Humans TV show to the tracking microchip implanted in James Bond in the latest Spectre movie, cyborgs and robots have always been a fictional concept. Until now.
An estimated 10,000 people worldwide now have a chip implanted in their body – the size of a grain of rice – which they have adapted for a number of tasks such as entering a building, taking a call and even starting a car with the flick of a finger or wave of the hand.
And it would appear Britain is ahead of the curve; home to the first person to ever have a chip installed and the youngest. In 1998, UK academic Kevin Warwick was the first person to have a microchip installed, putting an NFID chip into his body, while in June of this year 15 year-old Somerset teenager Byron Wake implanted a microchip into his hand to control his smartphone and speakers remotely.
Real-life cyborgs such as Warwick and Wake – ‘biohackers’ as they’ve become known – are leading a revolution in tech and changing the way we think about robots.
While implanted chips can be used for everyday tasks, people are investigating a range of potential applications. Some plucky techies have installed Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chips into their hand to be used much like an Oyster card while others are looking into ways of having their passport ID on a chip, and ways that the chip could be used to monitor blood sugar levels and temperature; the latter would certainly be a useful tool for the emergency services.
In Stockholm, employees at co-work space Epicenter already use implanted RFID chips to access and exit the building and it’s thought that other countries will soon offer the same technology. Earlier this year, NBC predicted that by 2017 all American citizens would be tagged with microchips as a form of identification.
Chips aren’t the only technology biohackers and ‘real-life cyborgs’ are having installed. Neil Harbisson has had an antenna surgically implanted into his skull. Born colour-blind, Harbisson uses the antenna to pick up light waves and convert them into sound – effectively enabling him to “hear” colours.
Will cyborgism seem less sinister and emerge as a technology modern society starts to accept in 2016? We think it might, but it could well come at a cost…
How it works
The microchips being installed by biohackers either use near field communication (NFC) or RFID which emits a low power radio-frequency signature to communicate with a smartphone, for example. It can be programmed to do everything from unlocking doors and starting cars to operating a computer. Encapsulated in silicon, these chips have no moving parts, don’t contain a battery and are simply made up of a small coil of wire and a series of memory chips.
The installation of microchips is currently unregulated and the endless opportunities for the use of chips raises some serious questions and concerns. Just how far could this technology go? What if your chip was hacked? Could the chip be used for other means?
At the moment chips only have as much data storage as an empty word document but there will likely be problems when processing power gets bigger. For instance if you were to have your passport and medical records on your chip, you would need to start thinking about encryption.
Hate crimes and discrimination are also a worry, particularly when you take into account the vitriol levelled at cyborgs and biohackers on the web. In 2012, ‘real-life cyborg’ Steve Mann reported an incident where two McDonalds employees forcibly tried to remove a Google Glass-like eyepiece that was surgically attached to his head. This was cited as the first attack against a cyborg and there will likely be more to come.
Fox Reymann, a senior developer at Everlution, recently had a chip installed by Byron Wake (you can view the video of him having it installed here). Speaking exclusively to Startups, Reymann commented:
“My first thought was why not [have it installed]. It was cool. I was at a hackathon, it was 11pm on a Friday night and I didn’t have anything better to do.
“[My chip] works with Android phones, you can simply swipe your hand over the phone to add a contact or I can swipe it to phone a friend. Why wouldn’t you have one? It’s cool, it’s the future. It’s exciting to think about the possibilities. People have things injected into their breasts and bums so why not a chip that is actually useful.
In 10 years time, Reymann says he “is sure” biohackers will become the norm as the technology evolves and “grows faster and faster”. “It’s really useful tech. There’s a lot of money in it. A lot. I imagine that people will have it for health reasons – to monitor blood pressure, heart rate and so on.”
So does he see himself as a cyborg or a biohacker? “I guess I’m part of the movement but I didn’t intend to be. I just think it’s really cool.”