Complex Made Simple

Microchipping the human body: How far has this tech come, and what are the risks?

Microchipping is still very much isolated to its niche, but in a few years, could become a widespread phenomenon. What risks await?

RFID chips are being implanted in the hands of some willing employees and individuals At the forefront of the microchip implant movement are two firms: Uk's BioTeq and Sweden's Biohax The ethical risks are countless, but the answers to them are still quite limited

When one thinks microchips, it’s difficult for the mind to not conjure up images of the great sci-films and literature of the 1980s. After all, we essentially become cyborgs when embed such technology into our bodies, odd as it may sound. 

So, how close are we to seeing widespread implementation of human microchipping, and who has started experimenting with it? 

How do these chips work?

Image: BioTeqWhen it comes to the potential of what microchips could do, the sky is the limit – as well as our own technological advancement. Naturally, we can’t browse the internet with our minds or download books onto our brains just yet, but what we can do are small, basic things. 

Currently, some of the most well-known implementations of human microchipping come courtesy of two biotech firms: UK’s BioTeq and Sweden’s Biohax

The chips these companies implant into people are quite basic – they are the size of a large grain of rice. Essentially, they are RFID chips that are inserted into the flesh between the thumb and forefinger. They don’t contain complex computers or batteries – they’re powered only when an RFID reader pings them, requesting data, the MIT Technology Review explains in a feature on microchipping. 

The microchipping habit found its roots in Sweden, where thousands of tech-savvy Swedes have opted to take the leap in the pursuit of greater convenience and tech novelty.

Image: AFP TV

Incidentally, the closest thing to these chips we are familiar with are the trackers we implant into our pets. The same applies to the abilities they provide. 

Three Square Market (TSM), a US tech firm, touted handy features of the RFID chips it implanted into its volunteering employees (numbered in the 80s back in 2018). The chip allowed them to access the company building, make purchases from vending machines, and even unlock their PCs. All it took for their chip to be useful was for there to be an RFID reader on the other end of an interaction. 

“It’s just become such a part of my routine,” Steve Kassekert, vice president of finance at TSM, told the MIT Technology Review. 

The chips also contain medical records, could in the future contain other personal information. 

The microchip players

Jowan Österlund from Biohax holds a microchip implant the size of a grain of rice between his thumb and forefinger. Image: James Brooks/AP 

Three Square Market did not develop the chip it has implanted into its employees alone, but instead opted to partner with the aforementioned Sweden-based biotech firm Biohax to bring their vision to reality. 

Other companies interested in chipping their employees are also resorting to specialized biotech firms such as BioTeq and Biohax. 

Biohax told the Telegraph it was in talks with a number of UK legal and financial firms to implant staff with the devices.

”These companies have sensitive documents they are dealing with,” said Jowan Österlund, the founder of Biohax and a former professional body piercer. “[The chips] would allow them to set restrictions for whoever.”

The other chip firm, BioTeq, which is based in the UK, has already fitted 150 implants locally as of November 2018, as per a report by The Guardian. According to a statement by BioTeq’s founder and owner in a conversation with the British newspaper, most of its 150 implants have been for individuals, while some financial and engineering firms have also had the chips implanted in their staff.

BioTeq explained that it has also implanted them in employees of a bank testing the technology, and has shipped them to Spain, France, Germany, Japan and China. 

Back in 2018, BioTeq’s chips costed between $87 and $323 per person to implant. Biohax’s chips costed $186. 

New chips could help patients Image: NeuralinkToday, chip tech is evolving. 

TSM revealed in August of 2018 that it was working on a more advanced version of the chip currently inside its employees, one that would be equipped with GPS technology and voice recognition capabilities. It would be powered by body heat. 

“It’s not only GPS, it’s not only voice activation, it’s working on monitoring your vital signs. And there are different medical institutions that obviously want that,” Patrick McMullan, president of Three Square Market and chip technology business Three Square Chip, told CNBC. “It’s going to tell my … doctor’s office I have an issue.”

Beta testing of this chip was expected to commence in early 2019. 

An Elon Musk startup, Neuralink, has also made their own foray into human implants, with a twist. The capabilities his company is seeking to bring are groundbreaking. As Tech Crunch explains, Neuralink, which has raised $158 million so far, utilizes ultra thin threads that would be implanted into the brain, allowing for the interface between the human brain and computers and external chips wirelessly, with ultra fast data transfer speeds. A sensor chip is embedded under the skin, which communicates with the embedded “threads.”

For example, it would allow an amputee to control a prosthetic, as they would their own arm. Fellow implanted people could potentially even engage in a sort of “consensual telepathy”

Neuralink hopes to have its first human patient implanted with their tech before the end of 2020. The tech is still pretty far away from mass-realization, but the potential it holds is great.

Like microchips, however, the risks could be even greater.

The ethical implications of microchipping people
Naturally, microchipping humans opens up surveillance and privacy debates of ethics and responsibility, which are likely to invoke Orwellian paranoia – and they have. 

The Trades Union Congress (TUC), which represents trade unions in England and Wales, told the Guardian it is worried that staff could be coerced into being microchipped. Its general secretary Frances O’Grady told the British newspaper: “We know workers are already concerned that some employers are using tech to control and micromanage, whittling away their staff’s right to privacy.”

He continued: “Microchipping would give bosses even more power and control over their workers. There are obvious risks involved, and employers must not brush them aside, or pressure staff into being chipped.”

Besides employer surveillance concerns, it must be noted that RFIDs can be easily read by strangers, where a passerby on a subway for example can ping a person’s chip to read what data is on it, using an RFID reader. When we begin to add more personal information to these embedded chips, such as social security numbers and other IDs, more and more personal data could be prone to being copied by hackers. 

As a whole, microchipping has not seen mass adoption yet. Given the times we live in, where US tech firms like Facebook and Google are under the microscope of lawmakers, general opinion of these chips is not likely to be in their favor. 

In the future, though, the question becomes when rather than if. While still rudimentary at this stage, these chips could offer highly important features in coming decades that could enhance team communication, intelligence, and more. When it comes time to send in those CVs, candidates with chips implanted in their bodies are likely to have the edge, which would then drive a trend of the mass populace seeking implants to stay competitive in the job market. 

It’s a slippery slope with an inevitable point of no return. That, however, is an eventuality of innovation – a natural progression in human evolution. 

The more pressing, immediate concern is the one TUC highlighted, where employers mandate and enforce that their current (and prospective) employees get implanted. 

Some effort has been taken to combat such concerns. In 2007, California announced a law that forbids its citizens from being forced to get RFID implants. The GDPR could also get involved as these chips begin to hold more personal data. 

Just as lawmakers found it difficult to keep up with Facebook and Google’s rapid advancements, which brought us to the privacy mess we currently find ourselves in, microchipping and the ethical boundaries and issues that surround it are also new ground for regulators.  

Microchip implant firms could be in Zuckerberg’s seat in a few decades 

Another, more obvious concern with this tech is the implications to health. Does an update to hardware or software mean you will need to get your implant removed, then replaced with a newer one? How often would this need to happen? What about the concerns regarding the immune system and the existence of a foreign body inside our flesh? 

One scientist cited by Tech Crunch wondered about the longevity of Neuralink’s ‘threads’ when exposed to the brain, which contains a salt mix fluid that can damage and ultimately degrade plastics over time.

The questions are endless, but the answers are still numbered. 

All in all, microchips and overall human augmentations such as Neuralink’s threads pose great ethical and health concerns, which at the moment still outnumber the benefits and pose questions we as a society are not equipped – or ready – to answer.