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Computing

Is that a chip in your shoulder, or are you just happy to see me?

September 2, 1998
Web posted at 3:12 PM EDT

by Fred McClimans

From...

(IDG) -- How much is convenience worth to you? How much would you pay (or give up) to:

  1. Have doors open (but only for you) whenever you walk near?
  2. Have your elevator recognize you and automatically select the correct floor?
  3. Have your car automatically unlock itself for you (only) and only be able to start when you (and nobody else) are sitting in the driver's seat?
  4. Have your computer configured to only allow you to gain full access, regardless of passwords or physical keys?

Well, all these things are now on the horizon, thanks to a gent by the name of Kevin Warwick. Professor Warwick is the head of the Cybernetics Department at the University of Reading in the UK. The professor has become the world's first cybernetic man, or so he claims, by inserting an active microchip into his arm. Powered by an electrical coil (passive) that reacts to nearby electrical fields, this device trips nearby sensors, causing them to activate various computer processes as he walks by.

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As to his notion that he is the first, I seem to recall a few ex-soldiers (who happen to be current militia members) complaining about a similar feature installed by Uncle Sam. And of course all this is strikingly similar to Bill Gates' plan to computerize his gazillion-dollar house. But Bill only thought of using lapel pins rather than surgically altering himself and his guests (which can only lead me to the conclusion that Bill has a Star Trek fetish, couldn't find a surgeon willing to work for stock, or didn't think of this and is nowhere the visionary he pretends to be...).

Oh, sure, there are certain drawbacks to having yourself implanted with active microchips. Think of the privacy implications: If you can set up sensors to detect your presence, so could somebody else.

But look on the bright side: Who wouldn't want to stop worrying about where they put their keys or Mobil Speed Pass? And no more remembering pesky PINs, passwords or social-security numbers. Medical information could also be dumped onto your forearm chip. We could even probably away with those pesky "home arrest" bracelets used to monitor the criminal element in their own homes (imagine how different the Caine Mutiny would have been if Queeg had had chips in all of his crew - no strawberry problem there!).

Most important, however, is that with this type of technology, we might be able to actually improve on our ability to track personal information and habits even more completely than we do today. Let's face it, for all the cries to regulate personal information, what information is out there is generally pretty poor.

I've done some checking recently, and much of what is available on the 'Net today is either outdated, incomplete, or simply wrong. Once you get into a database, you never get out. Too many directories update their databases sporadically, if at all. I've seen more than a few entries where an individual has two or three different home addresses, phone numbers, email accounts, etc.

Similarly, while those programs that track user habits on the 'Net do a much better job of entering in near real-time information, they do a very poor job of checking to see who the user really is (I'm getting tired of having Spice Girl pages suggested every time I access a search engine/portal after my kid is done using the family computer).

So perhaps the answer is to use this type of new bio-security device to accurately track information regarding what we are doing, and who is actually doing it. In fact, we can probably make a quick buck here to boot. Let's say we all get together and implant everybody with these new chips.

Are they safe? Sure - they've been using variations to track dogs for some time now. The key, and the way we make money, is that the "information hounds" pay us to have these chips implanted. In exchange for accurate information, we get paid! Rather than let them get their information for free, and get much of it wrong, we'll guarantee its accuracy - for a price.

Of course, there is an easier way. We could finally get some common sense in Congress and pass a few laws that would prohibit organizations - of any type - from releasing information without the consent of the source, and from releasing any information that has not been verified, from the source. The EU is already heading down this path (much to the chagrin of US businesses and Congress). So what will it be: common sense or computer chips?

Sadly, I think the answer is chips. Let's face it, the potential value is too great. Soon we'll be able to implant chips that react in extremely specialized ways, allowing us to guard some level of information, while taking advantage of some level of "public" information - but even that is a bit of a scary thought.

Fred McClimans is CEO of Current Analysis, an intelligence and analysis firm. He can be reached at fred@currentanalysis.com

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