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Implanted for Life

Help! There's a chip in my body and I can't get it out

By Corinne Asturias

THE HORROR STORIES of the chip-implanted all seem to take the same circular, Catch 22-type path: Evil forces (government, military, aliens, cops, prison doctors or former employer) put a chip in me to spy/experiment on/destroy me, knowing full well that the chip makes me hear voices, suffer delusions, hallucinations and a bunch of other stuff that makes me appear crazy/irrational/unemployable so no one will ever believe me when I tell them, "There's a chip in my body, damn it! (And yes, sometimes it even makes me think I'm crazy myself!)"

That said, if any of these stories are true, and the web is gravid with these paranoid-sounding, Orwellian testimonials, it's very sad indeed, as a trackable chip that fits inside the human body hasn't been invented yet. Any such early attempts would have constituted premature, irresponsible and likely botched experiments.

And we're not saying that's impossible. But aside from panic among self-proclaimed victims, militia types and some mark-of-the-devil fanatics, the current technology for chip implants is significantly more benign. It amounts to subcutaneous miniature identification cards that can be read by a scanner. Millions of domestic pets now have them injected under the skin at the back of their necks. If a chip-implanted cat gets lost, and someone takes her to the vet or the local pound, she gets scanned and--bingo!--they have the owner's name and number. Animal-rescue organizations credit chip implants with saving millions of pets' lives each year.

Not surprisingly, a Palm Beach, Fla., company called Applied Digital Solutions has been testing a similar rice-sized chip for implantation in humans, called VeriChip, that could be used for identification, medical, security or financial applications. Sound scary? Well, the first guy to sign up for one was Dr. Richard Seelig, a former surgeon and now a consultant for ADS, who says he was inspired after he saw that 9/11 emergency workers sifting through the rubble had scrawled their vitals on their arms in ink, in case they became hurt during the cleanup.

A family in Florida underwent the seven-second procedure for safety reasons--to have medical information readily and permanently available. And the company reports that about 50 other people have signed up for the chips, which are still in the testing phase.

As far as chip implants that actually let someone track your whereabouts, the latest devices can be found in the New Age-sounding product line, Digital Angel. At present Digital Angel is a strap-on, wristwatch-sized gadget that can be tracked by a central GPS system, accessible by phone call, email or web.

This Digital Angel Personal Safety and Location System, which costs about $400, is currently being used to monitor Alzheimer's patients, small children, the elderly or disabled, and can tell a caregiver not only about the location of its wearer, but about a fall or a sudden change in temperature. Of course, in terms of preventing a kidnapping or assault by a crazy person, this product isn't very useful: someone can easily remove it.

And hence the race to develop a small, undetectable, and implantable version of it. "There seems to be a pressing need for this kind of product to stem the tide of kidnappings in Latin America," points out a company spokesman. "So we're very interested in responding to this demand to help save lives."

The current obstacles to making this kind of device an implant are size and power. Active chips need a power source, and the smallest they've been able to get the device is to matchbook size, which is a tad large to slip under the skin without looking like a mutation. Ultimately, the company would like to get the device down to the size of an American quarter. Although bugs remain, with sufficient demand, industry observers expect to see a working product in the near future. And not everyone is happy about the prospect.

Simon Davies, who heads Privacy International, a watchdog group, says, "The intimacy between technology and the flesh crosses a line. My instinct tells me this is an entirely unnecessary and dangerous technology."

Other people are a bit more direct. On a website with the self-selecting name, Endtime Prophecy, the most popular response to a chip implant survey was: "They'll have to kill me first before they put one in me."

Less controversial implants currently in testing and development include eye and ear implants to repair nerve and other damage, implants that stimulate muscles in paralyzed patients and even, if Dr. Stuart Meloy has his way, an orgasm implant for women that is tucked into a buttock, lending a whole new meaning to the term love handle.

What does all this mean? It means that it's highly likely there will be more choices for us in the future and more questions to go with them. Such as: Is having an ID implant so different than wearing a clip-on company badge? Is it preferable to having to carry a passport or driver's license--or worse, getting it stolen and abused?

Is having a means to ensure that no pervert or kidnapper can steal your kids worth the risk that Big Brother will one day track your path and find out that you have gone snowboarding when you called in sick to work? Aren't these mark-of-the-devil website people all insane anyway? Is having a butt implant really so different than having a breast implant, especially if it actually has a useful purpose?

The Future, Conan?

More glimpses into the future from Metro writers

Bring on the Robots: Some experts predict that we're entering the Robotic Age. Does that mean we don't have to pick out our own socks anymore? Not quite. (Traci Vogel)

Full Circle: When you graduate in 1984, the future is yesterday's news. (Todd Inoue)

Kill Your Computer: High-tech detectives can now find evidence you thought you deleted. (Najeeb Hasan)

Man or Asteroidman?: Scientist, Foothill prof and asteroid namesake Andrew Fraknoi speaks the truth about what's out there. (Loren Stein)

At the Movies--2053!: Metro film critic Richard von Busack travels 50 years into the future to review the kind of cinema we were supposed to be watching by now.

The Original Frontier: Humankind's confusing relationship with the time machine. (Michael S. Gant)

When Cars Fly: No, really. Your Skycar is just around the corner, if one visionary Davis company has its say. (Allie Gottlieb)

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From the January 9-15, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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