Amal Graafstra is one of the first users of transdermal devices. In 2005, his first microchip was implanted, allowing him to unlock doors without a key. Credit: Amal Graafstra.

  • Innovation

CHIPS UNDER THE SKIN, THE DELICATE FRONTIER OF TRANSDERMAL TECHNOLOGY

Chip implants under the skin are beginning to become popular in Northern Europe. These devices already allow you to make payments, open doors or clock in at the office, among a myriad of applications that can be fascinating and disturbing. Designed to improve people's quality of life, their recent large-scale availability opens up a crucial debate about their ethical and legal implications.

ANTONIO LÓPEZ | Tungsteno

In Sweden, more than 4,000 people have a chip under their skin with which they can do everyday tasks such as withdrawing money, making payments, buying train tickets or accessing their job. These implants are propelling the move in Sweden towards a cashless economy, in addition to reducing the risk of coronavirus infection by decreasing physical contact. This trend is already beginning to be popular in other countries such as Germany, the United Kingdom and Japan, and is awaiting legal authorization to be marketed in places such as Italy.

Behind these transdermal microchips is NFC (Near Field Communication) technology, such as that used in contactless banking cards. This communication protocol that can be programmed to perform simple tasks and store information, can be shared whenever you are within an NFC field at a distance of between 2 and 5 centimetres.

In their current iteration, these implants, which are only the size of a grain of rice, can contain everything from identification data to the access codes to unlock a mobile phone or open an electronic lock. They are effective when replacing traditional means of payment, such as cash or credit cards, and in the future they will offer more complex functionalities that can facilitate our interaction with other devices and with the environment, moving, without a doubt, towards greater automation.

NFC tattoos, like the DuoSkin developed by MIT and Microsoft, are less invasive than implants and also allow connection to electronic devices. Credit: MIT

The door to a transhumanist society

A fascination with how technology can expand the capabilities of the human body, which guides the so-called transhumanists, has driven the rise of transdermal implants in countries like Germany. There are already thousands of Germans who have used a website to acquire their own kit with their NFC chip, which they can program from their mobile phone.

But beyond meeting the expectations of biohacking enthusiasts, NFC technology can break down barriers of accessibility and communication for many people, and even save lives, since these chips permit the storage of medical information crucial to the survival of patients with diabetes or penicillin allergies, for example.

A paradigmatic case of the potential of this technology is that of Alex Lewis, a man who has implanted in the stub of each arm an NFC chip from the company BioTeq. A rare disease led to the loss of all four of his limbs, which has greatly reduced his mobility. On one of his chips he stores his medical information and with the other he opens the door to his home, a task that would otherwise cost him immense effort. A second generation of these NFC chips would allow him to have more autonomy in his daily life, and even, for example, to drive without having contact with the vehicle and without depending on other people.

But these insertable devices, which include transdermal NFC chips, are not the only variant of an area of biotechnology in expansion, that of epidermal electronics, which also includes other implantable medical devices (IMDs) such as pacemakers or insulin pumps. There are also RFID (Radio-Frequency Identification) chips, which make it possible, by means of a radio signal, to identify the object in which it is placed, and which have traditionally been implanted in pets or animals in danger of extinction. This technology has also been tested in one of the latest initiatives from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and Microsoft, NFC tattoos, temporary deformable adhesive chips, which work as an interface that connects to electronic devices.

There are currently no legal regulations on the implantation nor the uses of transdermal microchips, which adds to the ethical debate on these devices. Credit: Three Square Market.

Risks and opportunities

The democratisation of the use of these devices has brought with it the debate regarding the problem of security and ethics that surrounds the idea of incorporating wireless technology into our bodies. Although transhumanism is a philosophical trend that has already seen remarkable growth, not all societies have adopted it with the same enthusiasm. The main market for these chips is currently in Sweden, the United Kingdom and Japan. In the Scandinavian country, getting an NFC chip implanted is something that can be done legally in any piercing studio. There are even companies where workers now use them to clock in at the office, use the printer or buy from vending machines.

But there are currently no legal regulations on their use. Even so, in 2018 the European Parliament advised against their use for employees, due to a conflict with the prevailing data protection policy, although it also pointed out possible computer security risks, as it recognised that they can be "hacked, spied on, cloned, deactivated or manipulated" with current technology. The debate on data ownership also persists, especially if we are in a business context. In any case, what experts seem to agree on is that the greatest risk comes from the interaction of microchips with other electronic devices.

In addition to the risks inherent in the software, can these microchips become an enemy for the autonomy they promise if they in effect produce an increase in the power differential between the company and the worker? While the debate moves forward, the technology remains in a grey area in terms of legality. Although in the case of NFC chips it is a grain of rice and not of sand, this technology does seem to open the door to a mountain of possibilities.

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Tungsteno is a journalism laboratory to scan the essence of innovation. Devised by Materia Publicaciones Científicas for Sacyr’s blog.

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