Inside the Information Society: Are you ready for your implant?

This week’s blog post concerns what might happen if the Internet of Things begins to get under your skin.

Yesterday’s science fiction

Yesterday’s science fiction, it’s often said, becomes reality tomorrow.  Many of the wonders foretold by sci-fi writers in the past have become everyday aspects of our lives – not least that universal communications medium that we call the Internet.

This week and next I’ll look at what we think of two scifi-to-reality developments.  Next week, robots.  This week, digital implants.  In both cases, I’d say, we’ve underestimated their development by misunderstanding what’s matters most about them.

Implants, not cyborgs

Science fiction’s fascinated by our interplay with our technologies.  Some of it’s imagined what would happen if we were to blend identities: to become ‘cyborgs’, people that are part-human and part-hardware.  The Borg in Star Trek, for example; cylons in Battlestar Galactica. 

Fantasy, I hear you say.  But wait: what matters is the way that we relate to the high-tech aids we use and increasingly depend on.  If we rely on those devices to run our lives effectively – if we clutch them to our bodies and feel lost without them as many people do with mobile phones – how different is that from them becoming part of us?

It’s not transforming people into cyborgs that we need to think about.  It’s our dependency on our devices.  And the next stage of that is not transforming into cyborgs but the adoption, which seems likely in the next few years, of implants.  They’re nearer than we think.  Let me say why.

We’re already accustomed to the idea

First, we’re already quite accustomed to the idea.  We’re used to wearing near invisible devices that are permanently present and almost part of us: contact lenses and hearing aids, for example.  If we’re in developed countries, at least, we’re likely to know people with hardware in their bodies: artificial knees and hips, or heart defibrillators. 

And we likewise think that digital implants are fine for animals.  It’s a decade since a colleague at the LSE told me that there were more sheep than people on the Internet in Wales (a part of Britain).  Why?  Because chips to monitor their whereabouts – they’re mostly roaming hillsides – have been implanted in their bodies.  Dogs in Britain must by law be tagged with ID chips.

We’re on the cusp of digital implants for humans

Second, we’re beginning to see digital devices being implanted into people.  Companies, such as these in Sweden and Wisconsin, are encouraging their staff to have chips inserted in their hands to act as swipecards - to access buildings, PCs, photocopiers.  ‘Biohackers’, who are into this, are using them for fun.  Ask ordinary citizens how they’d feel about using an implanted chip instead of carrying a credit card, as a BBC consumer programme did recently, and a surprising number think it would be “cool”.

It’s easy to see the Internet of Things pointing in this direction.  More and more of the gadgets we rely on will be digital, and more and more of them will be connected.  There’ll be advantages in having those as close to us as possible.  

Upsides?

I can think of four main reasons why people are likely to go along with implants.

First, they’ll make clear sense in certain contexts.  My hearing aids already talk to one another and to their supplier.  That helps them do their job.  Heart monitors and other clinical implants should easily cut risks, give early warnings and save lives.  No-one’s seriously going to argue against them, and everyone with angina’s going to want one.  Why wear a fitbit on your wrist some of the time when you could have one in your wrist all of the time?

Second, they’re likely to be used for security objectives that will be widely thought acceptable.  Take prisoners released early on probation, for example.  Or abusers who’re told by courts they must avoid proximity to children or ex-partners.  Governments and courts are likely to propose implanted chips in place of ankle tags.  Rights advocates may be concerned but many citizens of many countries won’t be. 

Third, some employers are likely to make them a requirement, especially where security’s important – in the military, for example, in prisons, in high-tech factories, in hospitals.  Willingness to wear an implant could easily be required for employment (or promotion) – or made so critical to job-effectiveness as to be near-essential.  How different will this feel from willingness to wear a lanyard with your photo and your name on it, as is already common now?

But the biggest reason that they’re likely to be normalised is that they’ll be convenient.  Like the BBC interviewees I mentioned earlier, many people are likely to value convenience above any anxieties they have (as they already do with online privacy).  There is, in any case, an obvious trajectory here.  Debit and credit cards are more convenient than cash.  Contactless cards are more convenient than swipecards.  Implants will be more convenient than contactless.  And why stop there?  In time, who knows, the phone in your hand could really become the phone in your hand.  What’s not to like?

What about the downsides?

I’m being devil’s advocate a little here, but not entirely.  These four scenarios, I think, are likely enough within the next decade.  We could truly become part of the Internet of Things: not just using IoT devices but carrying some of them around inside us.  But there’s a lot here to concern us too, however big the benefits might be.  I’ll pick three reasons.

First, digital implants will mean our every movement’s monitored – even more than is the case while carrying our mobile phones.  Data on where we are, what we do, and with whom, already have enormous value.  Real-time data from implants may protect us from heart attacks, but they’ll also give advertisers new opportunities to target us and governments that so wish new opportunities to track our every act.  Those who are worried by ID cards should be really worried about ID chips.

Second, we’re likely to become dependent on them.  It’ll be more difficult for us to disengage from implants than it is to disengage from our existing digital devices – and that’s proved difficult enough.  We’re likely to be tied to particular providers and those providers could determine different levels of service for us.  (Tesla recently updated software remotely to help its car users beat hurricanes in Florida.  There’d be no difference in principle.)  Those regular software updates we know from PCs could soon be happening inside us.  Would that make our skin crawl or would we never feel a thing?

And third, we know that many IoT devices aren’t secure.  Like other IoT devices, implants will be vulnerable to hacking.  In many cases, the risks involved will be no worse than they are in the devices that we use today.  In some, their impact could be fatal.  In others, it could make us vulnerable to fraud or to extortion.  As I said last week, I think cybersecurity experts need to focus more on problems of the future such as this.

Where do we go from here?

Some of you, dear readers, may think I’m talking science fiction here, but the levels of machine translation and algorithmic decision-making that we have today were science fiction just ten years ago.  

And some of you may wonder what’s to worry over.  We’re already, many of us, highly dependent on digital devices and vulnerable to insecurity.  What’s the difference?

My point is that we’re likely to be faced with this new evolution in our information society soon, and that we need to think about it before it happens rather than trying to catch up afterwards.  Here, to end, are five questions I would ask:

  • How comfortable do we feel with the risks of exploitation and surveillance that would be involved in implanted digital devices – no matter how convenient we find them?

  • Who owns them?  Us?  Their manufacturers or software companies?  Our employers?  Parents?  In some cases, governments?

  • Does it matter less if devices are just passive (reacting when we need them to) than if they are active (constantly transmitting data on our whereabouts and behaviour)?

  • What are the ethical issues here?  (They’re not unique.  They apply equally to at least one other new technology, gene editing.)

  • And should innovation here be regulated?  Are we content that it should be ‘permissionless’, or should the precautionary principle that’s the norm in (say) medical research apply?

Next week, some thoughts on robots. 

Image: A surgeon implants British scientist Dr Mark Gasson in his left hand with an RFID microchip (16 March 2009). Source: Wikimedia Commons

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