“I don’t need that sort of upgrade pressure with something that requires anaesthetic and a scalpel to dispose of.”
The following appeared as one half of a debate on whether or not inserting microchips into our bodies is a good idea. I said it wasn’t. Kevin Warwick, professor of cybernetics and TED speaker, said it was. But who are you going to believe?
I want to love the idea of having a body full of gadgetry – I really do. Why should I have to put up with the inconvenience of physically flicking my own light switches or unlocking my own front door in 2015? Why wouldn’t I want to live in the hyper-convenient age of the implanted wireless microchip?
Well, mainly because I already live in the quite convenient age of the non-implanted wireless microchip. That question is one I need implant advocates and early adopters like Professor Mark Gasson to answer before I let them near me with a needle: what exactly would a consumer RFID tag buried under my skin do that my phone couldn’t, besides earn me geek cred?
My smartphone is already effectively a wireless hip implant, and apps for unlocking my house, making contactless payments and other RFID applications already exist. The only thing a smartphone-a-like implant adds (for now) is risk.
The privacy concern is the most obvious: I already give huge amounts of personal data over to my network provider, but at least with my phone I can unplug if I want to – I can switch off my handset and sling it in a drawer. Which I couldn’t do as easily if the tech was buried somewhere in my arm.
The second, more future-gazing, concern with any kind of human enhancement technology is obsolescence. Think of it like this: remember your last-but-one mobile phone upgrade, and how enviable/life-changing it was? The same phone that’s now sitting abandoned in a box full of old chargers, dead batteries and cheap bundled earbuds? Well, now imagine if upgrading from that handset to your current one involved surgery. I already covet my friends’ spangly new smartphones – I don’t need that sort of upgrade pressure with something that requires anaesthetic and a scalpel to dispose of.
Finally, there’s the security question. About a year ago, I spoke with Avi Rubin, a digital security expert, John Hopkins University computer science professor and author of this TED talk. We were discussing the Hollywood and TV portrayal of hackers – the pasty, disaffected villains and anti-heroes who only have to tap out a few lines of code and suddenly Jack Bauer is being chased by a Predator drone or Bruce Willis is being blown up in a gasworks.
Ridiculous, obviously – but only up to a point. In Rubin’s line of work, there are far too many examples of wireless devices that are nominally hack-proof that turn out to be, well, not hack-proof. Why does this matter for a chip that opens the door to your office? It probably doesn’t. Where it absolutely does matter is in the context of, for example, digital health devices – implants that might be used to monitor patients’ medical conditions or provide regular doses of medication from a built-in drug reservoir.
Rubin gives the chilling example in his talk of a team of researchers who found thatthey could reliably disable modern pacemakers from a laptop. That sort of potential vulnerability might be worth the risk in the treatment of a life-threatening medical condition, but should give us real pause before we start injecting ourselves with unnecessary consumer devices that might be open to outside tampering.
So long as these implanted “upgrades” only link my hand to an Oyster Card reader, they’re probably nothing to worry about. But in considering any form of human “enhancement” – today and in the future – we should be cognisant not just of what we are gaining, but also of what we might be giving up.