From pacemakers that keep the heart beating to swallowable sensors that can tell when someone takes their meds, people have been implanting machines into their bodies for decades.
But a growing trend in bodily implants — inserting a computer chip under the skin — is more about morphing people into literal cyborgs than addressing a medical condition.
“I’m turning the internet of things into the internet of us,” said Jowan Osterlund in an interview with Recode. Osterlund is the founder of Biohax, a Swedish company that specializes in injecting small microchips, about the size of a grain of rice, under people’s skin.
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The microchips, says Osterlund, can be programed to speak to other networked devices, like coffee makers, speakers or doors with electronic locks. The idea is that it’s more convenient to wave your hand in front of the door than use a key card.
Inserted by a syringe into the skin between the thumb and the index finger, the chips communicate with other devices using Near Field Communication. It’s a wireless way of linking devices in close proximity to each other, similar to the way Bluetooth works. Contactless payment systems, like Apple Pay, also use NFC.
Last year, Microsoft invited Biohax to its TechDays conference in Sweden to implant some of the speakers at the conference, as well as a few Microsoft executives in attendance, according to Osterlund.
Scientists have been implanting animals with microchips for years — to help track down lost pets or monitor endangered species. In the U.K., microchipping dogs became a mandatory practice in 2016.
The procedure for humans, though, could raise concerns about security. If hacked, microchips implanted inside the body could be read to reveal a person’s location and length of time spent somewhere, as well as information about your health or any data stored on the chip.
All kinds of medical devices can be hacked, after all. In 2015, the Food and Drug Administration recommended hospitals stop using a line of drug infusion devices after a security researcher discovered how easy it would be for a hacker to commandeer the device and overdose a patient.
Biohacking has become kind of a niche community in the past few years. Companies like Dangerous Things, a biohacking supply company based in Seattle that sells microchips and all the gear needed to insert the devices under the skin, have sprouted up. There’s also Grindhouse Wetwear, a biohacking company based out of Pittsburgh, that’s created a LED star that can be implanted under the skin to light up when activated by a magnet.
Elon Musk is even reportedly starting a new company, Neuralink, which will make implants for the human brain that can wirelessly interface with a computer. Though details on the new venture are thin, Musk hinted at the idea at Recode’s Code Conference last year, when he described a “digital layer” located above the cortex, built into the brain.
Musk hopes that one day the technology, which he calls “neural lace,” could be used to improve brain function and help humans keep apace with rapid advancements in artificial intelligence.
—By April Glaser, Re/code.net.
CNBC’s parent NBCUniversal is an investor in Recode’s parent Vox, and the companies have a content-sharing arrangement.