The Internet of Bodies: where employees and data collide
You’ve heard of the Internet of Things, but did you know about the Internet of Bodies? As the boundaries between technology and the human body continue to blur, are we are witnessing a new era where the human body becomes the technological platform?
With the turn of the millennium, the concept of the Internet of Things (IoT) began to become popular, a network in which objects in the physical world are connected to the Internet through ubiquitous sensors. Today, constant technological advances are increasingly blurring the boundaries between the human body and algorithms, ushering in a new era: the Internet of Bodies (IoB). Thus, the human body is becoming a new technological platform.
The IoB consists of an ecosystem of sensors connected to the Internet that collect biometric data that can alter the function of the body. They include instruments for medical use, lifestyle and fitness monitoring, and other consumer devices integrated or connected to the body that are implemented in a variety of settings: healthcare, business, educational and recreational.
‘Biometric data could encourage people to become active participants in their own wellbeing…’
With the increasing adoption of these devices, the massive amounts of biometric data that are collected and stored in the Cloud could help improve not only preventive health care, but also increase employee productivity and encourage people to become active participants in their own wellbeing.
However, the IoB poses great challenges for managing the privacy and security of this highly sensitive information because vulnerabilities and cyber-attack risks to these devices exist and are very real. So much so that, in 2013, former US Vice President Dick Cheney replaced his defibrillator with wi-fi connection for one without such functionality. It was feared that he could be attacked with an electric shock if someone hacked into the device.
But what consequences will all this have on the world of work?
Integrating biometric data with information from building sensors can help create a healthier and more comfortable workspace. It will be a unique opportunity to improve the health and wellbeing of employees and, at the same time, increase the productivity of the company.
Sensors for all tastes
Although there is no universally accepted definition of what an IoB device is, it can be defined as an instrument that collects biometric or health data generated by people, that is capable of connecting to the Internet through mobile networks, wi-fi, Bluetooth, etc., and that can alter the function of the human body.
These components often require a direct connection to some part of the body: they are worn, swallowed, implanted, attached, or embedded in the body, either temporarily or permanently. According to their location, they can be classified as follows:
External: These are portable devices that can monitor physiological parameters such as heart rate, ventilation, sleep patterns, among others. They are the fastest growing category thanks to the use of fitness bracelets and smart watches. Some studies estimate that, in terms of penetration and mass adoption, wearables can be compared to the revolution caused by smartphones some time ago.
But neurotechnology also provides more sophisticated devices—from caps and vests to wrist bands and glasses—that can measure fatigue levels and the alertness of users, a feature especially useful in airline pilots and drivers of transport vehicles to improve travel safety.
Internal: These are generally medical devices that include pacemakers, cochlear implants, artificial pancreas, and digital pills that are ingested to monitor or control certain aspects of health.
Fusion: This is a technology that is still in the experimental stage that integrates computing with the human body through brain implants to increase the cognitive abilities of healthy people with the help of computers.
What the data tells us in the office
Advances in internet technology and connectivity will allow IoT and IoB networks to become increasingly integrated. However, the main challenge will be to make the data meaningful. What does all the information that is collected tell us? Are we stressed out? Do we have any cardiovascular diseases? Are we hungry or thirsty? Are the environmental conditions not comfortable enough?
Some scientific studies relate certain biometric data – heart rate, perspiration, humidity and temperature of the skin, gaze direction, brain waves – with the difficulty of the task, stress, and its impact on cognitive functions. Therefore, once the condition of the person has been identified through the analysis of the information collected, it could be inferred if the worker is concentrating on an intense task, relaxed, stressed, or frustrated.
Then, the smart systems of the office connected to the IoB devices of the occupants could implement changes in the environmental conditions in real time to improve their condition or urge them to engage in a behaviour that is more productive for their wellbeing, such as getting up to take a walk, rehydrating, or resting for a few minutes.
The sensors could be included in the furniture or work tools (desk, keyboard, seats, etc.) to record the physiological changes occurring throughout the day. For example, knowledge workers could benefit from a mouse that uses biosensors to detect stress through the pressure exerted on it and informs the user of the need to take a break.
‘Biometric sensors are mostly associated with wellness programs for employees…’
Biometric sensors can be used in several ways in the office, but they are mostly associated with wellness programs for employees. The discretion of these devices allows the ubiquitous recording of data on the physical condition of people and, as they are in direct contact with the body, they provide a more realistic picture of the condition of the employees than the classic self-reported indicators.
Need to take precautions
Despite the benefits that IoB can bring to the world of work, certain precautions must be taken. Some studies have shown that constant monitoring of biometric activity can increase users’ anxiety and worsen conditions such as insomnia, anxiety, or stress. In addition, employees could perceive this technology as intrusive, causing an effect contrary to what it is intended to achieve. Data privacy and security will also need to be rigorously addressed to avoid potential contingencies.
However, it may only be a matter of time until IoB becomes a part of the everyday office scene and becomes indistinguishable from it. It will allow us to correlate the environmental conditions with our physiological and psychological needs in real time and we will hardly notice it.
 World Economic Forum (2020): ‘Shaping the Future of the Internet of Bodies: New challenges of technology governance‘.
 Lee, M. et al. (2020): ‘The Internet of Bodies: opportunities, risks and governance‘. Rand Corporation.
 Ordonez, J. L. (2016): ‘Dispositivos y tecnologías wearables‘.
 Matwyshyn, A. M. (2019): ‘The Internet of Bodies‘. Wm. & Mary L. Rev. 77.
 Haworth (2016): ‘Enabling the Organic Workspace: Emerging Technologies that Focus on People, Not Just Space‘.
 Maltseva K. (2020): ‘Wearables in the workplace: The brave new world of employee engagement‘. Business Horizons.