Last week, a teenagr from Somerset inserted a smart microchip into his own hand. Fifteen-year-old Byron Wake ordered the NXT chip and insertion kit from the States, injected it under his skin and, once the procedure was done, paired the chip to his phone, allowing him to authorise actions – like turning on Bluetooth speakers – by simply touching his hand to the handset.
That might sound sort of cool, but the thing is, you're not exactly saving yourself a huge amount of time by doing that, are you? It takes something like three clicks to get a smart phone wirelessly paired to speakers, all without sterilising, anaesthetising and poking a hole in your arm. And what about the other risks? Champions of the chips say they could be used for all kinds of good in the future, but surely implanting a foreign electric device into your actual body comes with its own distinct set of risks?
To get a better grasp of the pros and cons, we asked two experts with opposing opinions to weigh in.
Richard Wordsworth is a freelance writer. He is also finishing an MA in Bioethics and Society at King's College London, where he is researching human enhancement and bioterrorism. Here, he argues why humans implanting microchips into themselves might be a bad idea.
I want to love the idea of having a body full of gadgetry – I really do. Why should I have to put up with the inconvenience of physically flicking my own light switches or unlocking my own front door in 2015? Why wouldn't I want to live in the hyper-convenient age of the implanted wireless microchip?
Well, mainly because I already live in the quite convenient age of the non-implanted wireless microchip. That question is one I need implant advocates and early adopters like Professor Mark Gasson to answer before I let them near me with a needle: what exactly would a consumer RFID tag buried under my skin do that my phone couldn't, besides earn me geek cred?
My smartphone is already effectively a wireless hip implant, and apps for unlocking my house, making contactless payments and other RFID applications already exist. The only thing a smartphone-a-like implant adds (for now) is risk.
The privacy concern is the most obvious: I already give huge amounts of personal data over to my network provider, but at least with my phone I can unplug if I want to – I can switch off my handset and sling it in a drawer. Which I couldn't do as easily if the tech was buried somewhere in my arm.
The second, more future-gazing, concern with any kind of human enhancement technology is obsolescence. Think of it like this: remember your last-but-one mobile phone upgrade, and how enviable/life-changing it was? The same phone that's now sitting abandoned in a box full of old chargers, dead batteries and cheap bundled earbuds? Well, now imagine if upgrading from that handset to your current one involved surgery. I already covet my friends' spangly new smartphones – I don't need that sort of upgrade pressure with something that requires anaesthetic and a scalpel to dispose of.
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Finally, there's the security question. About a year ago, I spoke with Avi Rubin, a digital security expert, John Hopkins University computer science professor and author of this TED talk. We were discussing the Hollywood and TV portrayal of hackers – the pasty, disaffected villains and anti-heroes who only have to tap out a few lines of code and suddenly Jack Bauer is being chased by a Predator drone or Bruce Willis is being blown up in a gasworks.
Ridiculous, obviously – but only up to a point. In Rubin's line of work, there are far too many examples of wireless devices that are nominally hack-proof that turn out to be, well, not hack-proof. Why does this matter for a chip that opens the door to your office? It probably doesn't. Where it absolutely does matter is in the context of, for example, digital health devices – implants that might be used to monitor patients' medical conditions or provide regular doses of medication from a built-in drug reservoir.
Rubin gives the chilling example in his talk of a team of researchers who found that they could reliably disable modern pacemakers from a laptop. That sort of potential vulnerability might be worth the risk in the treatment of a life-threatening medical condition, but should give us real pause before we start injecting ourselves with unnecessary consumer devices that might be open to outside tampering.
So long as these implanted "upgrades" only link my hand to an Oyster Card reader, they're probably nothing to worry about. But in considering any form of human "enhancement" – today and in the future – we should be cognisant not just of what we are gaining, but also of what we might be giving up.
Professor Kevin Warwick is Deputy Vice Chancellor at Coventry University. He was also the first human to have an NXT implant placed under his skin. Here, he argues why humans implanting microchips into their skin might be a positive thing.
Recently, a 15-year-old boy, Byron Wake, injected himself with an NXT implant, reportedly making him the youngest person ever to do so.
He might be the youngest, but he's not the first – in August of 1998, I became the first human to have an implant of this nature. Then, I was inquisitive – I wanted to know how well it would work and what might be possible; it was a research project. My implant then was 2.5cm and my local GP carried out the procedure. Now, the NXT is the size of a grain of rice, and it's very much a case of do-it-yourself.
Once inserted, my device switched on lights for me, opened doors and said "Hello" when I entered my building – each time, only because it recognised the code from my implant.
But a device of this type can do more than open doors and switch on lights. In the past, several members of the Mexican government have had implants that were employed as security devices, meaning only those with certain codes could gain access to particular facilities. More recently, office workers in a company in Stockholm were chipped so that they could operate photocopiers and coffee machines without the hassle of pressing buttons. Now that the technology is resilient, completely safe and very low cost, people are starting to investigate potential applications.
In the future, the most obvious pro of an implant is that it could be used as an extra means of identification – particularly in passports. If it meant that long passport queues could be by-passed, I believe many people would have such an implant as soon as possible.
Then there's the potential of this technology to help dementia patients. An implant could enable sufferers to operate a virtual fence, thereby giving them much more freedom to wander on their own. Conversely, the implants could be used to restrict movement, to act as a tag for prisoners either as a means to stop them leaving an establishment or rather to indicate when they try to enter somewhere off-limits. Meanwhile, another possibility is for military, police, fire or ambulance personnel to identify them as a security measure.
So how does it work? This type of device (also referred to as an "RFID", a Radio Frequency Identification Device) is encapsulated in a silicon housing, which makes it inert as far as the human body is concerned. It has no moving parts and does not contain a battery. All it is made up of is a small coil of wire and a series of memory chips, which are inactive until the coil is energised by a larger coil of wire carrying an electric current, operating just like a transformer. When the larger coil is linked to a computer it means that the computer can be programmed to do certain things only when a particular code – the code in the implant – is received.
At present, it's not so much a case of the technology needing to improve, but social acceptance. A good and "necessary" application of the device depends on society understanding it. Until then, it will most likely remain more of an investigative research tool for the likes of Byron and myself, rather than a mainstream requirement.
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