Our current poll question asks whether you would allow someone to implant a radio chip in your body if it could make life more convenient. Just being able to ask such a question without laughing out loud shows how far we've changed in our mindset over the years when it comes to human-machine interfaces. As of today, voting is running about dead even on the issue. We asked the question because our cover story this month concerns a young entrepreneur who decided to be one of the first to have a radio-frequency identification (RFID) tag implanted under his skin. In "Hands On", Amal Graafstra explains what drove him to take this extraordinary step and what he has learned from the experience.
An ardent RFID enthusiast, Graafstra writes that he first considered the unique move in order to solve the very practical problem of dealing with the large amount of key cards he had to use to access the medical servers he managed in his job at the time as a computer troubleshooter. Bothered by lugging around bulky key rings, he opted to sort of become a living key card. So now, as he notes, instead of reaching for a key when he comes to a door, he just waves his hand in front of it and he's in business. As the current catchphrase goes: So how's that working out for him? Apparently, by his own account, not too bad (he even persuaded his girlfriend to join him in the experiment).
Graafstra isn't the first person to have tried this novel idea, of course. In 1998, Kevin Warwick, a professor of cybernetics at the University of Reading, in England, implanted an RFID tag above his left elbow, which he used to control doors, lights, and computers around his office. Since then, more than 2000 people worldwide have willingly had RFID tags implanted into themselves. The most common reason is to alert doctors to medical conditions, such as diabetes, should they be admitted to a hospital unconscious. By scanning the tag, doctors can identify the patient and access personal medical information. Although, in some cases, the rationale might be more frivolous: some nightclubs have used them to let patrons enter VIP rooms and bill drinks directly to their accounts.
The bold (or as some have called him, the "nutty") Graafstra admits that his RFID implants never did solve the problem of getting rid of all the keys in his life. Still, he seems to be enjoying his futuristic fling at the edge of technological limitations. He has set up a Web site, naturally, for other RFID techies to discuss their possibilities and says that, for now, he's just happy to observe how others develop this trend and see where the technology may lead next. It's an intriguing story.