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I Got Chipped: A Dispatch From The Frontier Of Wearable Tech

It’s possible that in the not-too-distant future, we’ll all be walking around with implants no bigger than a grain of rice under our skin, transmitting everything from payment capabilities to health data. The question is: Will it ever feel normal?

I Got Chipped: A Dispatch From The Frontier Of Wearable Tech
[Photo: Flickr user Abhi]

The best technology is intuitive, and almost invisible. For years, futurists have predicted that, before we know it, every surface within reach will be a computing surface, and the doctor will be able to follow you home with thumbnail-sized measuring devices inserted into your body.

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We’re not yet at the Black Mirror stage of things, where implants relay vitals to an iPad-like device (or even let you see through another person’s eyes), but it seems like only a matter of time. If that sounds crazy, call me crazy for being willing to test a beta.

Video: The Day I Got Microchipped

I have an RFID, or radio frequency ID, microchip implanted in my hand. Now with a wave, I can unlock doors, fire off texts, login to my computer, and even make credit card payments.

There are others like me: The majority of employees at the Wisconsin tech company Three Square Market (or 32M) have RFID implants, too. Last summer, with the help of Andy “Gonzo” Whitehead, a local body piercer with 17 years of experience, the company hosted a “chipping party” for employees who’d volunteered to test the technology in the workplace.

“We first presented the concept of being chipped to the employees, thinking we might get a few people interested,” CEO Todd Westby, who has implants in both hands, told me. “Literally out of the box, we had 40 people out of close to 90 that were here that said, within 10 minutes, ‘I would like to be chipped.'”

Westby’s left hand can get him into the office, make phone calls, and stores his living will and drivers license information, while the chip in his right hand is using for testing new applications. (The CEO’s entire family is chipped, too.) Other employees said they have bitcoin wallets and photos stored on their devices.

The legendary Gonzo Whitehead was waiting for me when I arrived at Three Square Market HQ, located in quiet River Falls, 40 minutes east of Minneapolis. The minutes leading up to the big moment were a bit nervy, after seeing the size of the needle (it’s huge), but the experience was easier than I could have imagined. The RFID chip is the size of a grain of basmati rice, but the pain wasn’t so bad–comparable to a bee sting, and maybe less so. I experienced a bit of bruising afterward (no bleeding), and today the last remaining mark of trauma is a tiny, fading scar between my thumb and index finger. Unless you were looking for it, the chip resting under my skin is invisible.

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Truth is, the applications for RFID implants are pretty cool. But right now, they’re also limited. Without a near-field communication (NFC) writer/reader, which powers on a “passive” RFID chip to write and read information to the device’s memory, an implant isn’t of much use. But that’s mostly a hardware issue. As NFC technology becomes available, which is increasingly everywhere thanks to Samsung Pay and Apple Pay and new contactless “tap-and-go” credit cards, the possibilities become limitless.

A single RFID chip could feasibly let you board the subway without having to pull your phone out of your pocket or fumble with a paper pass, and, if loaded with information about allergies and blood type, could save EMTs some time and save your life in the case of a serious accident.

It’s also easy to imagine using that same implant to start your self-driving car, shop for groceries without having to stand in a checkout line ever again, or breeze through airport security on your next vacation–U.S. passports already feature encrypted chips, which store their owner’s name, age, nationality, and photo. The functionality for consumers will depend on which partners sign on to build up the technology, and President Patrick McMullen says Three Square Market is in contact with “some very prominent companies,” representing a range of sectors.

From a health perspective, the RFID implants are biologically safe–not so different from birth control implants. FDA-sanctioned for use in humans since 2004, the chips neither trigger metal detectors nor disrupt MRIs, and their glass casings hold up to pressure testing, whether that’s being dropped from a rooftop or being run over by a pickup truck.

The privacy side of things is a bit more complicated, but the undeniable reality is that privacy isn’t as prized as we’d like to think. It’s already a regular concession to convenience.  

“Your information’s for sale every day,” McMullen says. “Thirty-four billion avenues exist for your information to travel down every single day, whether you’re checking Facebook, checking out at the supermarket, driving your car . . . your information’s everywhere.

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“When it comes to RFID, this takes your security and your password from something that is simple as your email, maybe your birth date or something, to a 256-bit encrypted password.”

As technology evolves and becomes more sophisticated, the methods to break it also evolve and get more sophisticated, says D.C.-based privacy expert Michelle De Mooy.  Even so, McMullen believes that our personal information is safer in our hand than in our wallets. He says the smartphone you touch 2,500 times a day does 100 times more reporting of data than does an RFID implant, plus the chip can save you from pickpockets and avoid credit card skimmers altogether.

As with anything, the most justifiable and pervasive fears about implanted RFID chips center on the unknown: What could they be used for tomorrow? Word from CEO Todd Westby is that parents in Wisconsin have been asking whether (and when) they can have their children implanted with GPS-enabled devices (which, incidentally, is the subject of the “Arkangel” episode in the new season of Black Mirror). But that, of course, raises ethical questions: What if a kid refused to be chipped? What if they never knew?

What if your financial assets, DNA, voting record, and more were linked to your chip–not by choice but by law? What if these chips, and the blockchain, become the “ultimate tool of corporate and authoritarian control.”

It’s been three months since I got chipped, and though I don’t use on a daily basis (yet), it is funny to think about how fast my views on the technology changed. In planning the trip to Wisconsin for Fast Company, I was adamant I wouldn’t leave the great Midwest with an implant. By lunchtime, I was revisiting that position and by around 4 p.m. I’d decided to live with it for a while.

Next stop, dystopia? I guess we’re about to find out.

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About the author

John Converse Townsend covers smart solutions to social problems, as a writer and social media producer for Fast Company. He likes: black coffee, Paul Pogba, and long runs.

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