Are bio-chips going to have a greater impact than wearables?

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett March 21, 2016
Bio-hackers believe that human chip implants are the next logical step on from wearable technology. But there is still a long way to go before such devices hit the mainstream.

Imagine a scenario where, rather than scrabble around for loose change to buy that tempting snack from a vending machine, you simply tapped your hand on a reader and your treat was delivered.

Or instead of suffering the endless morning routine of scrambling about in bags to unearth your travel card as the commuting crowds surge around you, you could actually use your hand as the ticket.

This is the vision of a small, but steadily growing community of so-called “bio- hackers” around the world. Bio-hackers are people who hack or modify their bodies in a variety of different ways in a bid to enhance their physical or mental abilities.

Such activities include implanting bio-chips into their hands so they can undertake tasks such as opening the doors to their homes or offices without requiring keys or access cards.

According to Hannes Sjoblad, founder of Swedish bio-hacker group BioNyfiken and chief disruption officer at Epicenter, a digital hub in the centre of Stockholm, community members range in age from 15 to 50 and come from all different types of backgrounds. He explains the appeal:

The most important driver is curiosity. The common denominator is that we’re curious about technology and not afraid of it. But to use it effectively, you need to play with it. So there’s definitely an aspect of experimentation - sharing knowledge and insights and giving an illustration of what you can do with modern technology. But there’s also an understanding that people in authority, that is government and big companies, might want to push implants on customers or users. So it’s very important in the bio-hacking community that we understand how the technology works so that we know how to ask the right questions.

Another driver, says Amal Graafstra, a pioneer in the bio-chip implant space, is the lack of interest among large manufacturers, which currently see it was a niche market with all kinds of potential legal liability problems. He continues:

If big companies can’t sell a billion of them in the first year, they’re not really interested. So these solutions wouldn’t come any other way, or at least they’d be 20 years out. [Bio-hacking] is about people who understand what’s possible today, but know it’s just not viable for a big company to do – that’s the appeal. The key driver is that it’s faster [to do it yourself] than waiting for an “Apple Implant” or whatever.

Graafstra kick-started the current movement when, in 2005, he implanted a RFID chip that was routinely used for tagging animals into his hand to gain easy access to his office. He then set up today’s sole producer of RFID- and NFC-based bio-chips for humans called eight years later in the greater Seattle area of the US.

The aim was not only to sell his implants (about $99 each) to a wider audience, but also to stop so-called “grinders” - the name for people, Graafstra says, who “upgrade their bodies with hardware” themselves - from doing themselves damage, not least due to infection.

To this end, the DangerousThings website hosts a list of trained professional body piercers and body modification experts who are experienced in safety procedures. They insert the 2mm by 12mm tags, which are said to last indefinitely and are similar to a grain rice but with rounded corners, into the webbing between the thumb and index finger.

Removal is similar to taking out a splinter and can be undertaken with the small cut of a scalpel.

As to how big the overall market is, meanwhile, more than 10,000 people are believed to have purchased bio-chips to date. But the profile of customers has begun to morph as time goes on. Graafstra explains:

I started DangerousThings in 2013 and, at the time, the market was just geeks and people who understood the technology like electronics hobbyists. But over the last few years, it’s grown into more of a general-interest thing. It’s probably the same process that happened with body piercing – it started off very niche in the beginning and grew in popularity. So now we’re seeing people buy the product and say ‘OK – what do we do with it? We want to unlock our door and stuff’. They’re not really familiar with the technology, they’re just familiar with the fact this is happening. So it’s a functional body augmentation like a piercing might be.

Going mainstream

To really take off and move into the mainstream though, the market requires an irresistible killer app. BioNyfiken’s Sjoblad believes this app could take the form of contactless payment in stores or as a ticket replacement on public transport – although the key challenges here are less technical and more about convincing payment providers to licence and approve the technology.

Bio-monitoring to measure vital signs such as people’s heartbeat or temperature is another area with potential, not least in replacing existing activity trackers.

Rainer Bock, head of PR for the strategic projects group at Kaspersky Lab - who was the third of 10 executives at the security software company to have a bio-chip implant enabling him to open doors at its Moscow office - believes:

Implantables are the next step after wearables and, sooner or later, they’ll be adopted. But it’s very difficult to say how quickly the market will grow because many people are reluctant to implant something into their body so it’s currently driven by early adopters and the curious. But when one of the big players move into this, the whole market will change, which is why we wanted to understand the security implications.

As a result, after meeting members of BioNyfiken by chance, Kaspersky worked on a project with them at the start of last year to do just that. It discovered in the process that security issues with the chips are currently minimal – their tiny size means they can only hold 880bytes of data, which although unencrypted, only equates to public information such as a personal and company name, a telephone number and an email address.

Moreover, the chip’s reach is negligible, which means that users need to physically touch a reader for it to work. This scenario makes it unlikely that a third party could hack information without the person concerned being aware of it. Therefore Bock says:

We see no big security issues with current chips because the data and reach are so limited. But in five years time, if chips are more powerful and have more memory, there could be problems then.

Firstly, a more powerful chip, although able to offer more functionality and thus support more sophisticated applications, would probably be bigger in size. As a result, rather than simply inject them into users’ hands as is currently the case, it might be necessary to cut into them – a proposition unlikely to be welcomed by many.

Secondly, more power implies both a longer reach and the ability to hold increasing amounts of personal data, which in turn would need to be encrypted for safety purposes. But encrypting information requires either a power supply or power storage capability – and it seems improbable that the majority of people would opt for a battery implant either, Bock believes.

One alternative might be to create an encryption standard for chip readers though, while another could be to build a more secure version of NFC. Work is also going on within the bio-hacker community to develop energy generators within blood vessels and ways of harvesting body heat, BioNyfiken’s Sjoblad points out.

But Graafstra intends to release a series of new bio-chips over the next 12-18 months that he believes will open up “a lot of new applications and possibilities”.

He is “hoping to have some results” from his work on power storage by the summer, which will see “the apps spring from there”. He concludes:

I think the potential market is going to grow in the next few years to include a wide range of

Businessman in gray suit viewing data concept on wrist wearable © Sergey Nivens - Fotolia
different people, which is really going to ease the social tension around these devices – and that’s really the biggest hurdle right now. People that are really interested today, they get it logically. They get that this is less risky and more functional than a piercing. But there’s still this kind of visceral reaction from people who don’t understand the technology and don’t see why they would want to use it. They don’t have any immediate use for it so they don’t bother to think about it logically, and the kind of icky factor remains.

My take

The mainstream adoption of bio-chip technology has a long way to go – most pundits believe it to be at least five to 10 years out. The highest obstacles will undoubtedly be psychological and cultural, but if people can see use cases in which they feel the benefits outweigh the intrusiveness factor – a reduction in insurance premiums for customers willing to undertake bio-monitoring, for instance – then the technology could indeed supercede the up-and-coming wearables market over time.

[Updated to correct the claimed life of chip implants from 10 years to indefinite].

A grey colored placeholder image