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Cool or creepy? Human-implanted microchips are here

Posted July 31, 2017

Beginning this month, employees at a Wisconsin technology company called Three Square Market will have the option of having a microchip implanted under the skin in their hands, between their thumbs and forefingers.

With the implants, functions that can be controlled by radio frequency – such as unlocking doors, buying snacks in the company cafeteria or logging onto company computers – can be handled with the simple wave of a hand where the chip is inserted.

Pretty cool technology for some. Kind of terrifying for others.

Rosalyn Berne, an associate professor of science, technology and society at the University of Virginia, expects strong reactions on both ends of the spectrum. And Berne, a bioethicist who explores the intersecting realms of emerging technologies, science, fiction and myth, said there is plenty of fodder for both camps on this one.

UVA Today caught up with Berne, who teaches in the Department of Engineering and Society in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, to explore some of the ethical and technical issues brought to the fore by the emergence of implantable technology.

Q. What was your reaction to the news of a company offering these implants, which it claims are safe, not trackable and use encrypted data? 

A. I was not at all surprised; in fact, it was just a matter of time. Implanted devices have been used in farm animals for a while, and RFID chips with GPS capacity are commonly implanted in personal pets for tracking purposes. Although not implanted, it has been standard protocol for a nearly a decade for many hospitals to equip newborn babies with an RFID chip attached to a bracelet on their ankles. Last year, the government of Scotland moved toward legislating that babies there have microchips actually embedded under their skin shortly after birth, to remain implanted until adulthood.

As for the near-field communication, or NFC, technology that Three Square Market will be implanting, how many would agree to do so without such reassurances – that the implants will be safe, unable to be tracked and used with encrypted data? The question is how, once such the implants become widely accepted and used, such devices will evolve in their capacity and application.

Once established as the norm, and used with a sense of ease for the benefits and conveniences an implant provides, then technological “improvements” and “updates” will be likely. Iterative changes may be welcomed, and bring little resistance from their user. Technological history bears that out.

Q. News of this kind tends to polarize people. Why is that?

A. With novelty to the body, there comes ambiguity, fear, excitement. A knee replacement, for example, is one thing; it replaces a human body part that was already there at birth. An NFC device is another – embedding as an augmentation, in order to establish communication between the body (now acting as an electronic device) and another electronic device external to that body. This is not a replacement, but an enhancement, bringing novel capacities to the individual. It is thrilling, exciting for many, but horrifying for others.

Source: University of Virginia

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