Under Your Skin: The Implants are Coming

Brenda Cooper @ 02-06-2010

This idea for this article started when I was doing some research on prosthetics and came across an article about a wheelchair that can be controlled with brainwaves. That got me thinking about what else we might be doing to use electronics or other implants to manage our interface with the world. This was pretty interesting research: I learned a new word (Geoslavery, or location control), and I got to see that the new wave in implants may not be chips at all.

What’s Happening:

As far as human implantation of RFID chips, prisoners are being monitored with attached GPS, but these aren’t literally implanted yet, as far as I can tell. At least in the US. Even more so than most new technology, there are extremes of opinion about implanted RFID chips. Some videos are sure it’s the Mark of the Beast and takes us one step closer to Armageddon. On the other hand, for the DIY crowd, there is a YouTube video with step by step video instructions for implanting your own RFID in your hand, just in case you want to program your computers to wake up when you walk in the room, or anything else equally interesting. The DIY video has had a lot more views than the Armageddon genre, by the way. To be fair, it has been posted longer. But still, plenty of interest.

RFID isn’t immune to the usual technology ills. Just last week there was a news story about a researcher at the University of Redding who purposefully implanted a chip with a virus and demonstrated that it can pass that virus along to other RFID chips. I’m pretty sure that means two people could be passing each other on street or sitting and sipping tea at the same teahouse, and one could pass the other a virus. No touching required.

On the not-so-RFID front (but still a chip), there has been a successful retinal implant trial directed at restoring vision lost to retinitis pigmentosa. And less chip-like than that, there is work being done on using silk as a base material for implantable medical monitoring devices. It turns out that silk is strong, has electronic-like properties, and can dissolve into the body naturally, this avoiding some of the rejection/replacement problems with current implants. This showed up in a MIT Technology Review article talking about the top ten emerging technologies. Also in the Technology Review last February, there is discussion about using light to stimulate the neurons of the brain – which means doing the work that has been done by rudimentary implants without the hardware even before the hardware has become common. This is singularity-level science –ideas leapfrogging each other like crazy.

There is more, including the army using brain implants to repair damaged minds, and almost all of the articles I’m referencing are not only from this year, but from within the last thirty days or so. But I can’t make this column work with pages and pages of data, so I’ll stop here.

My prediction?

Well, I’ve predicted for some time that humans will have GPS chips soon. I’m sure that an implanted device with a GPS chip in it will be standard fare for teenagers the way that cell phones are – they will probably come with reduced insurance bills. They’ll also be a good idea for the rich or the young (or any other form of target) travelling in unsettled parts of the world.

The medical monitoring potential is great, and I think there are business reasons to make this work. Which means I think we will see this, are starting to see it, and will consider it commonplace inside of a decade or less. For example, if I have high cholesterol, one of my doctor’s options might be to use a silk and light chip to record my cholesterol levels and report back to her on any data out of my individual norms and/or targets. We’ll be able to do that for diabetes, for a future version of H1N1, and maybe even for many cancers.

Science Fiction and Implants

Larry Niven’s iconic character, Louis Wu, spends some time addicted to brain stimulation. The opening few lines of Ringworld Engineers are:

Louis Wu was under the wire when two men came to invade his privacy.

He was in full lotus position on the lush yellow indoor-grass carpet. His smile was blissful, dreamy. The apartment was small, just one big room. He could see both doors. But, lost in the joy that only a wirehead knows, he never saw them arrive.

There is, of course, the wonderful world of The Matrix, where one can request that instructions for just about anything (such as flying a helicopter) be downloaded directly. What’s particularly special about this? In the movie-world, there was no training needed. All you needed was the software and you were good to go.

And just in case this article hasn’t scared you some, drop by and read about the Twitter Implant.

As always, I welcome comments, ideas, your own research, etc.

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Brenda Cooper’s latest science fiction novel, Wings of Creation, is out now from Tor Books. For more information, see her website!

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4 Responses to “Under Your Skin: The Implants are Coming”

  1. MG Ellington says:

    Fantastic post. I saw the article last week about the man infecting himself with a computer virus. That was not a little bit scary.

  2. Brenda Cooper says:

    Thanks MG. I hadn’t realized we’d gotten so far on this technology until I started doing this research. I find it both spooky and exciting.

  3. Jo Thomas says:

    Although it might be better to say the man who infected himself had made himself a carrier rather than a sufferer of the virus.

  4. SpeakerToManagers says:

    There’s another side to implants: the modification of the body in real time. We’ve had insulin pumps for some time now, and there are currently ongoing trials of several other sorts of implanted drug dispensers. The next step is to combine the multi-function clinical test chips that are being developed with a multi-drug dispenser to control the body to match changes in biological parameters. Take hypertension: I currently use 4 different drugs to keep my blood pressure down, and I have to adjust the dosages and the types of drugs on a regular basis in concert with my doctor because the parameters keep changing. With a blood pressure sensor and the ability to detect the level of various hormones in the blood, along with a dispenser with of a range of drugs, the right dosage and combination of drugs could be dispensed automatically on time scales of hours instead of days or weeks.