News Stories

Carry Your I.D. Under Your Skin

Applied Digital Solutions of Palm Beach, Florida will be the first company to sell microchips that are designed to be implanted into human beings for medical monitoring and I.D. screening.

The idea of implantable chips has been denounced by those who fear they will be used by a totalitarian state. But the recent terrorism is changing people?s minds. ?The bottom line is, when people are trying to regain their peace of mind, they?re more open to new approaches,? says Keith Bolton, Applied Digital?s chief technology officer.

Applied Digital makes electronic chips that help farmers keep track of the health and safety of their livestock. The company also makes a monitoring bracelet for Alzheimer patients, so that families can use global positioning satellite systems to help find family members who wander off.

The company sees a market for the chips among people who have artificial organs and chronic diseases. There can be up to 60 words of medical information implanted on the chips. If the patients are brought unconscious into an emergency room, technicians equipped with special scanners will easily decipher chip?s information.

The chips need approval from the FDA, which is expected next year. The company has already gotten permission from the Federal Communications Commission, which is necessary because the chips use radio frequencies.

FDA approval is not necessary outside the U.S., and Applied Digital will start selling chips in South America shortly. One potential market is the wealthy targets of kidnappers, who could use these chips in combination with global positioning devices.

The chips that will be marketed next year are not true tracking devices because they have no internal power source, so they can?t be read without a scanner. The next generation of body chips will transmit signals from a distance. Right now, this kind of tracking device would have to be about 1 inch by 1 inch, causing an unsightly bulge under the skin.

Another application would be as the ultimate I.D. card. ?I?d be shocked if within 10 years you couldn?t get a chip implanted that would unlock your house, start your car and give you money,? says Chris Hables Gray, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Great Falls in Montana and author of ?The Cyborg Citizen.?

Three years ago, English cyberneticist Kevin Warwick implanted an electronic transmitter above his left elbow. The implant opened doors and switched on lights at his British University offices. He now is working on experiments which link his nervous system with a computer.

55-year-old Richard Seelig wants to do a traditional scientific study with volunteers who are willing to test out the chip implants. After September 11, he injected himself with the chips. ?I was so compelled by what had happened,? he says. ?One of the potential applications suddenly jumped out--the ability to have a secure form of identification--and I felt I had to take the next step.?

He injected one chip into his left forearm and the other into his right leg, next to his artificial hip. Each one holds several sentences of information, although right now they just contain serial numbers. ?There?s no deformity of the skin,? Seelig says. ?I feel just the same as I did before.?

?It?s a glorified bar code, and there are not a lot of people who are going to want it,? says Michael Nova, the founder of Graviton, a La Jolla company developing wireless machine-to-machine communication systems. ?Stores would have to get the right software; credit card companies would have to want to do it,? he says. ?At the moment, this is an intriguing idea that doesn?t have a market.?

But futurist Paul Saffo is enthusiastic. He says, ?As some people wring their hands about the invasion of privacy and civil liberty, a whole other generation is going to go, ?Cool! I?ve always wanted to embed technology in my body.? It?s going to be fashion. One sure sign that teenagers will love it is if it terrifies their parents.?

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