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RFID chips: a key to more or less freedom?

23/06/15 11:25 CET

RFID chips: a key to more or less freedom?
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Losing his keys is no longer a concern for Sandro Portner: all he needs to do to open his front door is swipe his hand in front of this chip reader.

A fan of new technology, this young man from Switzerland has had two Radio Frequency Identification chips implanted into his body. He is part of a new generation of what some have branded “enhanced human beings”.

“I’m not saying it’s indispensable. But I’m a high-tech fan and it’s an invention I was interested in trying out, and it’s easy to remove,” he explains. “People think it’s really weird to get an implant. And then, they see the result and they think, I could try that, too, maybe one day the chip will allow me to do even more things.”

Opening doors or switching on your smartphone: these are just some of the uses for these chips and the range of new applications is growing.

The size of a grain of rice encapsulated in bioactive glass, the chips don’t affect the human organism according to developers.

Even tattoo artists have started implanting them.

“We’ve had between 70 and 80 people come in and get implants,” explains tattoo artist Deady Leeman. “They come in waves: one person will get an implant and then others will see the result and they will want one too.”

Is this technology really useful? For Swiss anthropologist Daniela Cerqui, it’s all about today’s luxury becoming tomorrow’s necessity: “The notion of usefulness is something that evolves,” she says. “We are in a consumer society where the stakes are always higher. Today, some things seem useless or even ridiculous, but tomorrow or the day after, they will seem essential, because we will have got used to the fact that they are technically possible.”

This may certainly be the case in the medical field. At the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, researchers have developped an RFID micro-chip which tracks molecules like cholesterol and can help adjust their drug intake for patients.

“There are many applications. In oncology for example, you can measure anti-cancer drugs, which can be dangerous, so it’s important to adjust the quantities you give a patient,” says Professor Sandro Carrara.

It is a project which has fed all kinds of rumours, especially over the internet. In 2011, many websites announced that such implants would become compulsory in the United States as part of president Barack Obama’s newly introduced healthcare plan – a hoax which has since been exposed.

In one office in the Swedish capital Stockholm, RFID chips allow wearers to open doors, swap contact details or use the photocopier, all with the wave of a hand. Developers want to explore what possibilities the chip offers, and see how products and services can be developed around the technology.

“Here, you can open doors using your chip, you can do secure printing from our printers with the chip but you can also communicate with your mobile phone by sending your business card to individuals that you meet,” explains Patrick Mesterton, co-founder and CEO of Epicenter Office.

According to developers, since the amount of metal in the chip is so small, there is no risk of it setting off metal detectors, and it is also safe during MRI scans or when using an induction oven. It is also very unlikely to break inside the body as it is buffered by the surrounding skin and tissue.

“It felt pretty scary, but at the same time it felt very modern, very 2015,” says user Lin Kowalska.

Its developers say such a chip cannot be tracked so there is no risk of privacy intrusion. The fact is, it’s already in our lives. It now remains to be seen what this form of transhumanism holds for us in the future.

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