Skip to main content

Would you swap your keycard for a microchip implant? For many, the answer is yes

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Twenty years ago, in late 1998, a 44-year-old professor in the Cybernetics Department at the U.K.’s University of Reading underwent an unusual procedure. Kevin Warwick opted for an elective surgery in which a radio-frequency identification device (RFID) chip was implanted under the skin on his left arm. Using antennas dotted around his laboratory, Professor Warwick was able to control his surroundings with little more than a Jedi-like wave of his hand.

“At the main entrance [of my lab], a voice box operated by the computer said ‘Hello’ when I entered,” he later wrote of his experience. “The computer detected my progress through the building, opening the door to my lab for me as I approached it and switching on the lights. For the nine days the implant was in place, I performed seemingly magical acts simply by walking in a particular direction.”

“For the nine days the implant was in place, I performed seemingly magical acts simply by walking in a particular direction.”

The reception the procedure received in the press was, well, pretty much what you would expect. Journalists like nothing more than the chance to roll out punny headlines in response to an outré bit of craziness in the news cycle. While some outlets treated it seriously, there was certainly more than a little tongue-in-cheek coverage, such as the title of CNN’s article, “Is that a chip in your shoulder, or are you just happy to see me?

In a world in which most U.S. homes were just starting to wrap their head around the internet and smart homes were something out of The Jetsons, Warwick’s stunt seemed like a punchline to many, rather than a glimpse at tech-still-to-come.

The chip business

To paraphrase the apocryphal unfunny comedian, people sure aren’t laughing now. This month, it was reported in the U.K.’s Guardian and Telegraph newspapers that companies across the pond are implanting microchips, the size of grain of rice, into the hands of employees. These RFID chips can be used to allow employees access to restricted parts of company buildings or ways to login to computer systems, without the inconvenience of losable keycards.

“It would be true to say that the interest is enormous,” Dr. Stewart Southey, Chief Medical Officer for the Swedish company, Biohax International, told us. Biohax was founded five years ago by founder Jowan Österlund after a decade-and-a-half working in the piercing and body modification business. “We are approached many times each day by companies and individuals wanting to adopt our technology or partner with us,” Southey continued.

Biohacking - the next step in human evolution or a dead end? | Jowan Österlund | TEDxBratislava

He went on to describe the advantages of such microchips. For employees these include being able to enter buildings and secure areas without needing to remember to bring an access card, not having to remember usernames or passwords for multiple work system accounts, and even being able to purchase food in the canteen without requiring a wallet. For companies, it can mean shorter onboarding of new staff, improved access management, and no more having to reissue lost cards — which means less of a reliance on plastic. “We are working on increasing functionality all the time,” Southey said.

We have never heard of a company requesting or enforcing someone has a microchip fitted as a part of a job.

Steven Northam is the founder of BioTeq, a company which describes itself as the UK’s leading human technology implant specialists. BioTeq has already implanted its RFID chips in the hands of people working in parts of the UK’s financial and engineering sectors, and has also provided chips to other countries in Europe, along with Japan and China.

Northam stresses the enthusiastic growing market for RFID chips, but also points out (as did Southey) that his company leaves the choice of whether or not to use microchip implants up to the individual. “We have enquires daily now around human microchip implants, mainly from individuals working for companies who use RFID/NFC access systems who want to swap their ID badge for an implant,” he said. “We see less from companies looking to offer the service to employees, and have never heard of a company requesting or enforcing someone has a microchip fitted as a part of a job. The ethical considerations around that are huge.”

The ethical conundrum

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is these ethical considerations that will have many people worried. Our views on technology are frequently informed by our knowledge of the world before that particular technology came along. For example, we associate microchipping using RFID chips with animal ownership because this is where it is seen most routinely. When such things are applied to humans, it is therefore perhaps natural that we associate them with questions about power dynamics and dehumanization — although, as both companies point out, the technology is, at present, entirely optional.

Southey points out that the current chip provided by Biohax has no GPS capability involved, meaning that it cannot be used for tracking the exact geolocation of employees. Such a thing is possible by monitoring logins, but he notes that this already the case.

“Companies already ‘track’ employee’s timesheets, door access, and computer logins through current technology,” he said. “We are offering at least the same services currently available, but without the inconvenience of the smart card. In addition to that, we are working on applying blockchain technology so that privacy, data security and integrity and control are returned to the user. We plan to provide a self-sovereign identity solution with granular permissioning ability which protects users.”

One person who is more than happy to see RFID tags gain momentum? Professor Kevin Warwick, today a visiting professor at Coventry University in the UK, and author of the book I, Cyborg. “The discussions we’re having now about this — should we or shouldn’t we be doing it — are the discussions that I thought we would have 20 years ago,” he told us.

“One other big area of application I can see would be passport control at airports”

Warwick, who has gone on to explore bodyhacking technologies throughout his career, sees enormous potential in RFID chips. While business use cases are one, he thinks that such chips, were they to become mainstream, could prove extremely useful to users.

“One other big area of application I can see would be passport control at airports,” he continued. “There are always enormous queues and if an implant was used — not that you’d have to have it — you could get much faster access. The important thing to be aware of is that a chip like this can carry all sorts of information, not just an identification number. So there are enormous potential applications in the health sector, where it could be used to store medical records, such as details of the medication someone requires for epilepsy.”

The fact that stories such as this are still news perhaps means that the world at large still hasn’t caught up with Warwick’s 1990s vision. But it’s also clear that — for better or worse — we’re getting closer every day. Are you ready to start your new life as a cyborg?

Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
4 simple pieces of tech that helped me run my first marathon
Garmin Forerunner 955 Solar displaying pace information.

The fitness world is littered with opportunities to buy tech aimed at enhancing your physical performance. No matter your sport of choice or personal goals, there's a deep rabbit hole you can go down. It'll cost plenty of money, but the gains can be marginal -- and can honestly just be a distraction from what you should actually be focused on. Running is certainly susceptible to this.

A few months ago, I ran my first-ever marathon. It was an incredible accomplishment I had no idea I'd ever be able to reach, and it's now going to be the first of many I run in my lifetime. And despite my deep-rooted history in tech, and the endless opportunities for being baited into gearing myself up with every last product to help me get through the marathon, I went with a rather simple approach.

Read more
This bracelet helps you fall asleep faster and sleep longer

This content was produced in partnership with Apollo Neuroscience.
Have you been struggling to get the recommended seven hours of sleep? It's always frustrating when you get in bed at a reasonable time, then toss and turn for a hours before you actually sleep. The quality of that sleep is important too. If you're waking up multiple times during the night, you're likely not getting the quality REM cycle sleep that truly rejuvenates your body. If traditional remedies like herbal teas and noise machines just aren't helping, maybe it's time to try a modern solution. Enter the Apollo wearable.

Now we understand being a little skeptical. How can a bracelet on your wrist or ankle affect your sleep patterns? Certainly the answer to a better night's sleep can't be so simple. We considered these same things when we first heard of it. We'll dive deeper into the science behind the Apollo wearable, but suffice it to say that many people have experienced deeper, uninterrupted sleep while wearing one.
A non-conventional approach to better sleep

Read more
The 11 best Father’s Day deals that you can get for Sunday
Data from a workout showing on the screen of the Apple Watch Series 8.

Father's Day is fast approaching and there's still time to buy your beloved Dad a sweet new device to show him how much you love him. That's why we've rounded up the ten best Father's Day tech deals going on right now. There's something for most budgets here, including if you're able to spend a lot on your loved one. Read on while we take you through the highlights and remember to order fast so you don't miss out on the big day.
Samsung Galaxy Tab A8 -- $200, was $230

While it's the Plus version of the Samsung Galaxy Tab A8 that features in our look at the best tablets, the standard variety is still worth checking out. Saving your Dad the need to dig out their laptop or squint at a small phone screen, the Samsung Galaxy Tab A8 offers a large 10.5-inch LCD display and all the useful features you would expect. 128GB of storage means plenty of room for all your Dad's favorite apps as well as games too. A long-lasting battery and fast charging save him the need for a power source too often too.

Read more