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Global Briefing Innovation

Can Chips Improve your Health?


It has been predicted for a few years now that human microchipping is set to take off in big way. So far, getting humans to adopt microchip implants has been a hard sell, but some now believe that medical and health monitoring features will be what takes the technology mainstream. After all, body implants are not a new development. Foreign objects have long been implanted into the body for medical reasons, pacemakers for example.

Microchip implants are cylindrical bar codes that transmit a unique signal through skin when scanned. They can turn people into walking contactless smart cards, and by registering with devices, can be used to trigger various functions. Thousands of ‘biohackers’ have already implanted microchips, usually for convenience features, essentially turning their hands into contact-less credit cards, key cards, or even railcards.

The microchips contain radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology, the same type that is used to microchip pets. Many of us carry around this technology with us all day in our wallets. Most recent mobile phones are equipped with RFID, as are contactless cards, many urban travel cards, and e-passports. But all of these things can be lost or stolen. An implanted RFID chip is very difficult to lose or steal.

“The idea of companies’ microchipping workers for example evokes dystopic visions of an authoritarian Big Brother controlling staff.”

Importantly, an implanted RFID chip can be used to rapidly gain access to a person’s medical history, including information that might be vital in emergencies, especially when a patient is unconscious. The technology could be very useful for those suffering from diabetes, cardiovascular disease or Alzheimer’s disease. The chip itself doesn’t contain the medical history but rather a unique code that can be used to access information from a database.

Swedish business Dsruptive approaches microchipping as a branch of the wearable health tracking industry. According to Dsruptive, by placing a chip under the skin instead of wearing it in the form of a fitness band or smart watch, data collection is vastly improved. Swiping it with a smart phone then allows the user to see blood oxygenation levels and heart rate and breathing patterns. For those who want to optimise their health, this could be a game changer.

Or course, the trend has prompted alarm over whether wireless implants could be used to place surveillance on people by tracking their movements. The idea of companies’ microchipping workers for example evokes dystopic visions of an authoritarian Big Brother controlling staff. Britain’s biggest employer organisations and trade unions have already expressed alarm over the prospect of companies implanting staff with microchips.

In 2017, Wisconsin-based tech company Three Square Market became one of the first firms in the world to microchip staff in order to replace their company security and identity cards. Some 50 workers agreed to the procedure, allowing them to check into work, log onto computers, open secure doors and buy company food and drink using RDIF technology. Three Square Market specialises in vending machines, and the chip implants were mean to showcase the company’s vision of a cashless payment system for their vending machines.

Patrick McMullan, CEO of Three Square, has since met with cardiologists to develop RFID implants that can continually monitor an individual’s vital signs, enabling both patients and doctors to access extremely accurate real-time information. Before the company starts selling chips capable of tracking vital signs, McMullan hopes that people will consider storing their medical information on encrypted RFID chips. The group is also working on a way to make GPS-enabled chips available as an option for families to track relatives suffering from severe dementia.

The idea of human GPS tracking bring us back to the Big Brother question, and this is where new legal frameworks are essential. In early 2019, Skip Daly, a member of the Nevada state assembly, introduced a bill to make involuntary microchipping illegal in the state. Some other US states are drafting legislation concerning implants. But there are no reported cases concerning the use of implanted microchips in employees, so the legal system remains unchallenged in this regard. Watch this space.

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