Cows Are Testing the Fitbits of the Future

Our bovine brethren may make an implantable health monitor for humans a reality. Olha Rohulya/Shutterstock

Somewhere in Utah, a cow does its usual cow things. It grazes. It sits down for a spell. It rubs up against a tree. And as it does so, an implant roughly as wide as a quarter collects all kinds of data.

At least two more cows have this implant, called EmbediVet. All three are sending back signals about their body temperatures and overall lifestyle, plus how much and how often they're chewing. This data is training an artificial intelligence network to help farmers assess the state of the cows' health. So instead of checking individual cows, of which there can be thousands, farmers know exactly which cow needs their attention and why.

And if this device works well in cows, the company's CEO thinks humans should try it it next. In fact, he already has.

Why cyborg cows might make sense

Developed by Livestock Labs, a tech start-up based in Australia, the Embedivet implant isn't much bigger than a quarter at its widest point. The implant contains a processor, Bluetooth and long-range radios, thermometer, accelerometer, heart-rate monitor and pulse oximeter. Its battery should last for about three years, giving Livestock Labs a wealth of information.

EmbediVet isn't the first AI-engineered health tracker for cows, though it is the first that functions as an implant. Perhaps the most prominent of the non-implants is Connecterra's Ida, "the intelligent dairy farmer's assistant," which uses Google open-source learning library, TensorFlow. That device is a collar that collects all kinds of information that can help predict health problems. An app turns the data into actionable information, which farmers can access on their smartphones. (You can learn more about Ida in the video below from a dairy farm in the Netherlands.)

Kerry Rood, an associate professor at Utah State University's School of Veterinary Medicine, agreed to make three of the university's cows cyborgs in April because he thinks devices like Embedivet could be more accurate than the non-implant approach.

"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 told MIT Technology Review.

Implanting Embedivet was relatively easy. With local anesthesia and a small cut, the devices are implanted in the cows in assigned spots. Since we don't know the best places to stick these kinds of implants in cows, Embedivet devices were stitched into multiple spots around the cow: two in its lower left jaw and another between two ribs.

While the device sounds promising, Ryan Reuter, an associate professor of animal science at Oklahoma State University, cautions that plenty of work still needs to be done, especially in determining where the devices are implanted in animals intended to be sold as meat.

"That would be important in food animals, so you make sure that you put the implant somewhere that it has no chance of ending up in a food product for humans," Reuter told Technology Review.

In addition to Utah State, cows associated with Charles Sturt University and the University of New England in Australia were also turned into cyborgs, along with cows on undisclosed commercial farms.

Livestock Labs CEO Tim Cannon hops the devices can go into a public beta next spring.

"We stumbled onto something that was a lot bigger and more in demand than we thought, in this particular sector of the world," Cannon told Technology Review.

Tracking health and enhancing humans

Cannon's phrasing of "this particular sector of the world" isn't just a way to indicate how keen farmers and ranchers are about AI as they face labor crunches and increasingly slimmer profit margins; it's a way to express that EmbediVet's original target organisms: humans.

Cannon is a prominent biohacker, or grinder. Think of grinders as DIYers, but instead of making their own laundry detergent or upcycling dead tree branches, they enhance their bodies with technology. It's often something as basic as putting magnets in your fingers or radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips to more advanced devices, like ones that mimic bioluminescence or track your health, like EmbediVet.

Members of Grindhouse Wetware display the prototypes of the comapny's Northstar implants
Tim Cannon's company Grindhouse Wetware developed implants called Northstar. The device has gesture recognition, detects magnetic north and has LEDs beneath the skin. RyanOShea00/Wikimedia Commons

In fact, EmbediVet was originally a much larger device called Circadia, and it was developed by Cannon and his biohacking company, Grindhouse Wetware, over the course of a year and about $2,000 of development, according to Technology Review. Cannon had the device implanted in himself in 2013. Like EmediVet, Circadia collects and transmits health data over a Bluetooth connection. That original implant only collected temperature and pulse information.

"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 told Technology Review.

But no one outside the grinder community was particularly interested in the device, and Grindhouse Wetware had trouble selling Circadia. Another prominent biohacker known as Meow-Ludo Disco Gamma Meow-Meow suggested that Cannon and his team apply for a program focused on technology in the agricultural field, and that Circadia could be used to monitor cows instead of humans.

Cannon is now focused on making sure EmbediVet works well in the cows and that it doesn't hurt them. He also hopes that by making such implants common in cows, humans may may have a change of heart and accept such devices in their own bodies. Livestock Labs may eventually sell a line of human devices, but Cannon told Technology Review that it may "just a little bit too much for people."