Over the past few decades, microchip implant technology has moved from science fiction to reality; today hundreds of thousands of people around the world have chips or electronic transmitters inside them. Most are for medical reasons, like cochlear implants to help the deaf hear. More recently, body-modification enthusiasts and technophiles have been installing microchips in their bodies that do everything from start a car to send a text message to make a payment in bitcoin.
The market for nonmedical implant technology is virtually unregulated, despite the fact that thousands of people around the world got chipped in the past 12 months. That may be about to change: Over the past few years, calls to heavily regulate or even ban voluntary implants have grown increasingly loud. There뭩 a place for regulating implants, like any technology ?but also a need to separate the fear from the reality.
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I was excited to get my implant in 2015 at a biohacker gathering called Grindfest in Tehachapi, Calif. ?specifically, in a garage in a dentist뭩 chair, surrounded by vintage medical posters. These implants ?often called radio-frequency ID or near-field-communication tags, depending on the technology involved ?are about the size of a grain of rice and are installed in people in seconds via an oversize syringe. They each have a unique identification number and cost as little as $50. Most people get them injected in the tissue between their thumb and index finger.
Microchipping is still a fun part of a semi-underground culture, but interest is growing in more serious quarters. In 2016, the Navy asked me to consult on a study led by James P. Wisecup, a retired vice admiral and the director of the Chief of Naval Operations Strategic Studies Group. One of the concerns they had was how civilian implants in sailors could affect the workings of a nuclear submarine.
More recently, implanting made national news when a Wisconsin technology company called Three Square Market announced it was having a chipping party for its employees. Workers were offered implants that allowed them to be tracked at work, replacing timecards. Workers could also use the implants to operate copy machines and buy food from the company뭩 vending machines.