Are implantables ever going to take off in the enterprise beyond healthcare? Will we ever use them at work? Are workplace implantables a future reality?
Implantables are sometimes mentioned as a category of wearable technology, but is a future in which technology becomes more integrated with our biology, in which we voluntarily have technology embedded beneath our skin at work, possible?
Technological advancements have led to the miniaturization of both monitoring devices and power sources, but so far implantables have only really been discussed in terms of medical applications. Devices like pacemakers, insulin pumps, etc. are well-known; and doctors are exploring new Internet-connected implantables capable of capturing vital health data from patients and in some cases administering (drug) treatment. Outside of healthcare, what function might a tiny connected device in the human body serve for workers?
Chip implants have survived years of science fiction but they’re not brand new. The first implantable RFID chips for humans were patented in the late 90s. Today, there are only a handful of use cases of implantables in the workplace, specifically microchip implants for access control, payment, and security. There are isolated cases of tech enthusiasts and self-professed biohackers who have adopted chip implants for convenience or just to embrace new tech; and several businesses – mainly in Europe – are interested in the technology and have even begun implementing microchip implants to replace traditional ID cards and badges in the office. It is estimated that between 3,000 and 10,000 people in the world are currently chipped, but there is no record yet.
So, what exactly are microchip implants? Implantable microchips are mainly passive, read-only, non-GPS-tracking devices with a small amount of stored information that can be accessed by an appropriate reader. They communicate with reader devices over a magnetic field using either RFID (radio frequency identification) or NFC (near-field communication), a branch of high-frequency RFID. RFID is the same technology used to track pets and packages; and you probably already carry it in your pocket—most mobile phones today and many credit cards are equipped with the technology, and U.S. passports have been embedded with RFID chips to deter fraud and improve security since 2007. A simple microchip implant might store an ID code that’s processed by a reader to permit or deny access to a secured area.
Much of the fear surrounding human chip implants arises from misinformation, pop culture, and paranoia. The biological risks are no worse than those of body piercings and tattoos. In addition, the chips are compatible with MRI machines, undetectable by airport metal detectors, and not difficult to remove. People have been augmenting their bodies since ancient times and wearing pacemakers for decades now. It’s not a huge leap from having this technology on our bodies via phones and contactless cards to putting it under our skin to allow us to move around cities and offices with greater convenience.
Security and privacy concerns are natural. You hear the words “microchip implant” and visions of a dystopian future in which all of our movements are traced and bodies can be hacked to steal personal data immediately come to mind. While the privacy and ethical issues will likely grow as microchips become more sophisticated, today’s smartphones send far more information about you to Google, Apple, and Facebook than RFID implants can. Your internet browser history is a greater threat to your privacy, I assure you.
That’s not to say RFID chip technology is 100% secure. At least one researcher has shown that microchip implants are vulnerable to malware. Security concerns include eavesdropping, disabling and unauthorized tag modification, not to mention employee rights and religious concerns. Would employers abuse the tech? Theoretically, they could. Though the chips don’t store much information or have their own battery or power source (they remain inactive unless within the field of a reader device), it would be possible to use the data to learn about a person’s behavior. Depending on what the implants are used for, employers could see how often you show up to work, the number of bathroom breaks you take, the length of your lunch break, what you buy, etc. Most employers are already able to monitor such habits with company-provided smartphones and swipe cards. On the upside, it’s not possible to lose a microchip implant like you might another form of ID; but on the downside, you can’t claim that the data generated by the chip didn’t come from you.
How might microchip implants be used in enterprise and who is using them today?
In 2016-2017, a number of human microchip experiments and pilot (pet) projects received media coverage. DARPA, the research arm of the US Defense Department, said it was working on implanting chips in soldiers’ brains to enhance battle readiness, boost performance, and heal trauma. (Yes, that does sound very freaky and sci-fi.) There were also press reports suggesting Mexico’s Attorney General used RFID chips to enhance security but few details are known. The most traction has been in Europe, where even a chain of Swedish gyms has embraced the technology as an alternative membership card.
Epicenter, a digital startup workspace in Stockholm, began making NFC chip implants by Swedish tech firm Biohax available to employees in 2015. Of around 2,000 workers at the hub, 150 have been voluntarily chipped (as of last April). This is how it works: When activated by a reader, a small amount of information flows via electromagnetic waves between the implant and the reader. The main benefit is convenience: In addition to unlocking doors, the chips allow workers to share digital business cards with Android users, buy vending machine snacks, and operate printers with a wave of the hand. Outside the company, the implants can be used at any business with NFC readers.
The Swedish rail operator SJ simply made digital train tickets available to its loyalty program members who were already microchipped either through their employer or by their own choice. Instead of paper tickets and travel cards, conductors would scan passengers’ biometric chip implants, saving a few seconds. SJ expected about 200 people (of 2,000 reportedly chipped Swedes) to use the new, more efficient and sustainable service by connecting their membership number to the microchip.
The first American company to try Biohax’s grain-sized NFC chips was Three Square Market. At a “chip party” hosted by the Wisconsin company, over 50 employees out of 85 volunteered to be implanted. 32M runs vending kiosks in over 2,000 break rooms and other locations around the world. Ultimately, the company sees the technology as a future payment and identification option in its markets; and it could enable self-service at convenience stores and fitness centers. For now, 32M is testing microchips as a perk for employees—a multipurpose key, ID and credit card allowing them to open doors, buy snacks, log into devices, use office equipment, and store health information.
The appeal of implantable RFID and NFC implants comes down to convenience and minimal risk of loss. While the most popular application seems to be replacing physical keys, access cards and passwords for easy entry and increased security, other uses include identification and payment. Chips can also be programmed to suit a business’ unique needs. Unlock your smartphone, start your car, arrive at your office building and enter the parking garage, pay for your morning coffee, log into the computer at your desk, use the copy machine, share your business card with a potential partner or customer, store your certifications and qualifications, access a high-security area, turn on a forklift, even store emergency health information—all seamlessly, without friction, by having one tiny device implanted between your thumb and index finger. Would you volunteer for that level of convenience, for an easier and more secure way of opening doors and logging into devices?
Are microchip implants the future, another node in the connected workplace that happens to be beneath the skin? Biohax says it has supplied chips to dozens of companies and over 1,000 professionals in finance, healthcare, government, science and technology around the world. Most chip users today are involved in the tech industry, but the number of people experimenting with the technology is growing. (You can buy a self-inject RFID chip kit online from Dangerous Things. Warning: It’s not government-approved.) Then there’s Anthony Antonellis, an artist who implanted an RFID chip in his hand to store and transfer artworks to his smartphone; and Autodesk, who is experimenting with embedded sensors to turn human skin into a smartphone display. Grindhouse Wetware, a Pittsburgh-based biohacking startup, is pursuing powered implants—”subdermal devices in the body for nonmedical purposes” like a temperature monitor that can control a Bluetooth thermostat. Contacts allowing you to take a photo with a blink of the eye could be next.
In a recent survey, 31% of UK employees said they would quit if asked to wear a chip, so it’s fair to say that RFID microchipping of employees is still really far out. For enterprises who do want to experiment or ultimately adopt, here are some suggested precautions:
- Make it optional: Implants should not be a part of any human resources policy or employment contract. It should be a choice, with the option to remove the chip and destroy its data history at any time.
- Make sure it really feels optional: Assure there is no pressure to adopt and those who decline a chip implant don’t experience any disadvantage. Offer the same functionality perhaps in a wearable wristband option as 32M has done.
- Make sure none of the information stored or collected is more than could be found in a smartphone.
- Focus on controlled environments: Ex. An employee cafeteria. This makes everyday transactions in the workplace easier while reducing the chip’s usefulness to a hacker
- Use a second security factor: Ex. Combine a cryptographic proof with a biometric option like a fingerprint or retinal scan. Add another layer of security with a Personal Identification Number (PIN) or facial recognition.
- If the technology ever becomes standard or even required in enterprise, there need to be appropriate exemptions for religious, moral and other beliefs, individual health issues, etc.
- Keep data protection laws in mind. Consider any information that might be collected or inferred from the data such as access info, patterns of use, etc.
Microchip implants remain a cool experiment on both sides of the Atlantic. There is no overwhelming need or demand for the technology in the workplace right now or for any other type of implantable device; but that doesn’t mean implantable technology won’t become socially accepted or shake up a few industries in the future.
The 5th Annual Enterprise Wearable Technology Summit 2018, the leading event for enterprise wearables, will take place October 9-10, 2018 at The Fairmont in Austin, TX. EWTS is where enterprises go to innovate with the latest in wearable tech, including heads-up displays, AR/VR/MR, body- and wrist-worn devices, and even exoskeletons. For details, early confirmed speakers and preliminary agenda, please stay tuned to the conference website.
Augmented World Expo (AWE,) the world’s largest conference and expo dedicated to Augmented and Virtual Reality, is taking place May 30-June 1, 2018 in Santa Clara, CA. Now in its 9th year, AWE USA is the destination for CXOs, designers, developers, creative agencies, futurists, analysts, investors and top press to learn, inspire, partner and experience first-hand the most exciting industry of our times.
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