Volunteers in Melbourne have had microchips inserted for three months, designed to unlock doors and carry out other tasks. Will they really be any use?
The microchip is about the size of a grain of rice and usually inserted in the webbing between the thumb and forefinger using a needle the same thickness as used in body piercing.
It feels, says insertable technology expert Kayla Heffernan, like getting a drip.
Once the needle is removed the incision heals in a few days and the microchip remains, allowing the wearer to open doors with the brush of a hand – provided they only wish to access one particular place.
Commercially available insertable microchips are only large enough to hold one access code and a small amount of other information, so the days of replacing an entire wallet and keychain with a tiny computer under the skin are not yet upon us.
The future is coming, but it’s not in a rush.
Ten volunteers received a microchip at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne on Wednesday to mark the launch of Pause Fest, a technology and culture festival now in its eighth year.
Their chips were preloaded with a three-day pass to the festival and will be programmed to unlock the door to their home, gym, or workplace, or potentially to function as their public transport pass.
When the festival is held in four months time, the volunteers will take part in a panel with Heffernan to talk about whether they found the chips useful.
Heffernan has had one microchip between her thumb and forefinger for almost 18 months, which she uses to unlock her front door. She got another on the outer edge of her other hand last November to access her office at Melbourne University.
She is doing a PhD on the applications of insertable technology and decided to get a chip after a year spent listening to people wax lyrical about the convenience of never having to carry their keys.
“If I want I can just walk out without any keys, my key is in my hand so I can’t forget it, which is handy because I have locked myself out before,” Heffernan says.
“Some people use it to unlock their phones or their computers. Some people have modified their cars and one person even their motorbike, so it’s not only access to their house but it’s access to their vehicle and to turn it on. Obviously that requires quite a bit of microelectronics and physical mechanical work, and that’s not accessible for everyone.”
Heffernan’s original chip usually contains a link to her website, which people can access if they scan her hand with their phone, provided they have the near-field communication (NFC) capabilities switched on. At the moment it just says “hello” because she is demonstrating that it could be reprogrammed.
The security risk, she says, is quite low.
“The read range is very short, so you have to be touching my hand,” she says. “I’m going to know if that’s happened. And even for a nefarious purpose, if someone knocked me out, let’s say, it has my website on it. It doesn’t have anything useful that they’re going to be able to take.”
Insertable microchips made global headlines earlier this year when Stockholm firm Epicentre gave its staff the option of having an insertable chip in lieu of a swipe card. Three Square Market, a tech company in Wisconsin, followed suit.
Both stories raised concerns that the chip would allow employees to be tracked and their productivity mapped by companies, which would be able to tell how many bathroom breaks they were taking.
But Heffernan says that’s more a reflection of science fiction-obsessed news reporters than any actual privacy risk. She says it is possible the chip could be used to track bathroom breaks but that would only be if employees required people to swipe to get into the bathroom, a function that could also be tracked via a standard swipe card.
“The chip has no tracking capabilities,” Heffernan says. “They don’t have any battery and they don’t have any GPS sensors … If someone was going to track you, they’d use your cell phone.”
The current models of microchip are not much more sophisticated than those that have been embedded in the neck of most household pets for more than two decades.
Developers are working on a model that will be able to hold more than one number, meaning the same card can be used to hold multiple access codes and on a chip that has the level of encryption required to be able to handle payments.
“If you could use it for everywhere, so work, home, gym and only need one chip, that kind of gives people more incentive to get one,” Heffernan says. “Payments are the killer application. As soon as you can pay with it, more and more people will go ahead and get these.”
The founder of Pause Fest, George Hedon, says he expects most of the volunteers will have tried to hack into their microchip and expand its application by the time the festival begins next year.
“They will also be able to come to the festival and wave their hands like Lord Vader to come in,” Hedon says.
More than 1,000 attendees, 150 speakers, and 75 start-up companies are expected to attend the festival, which runs from 7 to 9 February.
Among the presenters are Netflix, which will talk about the use of artificial intelligence to design its original productions based on demographic and viewing data, and Nasa.
“Before they even get out to the audience they know who will watch it,” Hedon says. “It’s pretty scary but it’s very effective.”