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Is human chip implant wave of the future?

chip implant
The implant contains an electric coil and several silicon chips

Would you consider having microchips implanted in your body?

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January 14, 1999
Web posted at: 3:21 p.m. EST (2021 GMT)

by Sam Witt

(IDG) -- Is the human body a fit place for a microchip? The debate is no longer hypothetical. The same computing power that once required an entire building to harness now can be inserted in your left arm.

Better yet, somebody else's left arm.

Professor Kevin Warwick, director of cybernetics at the University of Reading in the U.K., is that somebody else. On Monday, Aug. 24, 1998, Warwick became the first human to host a microchip. During a 20-minute medical procedure described as "a routine silicon-chip implant" by Dr. George Boulos, who led the operation, doctors inserted into Warwick's arm a glass capsule not much bigger than a pearl. The capsule holds several microprocessors.

The British Broadcasting Corp. was on hand to document the historic event - and to trouble the professor's already frayed nerves. "In theory, I was able to see what was going on," Warwick says in a phone interview several days after the operation (which he described as slightly more pleasant than a trip to the dentist), "but I was looking in the opposite direction most of the time."

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Although Warwick winces at the comparison, Boulos likens him to a latter-day Edward Jenner, who injected himself with cowpox in 1776 to further his research into a smallpox vaccine.

"The doctor pinched the skin and lifted it up and sort of burrowed a hole . . . underneath the skin and on top of the muscle," Warwick says. "It's well inside my body, in my left arm, just above my elbow. [It's] held in place by three stitches - partly so that the wound is held together, but also so that the capsule doesn't float around anywhere."

Though he declines to reveal the chip's manufacturer, Warwick did disclose that it's a "commercial" product. "For obvious reasons, both positive and negative, they didn't want us shouting about what the name of the exact product was," he says.

The approximately 23mm-by-3mm device stayed in Warwick's arm for only nine days - partly to avoid medical complications, partly because it was fairly limited in power. "Half of it is an electric coil," Warwick says, "and half is a number of silicon chips." The chips used only eight of an available 64 bits of information to communicate with the University of Reading's intelligent building.

Which brings us to the question: Why?

Warwick has spent more than 20 years researching and developing intelligent buildings. "In our building in the Cybernetics department, we've got quite a number of doorways rigged up so that they pass a radio signal between the door frame," he says. "When I go through the doorways, the radio signal energizes the coil. It produces an electric current, which the chips use to send out an identifying signal, which the computer recognizes as being me."

And so, for a little better than a week, doors that normally require smart cards swung open for the professor. A system of electronic nodes tracked his movements throughout the building. Lights blinked on when he entered a room.

"Hello, Professor Warwick," his PC announced when Warwick crossed the threshold of his office, before casually mentioning how many E-mail messages he had received. It also was reported that Warwick used the device to run a bath and chill his wine.

How did he like it? "In my building I feel much more powerful, in a mental way," Warwick says. "Not at one with the computer, but much, much closer. We're not separate. It's not as though we're good friends or anything. But certainly when I'm out of the building, I feel as though part of me is missing."

Asked if he named his chip, Warwick laughs. "I don't see it as a separate thing," he says. "It's like an arm or a leg."

Warwick's family was a little slower than his body to accept the chip. "My wife finds it really strange," he says. "She didn't want to go near my arm for a couple of days. It was as though I had some funny disease." His 16-year-old daughter reportedly called him "crazy."

And the day after the operation, Warwick played a game of squash with his son, but not before issuing a stern warning: "Whatever you do, don't hit my arm. The implant could just shatter, and you'll have ruined your father's arm for life."

Real-world applications

Though the experiment sounds like an episode of Dr. Who, its real-world implications are "right around the corner," says Warwick, who foresees enormous medical applications. Through a system of embedded chips interfacing with an artificial motor system, Warwick imagines paraplegics walking. And that's just for starters.

"Simply take measurements off muscles and tendons and feed them into the transponder," Warwick says. "That means, ultimately, that you wouldn't need a computer mouse anymore. You wouldn't need a keyboard."

Charles Ostman, a senior fellow at the Institute for Global Futures and science editor at Mondo 2000, agrees. "Neuroprosthetics are . . . inevitable," he says. "Biochip implants may become part of a rote medical procedure. After that, interface with outside systems is a logical next step."

Warwick's eagerness is palpable, engaging, contagious. "This is where you can speculate," he says. "This is where we take a technical thing and say, 'Right-o, got the signal, got the implant; all I've got to do is run a wire from the implant to my nervous system.' . . . I'm so excited about it, I want to get on with the next step straight away. Let's see if we can control computers directly from our nervous system."

Witt is a freelance writer in San Francisco. Top photo by Mark Harrison. Bottom two photos provided by INS Newsgroup.

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