Under-the-skin implants: Health tracking or Facebook feed to the brain?

Past generations are known to hate the latest tech trend. In 1902, for instance, The Publisher’s Circular put in a good word for the “long walk” during that time of “rapid artificial locomotion”. Today, Baby Boomers complain about cell phones. Forty years in the future, Millennials might be complaining about under-the-skin implants.

People instinctively see their bodies as extensions of themselves and anything that enters as an invader. This, admittedly understandable, instinct drives certain phobias, most commonly trypanophobia – the fear of needles.

Implants are common in science fiction literature and film, but it’s rare to find a positive example: At the far end of horror, mechanized monsters like the Alien facehugger or the Matrix agents’ literal bugs inject helpless victims against their will. In thrillers or dystopian fiction, “cut tracker out of wrist” is at the top of every renegade freedom fighter’s to-do list. Even Fear Factor takes advantage of the horror of bodily invasion when it forces contestants to swallow live insects.

Cyberpunk fiction might often contest the perception of the “naturalness of the boundary between nature and technology”, but popular media certainly hasn’t. The stigma against body modding remains strong. And, in real life, the implanting of tracking devices has made headlines in a sharply negative light.

Last October, a woman at a hospital in a major American city — unnamed for patient confidentiality — claimed her boyfriend had implanted a tracking chip in her, and she had the incision to prove it. Her boyfriend was a human trafficker who had been pimping her out with a metallic cylinder the size of a large grain of rice in her side. 

The current state of under-the-skin tech: RFIDs

The device, a subdermal radio-frequency identification (RFID) chip, is the only under-the-skin tracking chip that can be feasibly used today, for one major reason: It doesn’t use GPS positioning to track its location. It merely identifies itself with a unique, electronically stored code — like a barcode on a bag of chips — but underneath the skin. The RFID is great for IDing domestic or wild animals, but can’t aid human traffickers in tracking down their escaped sex slaves. In that case of abuse, the chip was likely a simple scare tactic.

However, despite the fears from human instinct and popular culture, notable instances of willing use of RFID chips in humans have arisen in recent years. Some Mexicans scared of abductions rely on them.

The Mexican RFID chip-implanting company Xega saw an uptick in sales several years ago, matching an increase in kidnappings. As CEO Diego Kuri claimed in a 2011 article, “30% of our clients arrive after someone in their family has already experienced a kidnapping”. Former attorney general Rafael Macedo has confirmed his own chip implant. While the company holds that it has rescued 178 clients within a decade by sending radio signals to their chips following disappearances, the simple fact that RFID chips are incapable of sending signals without a bulky GPS-system. RFID researcher Mark Corner’s opinion of Xena’s operation: “It’s nonsense”.

This nonsense also surfaced in 2008 as the “ID Sniper Rifle”, a prank/art project from Danish artists Jakob Boeskov and Kristian von Bengtson. The rifle was purported to shoot a micro-GPS allowing police to track any suspects within their scopes. While the device was fictional, the hoax worked by capturing the public’s fear of being tracked, much as the Mexicans ran towards RFID chips due to their fear of not being tracked.

Whether positive or negative, interest in implantable technology is impossible to ignore. But can future innovations deliver?

The battery problem might soon be cracked

One final problem keeps subdermal tech from a wide range of applications, the need for power. Any devices will need to receive electric power from within the human body, and the prohibitive size of currently available batteries prevents any device less conspicuous than a massive tumor. But that might change, thanks to a team of Stanford researchers who have been making advances in wireless power technologies over the last few years.

In 2013, the team proved that a wireless transfer from an implanted device to a nearby receiver is theoretically possible when relying on a short-range frequency higher than conventional radio waves. The waves were chosen specifically for their ability to travel through the body rather than through air, in a manner comparable to the train track vibrations that signal the arrival of a train. This approach removes the need for a battery, and could be useful for select medical needs including drug delivery and treatment of neurological disorders.

Ada Poon, assistant professor of electrical engineering, led the Stanford team to another discovery in 2014, when short-range waves successfully powered pacemakers implanted within pig and rabbit test subjects. The waves’ ability is no longer theoretical. Should this technology become certified for commercial use, we may soon see microsized medical devices that can be charged simply through holding a credit-card-sized receiver to one’s body. Maybe one day under-the-skin devices implanted in one’s wrist can be kept perpetually powered through a conveniently located smartwatch.

The tech fields most likely to benefit in the future: baby tracking and health

The microchipped baby was one trend hyped in mid-2015, though it remains a desire instead of a reality, as GPS trackers are too bulky. Parents’ interest in tracking their infants’ location provides the largest takeaway: BrickHouse Security, a New York-based security and surveillance company, receives around two requests a day about the possibility of microchipping infants. “If we don’t get a call a day, I’ll probably think our phone system’s broken,” BrickHouse CEO Todd Morris was quoted to say.

While the needed battery size makes a baby microchip impossible, the company’s most popular item is a small $129 rectangle that achieves the same purpose while attached to a child’s belt. Gen X and Millennials’ body horror, apparently, is no match for their helicopter parenting instinct.

One field stands to benefit the most from the rise of implantable tech: The health industry. Tech implants in the liver, heart, or brain could monitor vitals to immediately alert medical professionals when needed. A mini Fitbit could pass exercise advice to an app while nestled in the shielding comfort of your upper arm fat. Extrapolating farther, you can imagine an implant that periodically tests blood cells for cancers or other diseases that typically require a blood sample to be extracted from the body.

The value of these health devices is obvious enough to justify an under-the-skin location that might otherwise seem invasive. While today’s consumers might balk at a Facebook feed in their brain, few would refuse the chance to diagnose pancreatic cancer — one of the most rapidly acting common malignancies — at the earliest possible stage.

Ultimately, the future seems bright for under-the-skin technology. It will always need a justification for its location. But once the battery problem is solved, a world of implantable tech will open up. Perhaps, like getting a tooth implant or receiving a shot, implanting a tiny chip might eventually be considered a process standard enough that a cybernetic Facebook feed won’t need much justification.


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Adam Rowe

Adam Rowe is a freelance science and technology writer. He splits his freelance research time between finding bizarre science facts and bizarre science fiction, documenting it all @AdamRRowe.

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