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Dawn of the bionic age: Body hackers let chips get under their skin


LAS VEGAS — If you’re prone to forgetting your card key for the office or your computer password, here’s a solution: Get a microchip implanted in your hand.

That’s what Brian McEvoy has done multiple times. He’s got five implants, mostly for functional reasons but one just for fun.

“There’s a glow-in-the-dark implant on the back of my right hand,” said McEvoy, a 36-year-old electrical engineer from St. Paul, Minn.

For years, owners have implanted microchips in their pets to recover them if they go astray. Farmers use them in cattle. Now, humans are experimenting with subdermal microchips, which are the size of a large grain of rice, to make modern life easier.

Ever so slowly, a trend that began in the hacker community is moving toward the mainstream. A Wisconsin firm that specializes in designing company break rooms, Three Square Market, announced last month that it was offering implanted chips to all its employees.

The chips will allow employees to “make purchases in the company’s break room market, open doors, login to computers, use copy machines, among other things,” it said in a statement.

Many hackers gathered here for a recent global hacker conference, DefCon 2017, view implants as a way to interact seamlessly with a technological world and to enhance human senses. They await the day when microchips give humans the ability for echolocation, and to see infrared and ultraviolet light, enhance the capacity to smell, sense direction, even feel vibrations that reveal movement in the stock market.

It is a sharp departure from the use of implants, like pacemakers and insulin pumps, to restore function lost through impairment or ill health.

Tim Cannon, a software engineer who cofounded a company that sells implantable chips, Grindhouse Wetware, said some critics believe tinkering with the body’s capabilities is improper, even unethical.

“It tends to be viewed as something like hubris,” Cannon said.

But he doesn’t care. The coming years will be “about breaking through that barrier and saying it’s OK to want to be more than what biology offered you,” he said.

Dozens of hackers lined up on a recent night at the DefCon conference to have microchips installed in the fleshy web between thumb and index finger of their hands.

The biohackers call themselves “grinders,” a term taken from a comic book by Warren Ellis. The technology they implant is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Most opted for a small radio frequency identification (RFID) or a Near Field Communication (NFC) chip suitable for subdermal use.

“This is my train ticket,” said an Australian hacker who goes by the name Meow-Ludo Meow-Meow, pointing to a spot on his hand where a chip containing a rechargeable rail token was implanted. He said he just swipes his hand, rather than a ticket, over a rail sensor.

Implantable chips will soon carry out the functions of credit cards and keys, he said.

“It can emulate every card in your wallet, so you can chuck your wallet away,” he said.

Some consumers fear that an implanted microchip will allow greater government surveillance, and only advances that “are spectacular can overcome that queasiness,” he said.

“If Johnny Depp puts one of these in his hand, they’ll be everywhere,” he added.

The public is certainly not there yet. A 2016 survey by the Pew Research Center found that seven in 10 Americans were “somewhat” or “very” worried about implanting a computer chip in the brain to improve concentration and the processing of information. The more religious the respondent, the less likely they were to favor such an implant, it found.

Cannon said the melding of technology and physiology can improve human experience.

“We need to stop pretending that we are perfect and the pinnacle of evolution,” he said.

Implanting a chip can cause discomfort.

“There will be some blood, some pain,” said Doug Copeland, who works with one of the handful of companies that offer implants, Dangerous Things, based in Seattle, as he implanted a chip in a client’s hand.

“A lot of people frown on this kind of thing but it’s really not anything much different than getting a body piercing or a tattoo,” said a California man, giving his name only as Keith.

Others asked if the implanted chips could allow government surveillance (they contain no GPS, so no), or cause problems if a patient undergoes an MRI test in a hospital (maybe not advisable).

Copeland said he’d been through airport checkpoints numerous times and never been flagged: “Unless you show it to them, they don’t know it’s there. And if you show it to them, they say, ‘What the hell?’”

Some high-profile proponents of implants include Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla cars and SpaceX, who said last year that humans must reach greater symbiosis with computers in order to stay relevant in a world of artificial intelligence.

But the trend toward implants carries risks, warned Walter Glannon, a Yale-trained bioethicist who teaches at the University of Calgary, Canada. Studies have not yet determined “whether implants are safe,” he said. Even if safe, a social minefield may lay ahead.

“They would raise ethical questions about fairness and unequal access to devices that could give some people a competitive advantage over others. Unlike the drugs used for cognitive enhancement, implants would not be so accessible over the internet and would not be cheap. Many people would not be able to afford them,” Glannon said.

“This could be an unfair advantage.”

The threat that microchips could be hacked, possibly monkeying with people’s cognition or perception, is also a latent threat, he added.

For now, though, experimenters like McEvoy see no harm in what they do. The shielded tiny tube with a phosphorescent layer that he had implanted on the back of his hand is just for fun. It works like the dial of a watch that glows in the dark.

“There is no battery or switch so it is continuously bright. It’s possible to see in a dark room and I have shown it to people while at bonfire parties,” McEvoy said.

Manufacturers say implantable chips with greater memory and more “out of the box” functionality — such as starting a car, or measuring body functions such as blood sugar and oxygen levels — may be in the offing soon.

Eventually, said Meow-Meow, an implant could save lives.

“It can call an ambulance for you before you have a heart attack,” he said.



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