February 2, 2006
High Tech, Under the Skin
By ANNA BAHNEY
WILLIAM DONELSON'S left hand gripped the paper-covered arm of an antique barber chair at a tattoo and piercing shop in Cambridge, Ontario. His feet bounced gently on the chrome footrest as he waited for his implant.
The piercer - Jesse Villemaire - whose day is usually spent inserting rings into the eyebrows and navels of teenage girls — snapped on purple latex gloves and lifted a four-millimeter-wide sterilized needle to Mr. Donelson's hand.
"I'm set," Mr. Donelson said with a deep breath. He watched as the needle pierced the fleshy webbing between his thumb and forefinger and a microchip was slid under his skin. At last he would be able to do what he had long imagined: enhance his body's powers through technology.
By inserting the chip, a radio frequency identification device, Mr. Donelson would literally have at his fingertips the same magic that makes security gates swing open with a swipe of a card, and bridge and tunnel traffic flow smoothly with an E-ZPass. With a wave of his hand he planned to log on to his computer, open doors and unlock his car.
Implanting the chip was a relatively simple procedure but highly symbolic to Mr. Donelson, a 21-year-old computer networking student so enthralled with the link between technology and the body that he has tattoos of data-input jacks running down his spine. They are an allusion to an imagined future when people might be plugged directly into computers. His new chip, complete with a miniature antenna and enclosed in a glass ampoule no bigger than a piece of long-grain rice, has a small memory where he has stored the words "Embrace Technology."
"People are already using their cellphones as an extension of their communication ability," Mr. Donelson said, indicating the wireless cellphone earpiece affixed to his ear. "It is pretty much a part of you anyway."
The difference between a device resting in one's ear and inside the body is "a pretty small step," he said.
Mr. Donelson and three friends, who had driven 100 miles from their homes in Lockport, N.Y., to have the implants inserted by a piercer, Jesse Villemaire, whom they had persuaded to do the work, are part of a small group, about 30 people around the world, who have independently inserted radio frequency identification chips, known as RFID tags, into their bodies, according to Web-based forums devoted to what participants call getting tagged. http://tagged.kaos.gen.nz/
The tiny silicone chips, which for years have been safely implanted in pets and livestock to identify their owners, come with an encoded string of numbers. (Some chips have a small amount of memory that can be updated.) They are read by a scanner two to four inches away, much like a bar code except the chips don't need to be visible to be read.
Digital visionaries have long foreseen a future when people and computers merge. In most cases the convergence is imagined as a nightmare, as in "Blade Runner" or the "Matrix" movies. But Mr. Donelson is part of a pro-convergence camp that points out the future is closer than many people imagine, and argues it is not nearly so threatening.
Digital products people use every day are becoming more integral to the human body, they note. Cameras, storage drives and MP3 players are designed with mirrored surfaces or crystals to make them more attractive to wear as necklaces and pendants. Bluetooth wireless technology enables jackets and sunglasses to double as electronic devices, and a new cellphone earpiece, the Motorola H5 Miniblue, sits inside the ear almost like a hearing aid.
People who feel naked without their cellphones, who carry around a set of keys with storage devices like flash drives that contain their digital life, who have their entire music collection on an iPod, have already created an information envelope around themselves, said Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, a research director at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, Calif.
"They are living a life in which they have a symbiotic relationship with communication technologies that are as familiar a part of the body as braces or glasses," Mr. Pang said. "For these people, the idea of putting an RFID tag in themselves is no stranger than putting in fillings."
Implanting chips in people is not new. Some employees of the Mexican Ministry of Justice are implanted with chips that give them a fast track through their building's security, and a Barcelona dance club offered chips to V.I.P.'s.
In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration gave approval in 2004 to a Florida company, Verichip, to implant RFID chips in people as a means to retrieve medical information. The information is not on the chip; it is in a computer database that hospitals gain access to by scanning patients who carry a chip beneath their skin. In the last three years, Verichip says, it has implanted more than 2,000 people around the world and 60 in the United States. Its chips are a proprietary technology and cost about $200 each.
"The physical reality of the chip in the body is no big deal," said Amal Graafstra, who in March 2005 became the first known person to independently have himself implanted with a chip by having a surgeon friend place it in his hand. "But the symbolism of the tag is much more of a big deal as a social marker."
Mr. Graafstra, along with Mr. Donelson and his friends, consider themselves part of an informal underground of implanters, self-styled "midnight engineers" who are dedicated to designing applications for their chips and exploring the philosophical implications. They buy cheap RFID chips on the Internet for as little as $2 and wire scanners to their computers, car doors and other devices to exploit the technology.
Mr. Graafstra, 29, the owner of a mobile technology company in Bellingham, Wash., has an implant in each hand, which he uses to get in the front door of his home, unlock his computer and occasionally get into his car. He has written a book, "RFID Toys: 11 Cool Projects for Home, Office and Entertainment," to be published this month by Wiley.
His girlfriend, Jennifer Tomblin, a 23-year-old marketing student, thought Mr. Graafstra's hobby was odd at first. But over time she became convinced of their usefulness. She got an implant in December.
"I like not having to fumble for keys when I'm coming in with groceries and everything, you just lean up against the door, and it opens," she said.
Certainly RFID implants have their detractors.
"We have to look down the road and think more than about how cool it is today," said Liz McIntyre co-author of "Spychips: How Major Corporations and Government Plan to Track Your Every Move with RFID."
"We have to look at how it may be ushering in a society in which we are all numbered in the future," she said. "Maybe stores would require us to scan our hands or an insurance company says unless you have this chip we can't insure you."
Other objections to implanting chips include the safety of procedures done in nonmedical settings.
Some doctors have done the procedures in people's homes, and others have implanted chips in their offices after patients signed forms acknowledging that long-term studies have not been done on their safety. Piercers treat the implants much like any other procedure, instructing people to keep the site dry to avoid infection and advising them that swelling and redness should last a week.
On Web forums some people profess to have implanted themselves with an injector gun used for animals, but the consensus among others is that doing so is dangerous.
Christian Rigby, 31, who runs a Internet forum for people independently "tagged" http://tagged.kaos.gen.nz/ describes the forum as a resource for those interested in sharing experiences and technology. "You get to be a part of a leading technology which is, at the heart of it, what all geeks really want to do," he said.
The circle may be widening as implants intrigue a growing number of people. Mr. Rigby's Internet forum had 2,278 hits in December. As of mid-January, it had 1.1 million for the month.
Another spur to recent interest is a video posted on the Internet www.electric-clothing.com/chipped.html by Mikey Sklar of his implant procedure in November, performed by a surgeon friend in New York City. Mr. Sklar, 28, formerly a Unix engineer at an investment bank, said that because the hardware is relatively inexpensive, small and technical, college students will pick it up. "Freshman students will modify their dorms with RFID readers," he predicted. "That's where the growth is going to be."
At least one supplier of RFID chips, Matt Trossen, owner of PhidgetsUSA in Westchester, Ill., is skeptical about the ultimate appeal of implants. "Think about how many people have never gotten their ears pierced," he said. "A lot of people just don't want to stick themselves."
Mr. Trossen sells his chips to people who use them for education and robotics and his Web site includes a disclaimer stating that the company does not advise consumers to implant them in humans or animals because the tags are not sold as medical products and are not sanitized.
He said that one could use an RFID chip just as easily for turning on computers and opening doors by putting it on a key chain or card. Although he could see a day when society would deem it acceptable for babies to be tagged at birth with chips bearing their Social Security number, now the technology for making the chips useful for home applications is beyond most people's reach.
"For a kid to say, 'Mom and Dad I need this implant,' " Mr. Trossen said, "it would be like me running out and buying an atom collider. It is a nice conversation piece, but I can't really use it."