully, and robotic prostheses can be implanted onto the body and complement it just as well as our biological limbs do.

There are hints that this future is starting to become true. The most sophisticated prostheses currently are probably made and programmed by Hugh Herr – a professor in the MIT Media Lab, who is also a double amputee by himself. He has designed his own bionic legs and feet, and changes them as though they were fashion items, in order to become taller, shorter or more fitting for mountain hiking. His bionic legs are sophisticated enough that people can actually use them to dance, as though they were real limbs.


Prostheses that are also forms of art start making their way into the public awareness. Models with bionic arms walk the runways at top fashion events, and they no longer bother using a look-alike prosthesis. Instead, they opt for prostheses that – like tattoos – have a deeper meaning. The Alternative Limb Project actually produces prostheses that look intentionally bizarre and extraordinary. And while such prostheses must be extremely expensive, the Makers Movement is starting to 3-D print fully functional prostheses for a few hundred dollars. Some of those ‘house-made’ prostheses will doubtless be drab and grey; others will be as individual as can be, and will come in the shape of robot arms, animal arms, arms with drawings (tattoos?) on them, and many other variations.

An alternative prosthetic arm, that includes snakes going through it. According to the wearer, Jo-Jo Cranfield, “My alternative limb is so different to any other prosthetic limb I have ever had. I wear it with pride. I’ve never seen a two armed person with snakes crawling into their skin, and even if I did I don’t think it would be so comfy! My alternative arm makes me feel powerful, different and sexy!” Credits: the arm was created by Sophie de Oliveira Barata and fitted at Queen Mary’s Hospital The make-up artist for the picture was Gemma Fee, and the photograph was taken by Rosemary Williams. The picture (and many others like it) can be found at the Alternative Limb Project site.

Considering the need for prostheses in society, and the advances in technology, it is clear that we are going to see many more amputees going around with robotic or static limbs that will better reflect their character, occupations and needs. Will we ever reach a state when healthy people actually ask to remove their limbs and replace them with alternative ones? That will take some time, but ultimately I cannot see a good reason against such a social development.

The Impassible Barrier?

At this point you may be asking yourselves: where do we stop? Are there kinds of bodily modifications that society will shun forever? The fact of the matter is that “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, and the beholder is part of a larger social construct than herself. Tribal societies throughout the world have come to the conclusion that stretched ears are beautiful, or that scrotal implants (be careful: after I Googled that one up, I got some really weird ads in my browser) look sexy. Western society seems to be going with tattoos right now, and with unnecessary enlargement of women’s mammary glands by way of breast implant. So yeah, we are definitely up for altering and modifying the human body. The only question is how, and when.

Considering all of the above, who is to say that stretched ears, or alternative prostheses, won’t become part of our future? Bodily modification has been part of all societies so far, and it is only expanding. The current generation will always be disgusted, repulsed and visibly shaken by novel changes to the human body. And the next generation? They’ll consider those changes perfectly normal.

One thing for certain: the future of the human body is going to be much more colorful, vibrant and heterogeneous than it is today.

Quite honestly, I cannot wait for the future to come.