Technology such as smartphones and tablets are already so much a part of our lives, imagining life without them seems ridiculous. It would mean being cut off from the rest of the world and abandoning what many see as enhancements of our human capabilities. If we’ve come this far, then what’s to stop us now?
When you meet Jarryd Bekker, a South African research and development engineer who recently self-inserted a Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) tag – similar to those implanted in animals – into his hand, without anaesthetic or the help of a doctor, a sense of scepticism washes over you.
When asked about the possibility of infection or possibly even cancer, Bekker says, “It’s harmless. The chip is placed inside a tiny capsule which is inserted under the skin and cannot decompose. The radio waves that are being transferred are minor, even weaker than those from your mobile phone.”
It’s not long before he’s convinced you of its benefits. Using the tiny chip containing electronically stored information that can communicate with digital technology via electromagnetic fields, Bekker simply places his hand around his car handle and the doors unlock in response to its signal. Bekker has programmed the readers – which are already installed in the vehicle for its own purposes – to identify the chip and subsequently take action.
He also uses this method to gain access to his home and office, with electronic readers connected to a networked system and placed at the entrance of the buildings. Leaving the office, Bekker scans the chip against the reader, simultaneously activating his e-mail’s auto-reply settings.
The device is programmed with a number of security features, which makes imitating it device near impossible.
“The RFID chip uses secret-key based encrypted authentication to secure the stored data,” Bekker explains.
“This makes it very difficult to replicate, spoof or read without authorisation. Additionally, one can reprogramme or ‘roll’ the keys on a regular basis to maintain a high level of security.”
Bekker’s next step is to insert a Near Field Communication (NFC) tag, which has less range than the RFID, but can be scanned with a smart phone to retrieve data.
He elaborates, “The NFC tag is intended to be used to pass on social media links and business cards. Merely placing a smartphone against the implant automatically launches a website that links to my Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin and Skype.”
Although relatively new to South African audiences, this is not new technology. British scientist, professor and ” the father of cybernetics”, Kevin Warwick, was the first man to insert a RIFD chip beneath his skin as early as 1998. Warwick continues to experiment with cybernetics, linking up to more and more complex neural interfaces.
The line between technology and reality is becoming increasingly blurred and has stirred plenty of controversy, but there’s an innate human desire for constant improvement and sooner or later accepting what’s to come will be a default reaction. These technological advancements will have a significant impact on the way we operate as human beings.
Before credit cards where implemented, they too were feared – a piece of plastic that would hold all your personal details. Yet, today it is the norm. Anyone who argues an infringement of privacy in computerised tags being used on humans should be aware that bank cards carry a similar technology.
“Bank cards use a form of NFC called PayPass. This technology is provided by Mastercard,” Bekker says.
Similarly, the new South African ID book will contain an RIFD chip. The more important purpose of these chips, however, is not for identification but in the possibilities they create for medical advancement.
Bekker says, “I think the technology was released on the wrong foot, because it can truly benefit the way we operate.”
For instance, tags that contain a glucometer can be used to monitor blood sugar levels in people with diabetes. Instead of pricking the finger and testing the blood, RIFD tags can do the same job, saving thousands in medical expenses. It can also be used to help with drug release. For instance, someone who takes anti-depressants on a daily basis would no longer need to swallow tablets, as the chemical would be automatically released into their bloodstream. And hospitals can scan tags and immediately gain access to medical records.
Bekker’s research involves creating an implant that can feed back information from NFC enabled objects directly into the nervous system.
“Essentially this would mean that one could augment the body with additional senses. Some of the applications I’m interested in include: Sensing how much energy an electrical plug is consuming by simply being near it; sensing the impact of driving habits on fuel efficiency; sensing UVB light exposed when in the sun or sensing silent alarms for home security systems,” he says.
Because the tags can be customised to specific needs, the possibilities are endless.