"We Are Not Pursuing Any Applications for Embedded Chips!"


Smart Chips Get Under Our Skin
by Jane Wakefield

Source: ZDNet

January 23, 2001

While sci-fi concentrates on apocalyptic visions of intelligent machines, us humans are busy putting machines under our skin.

The mystique and fear surrounding artificial intelligence (AI) tends to focus on the idea of sentient machines somehow challenging man's role on earth, conjuring up images of HAL, the softly spoken computer with malicious intent. Less talked about is the reverse idea of humans adopting some of the qualities of machines via embedded or implanted chips.

As technology advances so the gap between human and machine closes, fuelling ever more feasible science fiction scenarios that inevitably provide us with new worries. To some, the idea of computer-assisted bodies fuels fears that we are all about to become automatons like the evil cyborg men made famous in Dr Who.

In reality, the relationship between computers and us is far more contrived, giving machines powers that serve the most mundane purposes. While we worry about the idea of contaminating our bodies with technology thousands of our pets are unconcernedly roaming around with chips implanted in their necks.

The use of chips in pets -- now a legal requirement for anyone wanting to ship a cat or dog abroad -- seems fairly harmless but suggestions that it be extended to their owners is greeted with less enthusiasm.

But such implants are no longer the preserve of fiction. One US-based company, Applied Digital Solutions, has already developed a microchip -- dubbed Digital Angel -- which was originally marketed as a tracking device for humans. The makers dwelt on benevolent uses of the chip -- such as allowing doctors to monitor heart conditions. But despite its short lifespan (it was only launched in October) the company has decided to abandon its embedded chip idea in favour of wearable devices.

"We are not pursuing any applications for embedded chips and we have moved away from that for a couple of reasons," says a spokesman for Applied Digital Solutions. While he insists that the main reason is an economic one -- a small end market and the amount of time such a technology would take to get FDA (Food and Drug Administration) approval are the reasons he states -- he also cites privacy worries and ethical issues. "We don't want the adverse publicity. There are a number of privacy concerns and religious implications -- fundamentalist Christian groups regard it [implanting computer chips] as the Devil's work," he says.

It would seem that even those companies that had hoped to turn the notion of embedding chips into humans into a viable business opportunity are having second thoughts. Perhaps they are put off by the myriad civil liberty groups willing to fight tooth and nail to prevent such technologies being adopted.

The biggest concern appears to be that once humans are fitted with computerised implants, all other Big Brother fears will look like a walk in the park.

The theory goes that once such devices are put inside of us, it will be a quick and easy step for governments to centrally coordinate and monitor our movements. It would certainly make all the current RIP-based plans for Internet snooping appear costly and technically complicated way in comparison.

Some privacy advocates claim governments already have the technology to spy using human implants and worry that in a society obsessed with surveillance such devices could be the last straw. Head of Privacy International Simon Davies believes implanted chips that could be employed as tracking devices could be as little as five years away.

"The pattern for these things is they start as medical uses, then becomes used in the military or in prisons. Then become voluntary, then compulsory," he says. For the time being though, Davies is more concerned by the likelihood that devices like mobile phones and PDAs could be used to monitor our activities. In the future, he argues, nanotechnology, where atom-sized robots are used, could pose a very real threat to privacy.

"Then technology will be as universal as the smallpox injection, which raises very grave privacy issues," he says.

Even scientists, usually relatively blase about such issues are concerned about the possibility of a "chip network". Professor Brad Myers of the Computer Science department at Carnegie Mellon University in the US raises no objections to the idea of chip implants, but concedes he is worried about government use of such technology should it become the norm.

"If the chips are wirelessly connected to networks, that opens up a whole new set of issues," he says.

BT -- which has followed developments in the use of chip implants closely -- believes communications using smart chips will have "profound implications on how people communicate with networks".

The company's chief futurologist, Ian Pearson, is not convinced however that implants will necessarily be the favoured method of use.

"There is nothing you can do with embedded chips that you can't do with wearable ones, and I can't imagine there will be queues of people lining up to get chips embedded," he says. He predicts the idea of wearable identity chips could be implemented within five years. Pearson too is concerned about privacy using implanted chips: "They give an extra capacity for surveillance. We are already living with complete invasion of privacy and I would hate to live in a society that was policed to the extent embedded chips would allow," he says.

Privacy versus benefits to human understanding

For cybernetic enthusiasts such as Professor Kevin Warwick, head of cybernetics at Reading University, and Peter Cochrane, ex-chief technologist at BT, the worries about privacy take second place to the benefits to human understanding.

Within 50 years, downloading thoughts and emotions will be commonplace, Cochrane has famously predicted. While this may sound far-fetched, remember that scientists are well on the way to mapping the building blocks of what it is to be human via the Human Genome Project, which is due to complete in 2003. Cochrane believes smarter than-human-computers -- which he thinks will be reality within ten years -- will be able to interpret the information available from the project and use it to understand how the human brain works.

Warwick is perhaps one of the UK's most best-known cyberenthusiasts and certainly practises what he preaches. Warwick has chip implants that allow him to open doors and operate his PC remotely. He is currently taking part in an experiment attempting to download human emotions onto a PC.

The idea that human emotions can be collected and stored as data is unappealing to many, reducing as it does the complexities of our emotional responses to a series of electrical impulses (which actually is not that far removed from the physiological process of the brain). In the medical arena implanted chips could play a very important role in creating cures.

In 1998, scientists at Emory University in the US developed brain implants which could be controlled by the power of thought. Each implant, made of cone-shaped glass, contained an electrode to pick up impulses from nerve endings. It is hoped the development will one day allow paralysed patients to control artificial limbs.

In 1999, scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announced a breakthrough method of storing chemicals on microprocessors, creating a "pharmacy-on-a-chip" which could one day replace painful injections, difficult-to-swallow pills and provide medicines for patients unable to follow a regimen of use.

Professor John Santini has been involved in the lab-on-a-chip project since its inception and believes the power of embedded chips to do good outweighs any negatives. "We are focused strictly on the therapeutic, to deliver drugs in a better way and to treat diseases that are currently untreatable. The feedback that we have had so far from the public has been very positive. People can see that we are trying to do something for the good," he says.

It is anticipated that 98 percent of the human body will have the potential to be replaced by machines by 2025 and Pearson believes that within ten to 15 years all people with medical needs or disabilities will function with the help of some sort of implanted chip.

Is this the dawn of a new cyborg era for mankind? Is it not that most sacred of organs, the brain, that provides man with his uniqueness? Shouldn't it follow then that the brain should never be influenced by a computer?

But already work has begun on implanted chips that could be used to treat psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia and psychosis. For a society currently wrestling with how to care for mentally disturbed patients, ideas like MIT's lab-on-a-chip could prove hugely valuable. Patients would no longer be responsible for taking vital medicines, as it would all be controlled remotely.

Santini believes there is no conceptual reason why the lab-on-a-chip idea could not be extended to the treatment of psychiatric patients, but points out that a great deal of political work, particularly on the ethical side, would have to go on before it was possible. "Parliamentary procedures would have to be in place to make sure the technology was used properly and respected individuals' health and rights," he says.

The question of computers interfering with or modifying higher brain function, thus altering behaviour, raises important and fundamental ethical issues about where the machine ends and the human being begins.

Myers is not fazed by the idea of chips altering personality. "I don't see it as any different morally or ethically than drugs which do the same thing," he argues. BT's Pearson agrees: "I had screws inserted in my legs and I didn't feel any less human. Some people have ear or eye implants and there are lots of people running about who are partially bionic. It is not an enormous ethical issue, as I don't believe it dehumanises us," he says.

While it would seem people are unfazed by the threat to humanity of relying more and more on chips and machines to run our bodies, the privacy threat is not about to go away. Interestingly, while sci-fi has focused on how governments and authorities will use chips to curtail our freedoms, Pearson is bothered by a more mundane threat.

"You could have a scenario where insurance companies refuse to insure you unless you agree to have a chip implant to monitor the level of physical activity you do," he says.

As with so much in the globalised, corporate world, it is big business that remains the real threat to a technology that has the potential to improve our lives in ways we cannot yet even dream of.

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