Smart Pill

This brick is concerned with “Intelligent pills” (also known as “smart pills” or “robot pills” or “electronic pills”).

These are a combination of a drug and a device, which can be described as “an oral tablet that incorporates some type of medical device, such as a microchip, that, for example, controls the release of the active pharmaceutical ingredient after ingestion” (Avery and Liu, 2011).

Creators writing

This educational unit contains:

  • A teaching plan to get students  involved in a debate with a journalist
  • The computing learning objectives is to learn how to read documentation of IoT devices and evaluate whether there is coherency between natural language descriptions, formal technical specifications and the hardware.
  • The ethical learning objectives are:
    • To consider who is responsible for the privacy of the device-generated data
    • To understand the implications of the device being faulty/buggy
    • To learn how to protect devices against attacks.
  • The transverse learning objectives are to develop communication skills and learn how to interact with the media.

The pre-requisites are foundational knowledge of software engineering and networked/distributed system architectures. This implementation of the educational brick is aimed at 3rd/4th year engineering students who have chosen to specialise in information system management and development. As such, they participate in a module concerned with the architecture of complex systems, and apply their learning to developing a prototype system with a real industrial client, as part of a significant team project. In recent years, many of the team projects have incorporated technologies from the Internet-of-Things (IoT). Furthermore, the system requirements have become more and more demanding with respect to data protection and privacy (related to the GDPR in Europe). Finally, the students are becoming increasingly aware of the problem of such systems malfunctioning and the impact on the users when they fail because of internal bugs or because of unexpected attacks from the exterior.

  • Suitable for teaching in Computer Science, Software Engineering, and Other courses
  • Domain: Health Care
  • Disciplines:  Electronics, Journalism, Biology

Suggested teaching and assessment approaches

The delivery mechanism/teaching approach is based upon students being involved in a debate with a journalist concerning whether the technical and ethical issues have been well-addressed in the general media. This will involve role-playing, following the advice from Diana Adela Martin et al. (2019) . The evaluation is indirect – the students are evaluated through their project work, and one of the criteria is whether they have adequately considered the ethical issues.

  • Step 1 – introductory reading (3 hours outside class) – the students are introduced to published research on general digital ethics (Stahl, B.C., Timmermans J., and Mittelstadt, B.D., 2016), ethics in IOT (AboBakr, A. and Azer, M., 2017), ethics in IOT health (Cerf, V., 2020) and, finally, smart pills (Avery, M. and Liu, D., 2011) ).
  • Step 2.1 – class discussion (1.5 hours – small class room) – facts v opinions, legal v moral v ethical. The students are asked to use what they have learned from reading and discussing the published articles to analyse a report in the general media: Gut feeling: the swallowable gut sensor that could replace a colonoscopy. By Buffy Gorrilla, January 2017, The Sydney Morning Herald.(Web archive).
  • Step 2.2 – search for new material (1.5 hours – small class room) – how to search/filter/categorise
  • Step 3 – analysis (and comparison) of device specifications, manufacturer claims, media commentary (3 hours outside class) – provide the material only if the students fail to find it themselves
  • Step 4.1 – class discussion (1 hour – small class room) – identify the different roles in the provided case study and their ethical responsibilities
  • Step 4.2 – preparation for media panel role-playing (2 hours – small class room) – students decide on the structure and composition of panel debate
  • Step 5 – preparation for media panel role-playing (3 hours outside class)
  • Step 6.1 – media panel debate (1 hour – multi-media laboratory with video-conference and recording facilities) – with the assitance of a journalist who is specialist in digital ethics and/or smart-pills, there will be a panel discussion where students play various role (as identified earlier) and answer various questions (as identified during the preparation). The audio will be recorded for further analysis.
  • Step 6.2 – panel debate review, evaluation and concluding discussion (2 hours – small class room) – Did the brick meet the learning objectives (technical and ethical)? The evaluation at this step is purely formative.


Further reading

Further reading


Ethical issues (general)

Ethical issues (privacy)

Ethical issues (safety and security)

Computing issues (IoT)

Problem Domain (Health)

Code of Ethics
Teaching Guidelines
Other resources


Electronic pills can improve our health but create ethical and legal challenges – Rajamanickam Antonimuthu, Jan 2020

First digital pill approved by FDA – CBC News, Nov 2017

Bioethicists warn of first FDA approved digital pill – Al Jazeera, Nov 2017

Digital drugs will Transform Healthcare – Andrew Thompson, Health, WIRED, May 2014

Evaluate your Teaching

Don’t forget to evaluate your teaching! Did the students meet the learning objectives? You can ask the class to fill a questionnaire to collect both quantitative and qualitative data. The idea is that you can always improve your lectures and the resources based on the students’ feedback.

Let us know how we did

Do you think the resources can be ameliorated? Let us know how we can do better via email or leave a comment!

Smart Pills

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