‘Cyborg Cows’ In Utah Are Paving The Way For Human Tech Implants

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Utah State University has three “cyborg cows” that are doing important science work for the future wellbeing of fellow cows and, going further, possibly humans as well.

The “cyborg cows” live on the dairy farm managed by the university’s School of Veterinary Medicine and look just like plain regular cows (if you were picturing Terminator cows, sorry to disappoint you) but for a small technological enhancement. The three cows are wearing implantable Fitbits called EmbediVet, a new type of bio-sensor that tracks their chewing frequency, temperature, and overall whereabouts, reports MIT Technology Review.

The EmbediVet sensors are developed by an Australia-based start-up company called Livestock Labs. This subcutaneous Fitbit, no bigger than a coin as its widest side, measures the cows’ temperature, oxygen level, heart rate, and basic activity, with a focus on chewing and rumination.

The EmbediVet device runs on a coin-cell battery that has an expected lifespan of three years and includes an ARM processor, a Bluetooth connection, long-range radios, as well as a thermometer, an accelerometer, a heart-rate monitor, and a pulse oximeter, notes MIT Technology Review.

The bio-sensors were implanted on April 3 by Kerry Rood, an associate professor at the school, who fitted the three cows with two EmbediVet sensors in the left side of the lower jaw and one between two ribs.

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The idea behind the project is to alert farmers of any changes in the health and pregnancy state of their livestock, which can be difficult to monitor in farms with thousands of animals.

“As a veterinarian, if there’s some way I can detect animal diseases, animal discomfort, earlier, then I’m ahead of the ballgame when it comes to providing care and welfare to these animals,” Rood said in a statement.

These implantable bio-sensors are considered to be more accurate than wearable devices, such as collars and anklets, because they can better monitor metrics like body temperature — which correlates with a disease in thick-skinned animals, states the news outlet.

The tech start-up plans on eventually feeding the EmbediVet data into a smartphone app, which farmers could use to check out their animals’ status and see alerts about issues.

For now, Livestock Labs CEO Tim Cannon is focused on making sure the “cyborg cows” are doing well and that they tolerate the implants without problem — which seems to be the case a month after the “upgrade.”

Commenting on the status of the EmbediVet project, Cannon jokingly told MIT Technology Review that the implants have sparked a bit of an unintended consequence.

“They are developing a slight urge to destroy humanity, but we’re monitoring it.”

The striking thing about EmbediVet is that Cannon didn’t originally build it for livestock, but for people. The earlier version of the implant, called Circadia, was a much larger device destined for human use. Developed by Cannon’s biohacking company, Grindhouse Wetware, the bio-sensor collected health data, limited in Circadia’s case to temperature and pulse information, which was transmitted through Bluetooth.

“When we did this, we were actually trying to throw down a glove to the medical industry, to technological fields, to say, ‘Look, if a bunch of idiots in a basement can do this while smoking joints and listening to Wu Tang, what the f*** is the problem?'” Cannon said.

Grindhouse Wetware later developed another type of tech implant destined for people, called Northstar (imaged below). This device, launched in 2015, was created “purely for aesthetic purposes,” noted the company. Northstar has gesture recognition, detects magnetic north, and has LEDs that light up beneath the skin when activated by a magnet.

The Northstar tech implant developed by Grindhouse Wetware.
The Northstar tech implant developed by Grindhouse Wetware.Featured image credit: Ryan O'SheaWikimedia Commons/Resized

However, not many people were as enthused about tuning themselves up with tech implants as Cannon was, who had the Circadia device surgically implanted in his arm in 2013.

As it turned out, the idea of technologically enhancing the human body isn’t very popular outside the biohacking community and seems to be “just a little bit too much for people,” Cannon said.

The biohacker had trouble selling the devices because most people aren’t really keen on having things implanted in their bodies just for the fun of it, especially if these implants are not medically necessary.

The brilliant idea to change markets and switch the implant to animal use came from a fellow Australian biohacker named Meow-Ludo Disco Gama Meow-Meow (yes, he’s for real), who pointed Cannon in the right direction. This led to a partnership with Cicada Innovations, a tech incubator based in Sydney, and to the creation of Livestock Lab and, subsequently, of EmbediVet.

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“We stumbled onto something that was a lot bigger and more in demand than we thought, in this particular sector of the world,” Cannon said.

Aside from the ongoing project with Utah State University, Livestock Labs is set to conduct research trials with two other universities in Australia, Charles Sturt University and the University of New England. Cannon estimates that EmbediVet will be available in a public beta test next March.

Naturally, he hopes that the success of the subcutaneous Fitbit will help change people’ s minds about implantable technology. His goal is to work on a new bio-sensor tailored for human use.