Artificial augmentation of living things is apparently all the rage, or at least a growing trend. But while media coverage largely focuses on the positives (as with much tech reporting) there is also plenty to be wary of as we move further towards melding with machines.
Last week, the US Office of Naval Research reportedly awarded $750,000 to researchers to bio-medically engineer locusts to turn them into remote-controlled explosives detectors for the military. But its not just bugs. People are increasingly “biohacking” or “body hacking” themselves, which involves surgically installing DIY electronic devices in their own bodies for the purpose of technological enhancement.
An article today on the website of WBUR, Boston’s NPR station, for example, describes author Alex Pearlman’s “journey to becoming a cyborg” by implanting a magnet in her finger. Pearlman writes that she wanted to gain the “sixth sense” of being able to “physically feel electromagnetism.” Unfortunately, though she puts a positive spin on the biohacking “grinder culture” in her article, Pearlman’s own implant experiment ended in failure.
“My body painfully rejected my magnet, and after only 12 days, an emergency room doctor removed it. It had become deeply infected, although I don’t know why. I assume it was my fault — Did I bump my finger? Did I not keep the area clean enough? — and not a problem with the magnet,” she writes. “I was devastated.”
While Pearlman’s biohacking attempt did not work out as planned, she has not been the only journalist to get a device implanted in their hand and write about it. Rose Eveleth wrote an article for Popular Science in May about her experience getting implanted with an RFID (radio-frequency identification) chip.
Eveleth notes that people have asked her why she implanted herself with an RFID chip, but doesn’t really answer the question in her article. She mentions some simple tasks like unlocking cars or office doors that the chip could make even simpler. She notes that the passive RFID chip she got, however, “certainly can’t talk to a satellite” and says it wouldn’t be useful for tracking purposes because “RFID chips aren’t that powerful.” Eveleth uses the example of RFID chips contained in keycards. “If you’ve ever had trouble getting it to work through a bag or wallet,” she writes, “you know that these chips aren’t good at transmitting through anything, let alone over long distances.”
Eveleth’s article doesn’t note, though, that in addition to “passive” RFID chips like hers, “active” chips are also sold, and they can have a battery life of 3 to 5 years. Though not necessarily implanted under their skin, active chips have in recent years been used to track students‘ locations around campus.
And even restricted to passive RFID chips, Eveleth’s assertion about tracking is dubious. One company, for example, offers the ability to “track employees, contractors, visitors and more” using passive RFID tags. Contrary to Eveleth’s assertion that a passive RFID chip’s need to be near a reader to function makes it useless for surveillance, this company’s system relies on such readers “installed at strategic points in your business environment such as entrances, exits, and area-wide zones so that they can ‘read’ the signals being broadcasted by the GAO RFID Tags worn by your personnel.”
RFID chips and other kinds of high tech body implants offer some interesting capabilities, but the potential for misuse also seems obvious. If government were to require RFID chipping for surveillance purposes, for example, it’s not hard to see how a nightmare scenario could quickly emerge (or simply be instantly created by such a requirement). In addition to government overreach, in our present era of concern over the security of the so-called Internet of Things (IoT) – including that of crucial IoT-connected devices such as pacemakers – the potential threat to less indispensable body-implanted devices posed by non-governmental malicious actors should not be overlooked.
There are also legal and physical risks. Where body-hacking isn’t illegal, it exists in a legal gray area, and as Pearlman notes, doctors won’t perform the procedures because they “have no proven health benefits and could result in unnecessary harm.” Despite the risks, though, body-hacking is clearly a growing phenomenon rather than one passing out of style. For many, it seems, the allure of the latest technology is strong enough to not only want to possess it, but to want to make it an inseparable part of themselves. Like it or not, the line between people and machines is certainly getting blurrier.