[Words by Abigail Whelan (she/her)]
2020 is the year conspiracy theorists’ dreams come true – no, Bill Gates’ vaccines do not implant microchips in you, you can pay to have one implanted yourself. One glance at r/Biohackers shows you that despite the fears of some, an equally large number have embraced what they see to be the future. The subreddit, created in 2012, boasts over twenty-two thousand members with the majority of posts concerning RFID or NFC chip implantation.
So what are the benefits of having a chip implanted? Well, you may never need a wallet again, or even your house keys. If you choose, your chip can be encoded with your credit card details, your work ID card, even your Costa card. And if that’s not enough for you? Biohacking company Dangerous Things offer a ‘Cyborg Transformation Kit’ for the low price of $99, including two implants, two ‘field detectors’ designed to help you learn how to use your new ‘upgrades’, and a diagnostic card – the purpose of which is unclear. In case their standard chips aren’t enough for you, you can also implant a magnet or LED under your skin.
But there’s no purpose to any of this yet. These implants, although not purely cosmetic, are largely designed (and described) as ‘upgrades’. But is it really an upgrade if it serves almost no purpose in everyday life? Yes, you have the potential to pay for items up to £45 with the wave of a hand, but you can do this with your phone. And yes, you can have a green light in your thumb, but how long will it take until the novelty wears off?
The lack of purpose isn’t the only problem – it’s also the lack of safety. Every implant on the Dangerous Things website comes with the disclaimer that they have not been certified for “implantation or use inside the human body”. There are currently no regulations governing subdermal implants. None. Implantation can be (and often is) done at home, by people who are untrained with little knowledge of proper sterilisation processes. So these ‘upgrades’ come with the risk of potential infection or worse.
Implantation is simple; a needle containing the microchip is inserted under the skin and slowly withdrawn, leaving the chip behind. The procedure isn’t painless, but it is only as invasive as lip fillers. This begs the question – should microchipping be in the same category as subdermal fillers? Both procedures are minimally invasive after all. However, Juvaderm (the most common type of lip filler) dissolves after around six months; whereas a microchip must be removed. There are currently no permanent cosmetic procedures that don’t require surgery. I’m not saying this to imply that an operation should be required, I’m asking why there are no regulations. Why are you able to permanently alter your body with little to no oversight? Why are you able to ‘upgrade’ yourself with untested and potentially dangerous implants?
However, ‘upgrades’ aren’t always purely to enhance the abled human body. Plastic surgery was initially invented to aid the rehabilitation of Second World War veterans. This theme has continued to today with roboticist Dr. Peter Scott-Morgan’s attempts to turn himself into ‘Peter 2.0’. Dr. Scott-Morgan was diagnosed with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in 2017. ALS is a progressive nervous system disease which ultimately causes loss of muscle control. He’s since had his voice box removed, an electronic feeding tube inserted, and a mini-ventilator attached to his wheelchair.
This isn’t all. Dr. Scott-Morgan plans to use artificial intelligence to replicate his personality in the hope that one day not only is he able to communicate solely through technology but that he is able to communicate as himself. With his voice-box removed, Dr. Scott-Morgan relies on eye-tracking technology to communicate; and a chest-screen to convey his emotion.
‘Peter 2.0’ isn’t done yet. There are plans to swap the chest screen for an avatar projected onto his face, and his wheelchair for an exoskeleton to allow him to stand again. All of this will be powered by artificial intelligence. In time, he hopes the AI will learn to speak for him with automatic options based on both the situation and his personality in order to speed up conversations.
Whatever technology is used, it won’t come cheap. Whilst able-bodied people are able to communicate for free (or even more easily with implants and microchips for less than £50), people with conditions such as ALS are confined to communication through basic eye-gaze systems. As it stands the NHS doesn’t cover robotic wheelchairs or synthetic voices, meaning people are unable to even talk with their own voice. So a ‘Designer Body’ may include a chip to open your front door, but for many, it’s a body they are able to spend their lives in, to thrive in.