A Chip ID That's Only Skin-Deep
Thu, 20 Dec 2001 12:29:28 -0800
Yikes, I've been thinking this is just around the corner for some time.
Looks like the future is here. Mark of the beast anyone?
A Chip ID That's Only Skin-Deep
Biotech: Firm plans to sell implantable devices that can store a variety
of data about you.
By DAVID STREITFELD, Times Staff Writer
-- A Florida company is poised to become the first to sell microchips
designed to be implanted into human beings, an achievement that opens
the door to new systems of medical monitoring and ID screening.
Implantable chips have long been discussed by technologists and
denounced by those who object on religious grounds or fear their use by
a totalitarian state. But the company that did the test, Applied Digital
Solutions of Palm Beach, said the specter of terrorism is shifting
attitudes. The direct union of man and computer is no longer dismissed
out of hand.
"The bottom line is, when people are trying to regain their peace of
mind, they're more open to ne approaches," sain Keith bolton, Applid
Digital's chief technology officer.
Applied Digital, which had revenue of $165 million last year, has made
its mark by selling electronic chips that help farmers keep tabs on the
health and safety of their cows and other livestock. The company also
makes a monitoring bracelet for Alzheimer patients, so that families can
use global positioning satellite systems to help find loved ones who
might have wandered off.
Now the company sees a market among those who have artificial organs and
limbs. These folks will have up to 60 words of relevant medical
information implanted on chips. If the patients are brought unconscious
into an emergency room, technicians equipped with special scanners will
easily decipher the body's internal topography.
The chips would need approval from the Food and Drug Administration,
which Applied Digital said it expects to receive by midyear. The company
said it already has secured permission from the Federal Communications
Commission--necessary because the chips use radio frequencies.
Regulatory approval is not necessary overseas, however. Applied Digital
expects to be selling chips in South America in about 90 days. One
potential market is kidnap targets, who could use these chips in
combination with global positioning devices.
Other potential applications would put the chips in the role of an
ultimate ID, capable of performing many of the roles that are performed
by keys and ATM cards.
"I'd be shocked if within 10 years you couldn't get a chip implanted
that would unlock your house, start your car and give you money," said
Chris Hables Gray, an associate professor of computer science at the
University of Great Falls in Montana and author of "The Cyborg Citizen."
English cyberneticist Kevin Warwick won considerable notoriety three
years ago by implanting an electronic transmitter above his left elbow.
The implant opened doors and switched on lights at his British
University of Reading offices. He now is working on experiments in which
his nervous system is linked with a computer.
If Warwick is the equivalent of the mad genius who injects himself with
a new vaccine to see whether it works, the Applied Digital volunteer,
55-year-old New Jersey surgeon Richard Seelig, sees himself as simply a
consultant thrust by events into an unexpected role.
Seelig had been working with Applied Digital since early this year. He
expected to do a traditional scientific study, calling for volunteers
who wanted to test out the role of chip implants. Then came the
terrorist attacks Sept. 11. Five days later, Seelig injected himself
with the chips.
"I was so compelled by what had happened," he said in a phone interview.
"One of the potential applications suddenly jumped out--the ability to
have a secure form of identification--and I felt I had to take the next
So he injected one chip into his left forearm; the other went in his
right leg, next to his artificial hip. Each could hold several sentences
of information, although at the moment they just contain serial numbers.
"There's no deformity of the skin," Seelig said. "I feel just the same
as I did before."
The chips that will be marketed next year are not true tracking devices.
For one thing, they have no internal power source. Their data can't be
read without a scanner.
The next generation of body chips, which transmits signals from a
distance, is still several years away. At the moment, this kind of
tracking device would have to be about 1 inch by 1 inch, raising the
likelihood of a rather unsightly bulge.
Applied Digital has a market value of 95 million. Its shares closed
unchanged Tuesday at 38 cents on Nasdaq.
No one interviewed Tuesday questioned that Applied Digital had done what
it said it did, but not everyone thought there would be a huge market.
"It's a glorified bar code, and there are not a lot of people who are
going to want it," said Michael Nova, the founder of Graviton, a La
Jolla company developing wireless machine-to-machine communication
systems. Using such a chip as a built-in credit card, Nova said, would
require a great deal of work.
"Stores would have to get the right software; credit card companies
would have to want to do it," Nova said. "At the moment, this is an
intriguing idea that doesn't have a market."
Which isn't necessarily going to keep it from being popular, said
futurist Paul Saffo.
"As some people wring their hands about the invasion of privacy and
civil liberty, a whole other generation is going to go, 'Cool! I've
always wanted to embed technology in my body.' It's going to be
fashion," Saffo said. "One sure sign that teenagers will love it is if
it terrifies their parents."