8 questions to ask your friendly office cyborg

I love scary movies, because I enjoy the thrill of the unknown. A good spook film works on the premise that, ‘the less you show, the scarier you make it’, because we can’t anticipate the consequences of something we can’t see.

And ‘spooky’ was my initial reaction when one of my colleagues recently told me she’d had a chip injected into the back of her hand. When the WTF moment passed, I felt a little intrigued, and a little freaked out.

No stranger to body augmentation, nearly everyone I know has piercings, or tattoos, and my dad’s spine is kept upright with titanium plates. I rationalised that it’s not the implant itself that leaves me with mild psychological dread, but the unknown ‘function’ of the chip.

So, I sat down with Pernille, a business developer-cyborg here at Hello Group to learn more about her chip implant, the transhumanist movement, and possible consequences of augmenting humans with technology.

Why did you get chipped?

I’d been to a few events where I heard people from Singularity University talking about transhumanism, which is essentially the belief that our current state of human evolution is not the final one. The argument goes that we’ve already passed through several stages of human evolution, so why shouldn’t there be yet another stage. Kind of thought provoking. It places us humans — and even more importantly our possibilities — in a different light, I think.

At these events, there were some interesting examples of augmenting the human body as part of embracing this evolutionary belief — some more gimmicky than others — but it got me thinking.

I see a huge potential to place technology in the background and create much more intelligent solutions around for example security, safety or health, to name a few. Just imagine if you never had to remember your pincode, or your wallet or keys. Or, what if you were in an accident and the ambulance crew could access your medical history to check if you have allergies, or if you’re a donor. Or, if you were unable to start your car, because you’d had too much to drink, that accident would never happen in the first place.

There are vast possibilities when you embrace the idea of using technology. But not as an external artefact that we sometimes use quite clumsily to supplement our physical limitations, but something that can be seamlessly intertwined with our bodies to account for irrationalities, or improve our capabilities — or lack of.

So back to the reason why I got chipped. When I talked to people about the potential for designing solutions using chip implants — like friends or colleagues — most people were surprisingly resistant to the idea and its potential. The response was basically that the general public wouldn’t engage in such a radical and sci-fi-ish measure — not today, not tomorrow, and not in the near future.

I disagreed. It’s not so scary. I think as individuals and as a society we can and should dare to push frontiers, and not accept the status quo. So, when I encountered the frowning brows again and again, I just thought ‘Fuck it’ and when the first opportunity presented itself, I did it!

How do people tend to react when you tell them?

Most people are surprised — surprised in a positive way, I think. Quite a few seem to find it fascinating, and I guess perhaps also a bit unexpected. I work in a quite commercial role, albeit at a creative company, but I’m probably not the most likely candidate to experiment with, or promote something like this. But to be honest, I enjoy contrast and the unexpected — some people who know me well would say I’m rebellious — but the point is that it’s a great tool to get people to stop and reflect.

That said, people are very open. As we get into the conversation, basically everyone can see the value that can be created, and most buy into the idea of getting a chip themselves. It’s been a quite fun shift in how people react, compared to when I didn’t have the chip and just explained it.

In a purely professional context, it’s also been rewarding. Right now, it has novelty value and people find it surprisingly interesting, so I’ve done presentations to several clients about the experience, relevant use cases and possible long term implications. It all helps to demystify it, and the bottom line is that the future is really not too far away — it’s just about going out there and grabbing it!

Where did you get it done?

Last autumn I was at an event where the Swedish piercer and CEO of BioHax International, Jowan Österlund brought the kit along to chip people. As far as I understand, it’s illegal to do chip implantations in Denmark, but interestingly, it seems quite proactively pursued in Sweden.

Was it painful?

It’s as painful as any small injection and it works the same way — just a needle, sterilising wipes and rubber gloves. It literally took about two seconds to actually inject the small chip, which is the size of a grain of rice. Of course, the needle leaves a small wound like a normal injection, but it doesn’t take long to heal.

The chip sits just under the skin between the bones of the thumb and forefinger, so it can’t dislodge or move around your body. And it’s a handy place to access, when you want to use it. To get it out — for example to upgrade the chip — then all it takes is a small incision, and with a bit of pressure, it should just pop out.

Could you get hacked?

Yes. It’s an NFC chip, which means Near Field Communication. Current versions can’t hold encrypted data, but Jowan and his friends are working on getting optimised versions to market during 2017 I think, which will enable a new set of use cases. The chip can be programmed with an NFC reader on your phone, or a small device plugged into your computer, just like you code a hotel room key card.

Right now, it only stores data and holds an ID. Another device is needed to read the information on the chip, say to identify the ID or read a link, and then perform an action like opening a lock, or performing a command. So basically you shouldn’t put information on it that you don’t want other people to see.

You mentioned that human evolution is an ongoing process, but with transhumanism we’re directing or shaping that process. Do you think that just because we can, we should?

Definitely. Humans have a lot of flaws that can be corrected. But it’s a process that comes with humungous responsibility, and ethical considerations. Opponents of human augmentation and transhumanism say it’s not natural, but what is? You can argue that everything on this planet is natural — it’s something that we’ve created and if we are natural, then it follows that anything we are capable of creating is natural as well.

But to be frank, I think it’s an irrelevant discussion. Instead of discussing if we should create better humans, I think we should focus on what is a better human — because the change will happen no matter what. It’s up to the civil society and corporations to take the lead and shape an ethical, safe and sustainable technological future.

And this is nothing new. I don’t want to get into a discussion of definitions, but what can be labelled as proactive transhumanism is trying to enhance and prevent flaws and damage in the human body — but if we look at preventative transhumanism, which is essentially modern medicine, we already change our bodies and alter our natural state, for example with pacemakers, or medications to lower blood sugar.

But the individual must always be at the centre of this discussion. Period. This is and must be an ongoing discussion that we must keep alive. There’s a lot we can do to alter humans and our behaviour, but if we continue to have these conversations like with any other technological progress, we shouldn’t go completely off the rails!

Juan Enriquez believes we have a moral imperative to diversify so that we can live on other planets. And others believe we should preserve and take better care of the planet we’re on. Do you have a limit for your own technological augmentation?

No, because science evolves, which means that the norms for what is good and sustainable behaviour does the same. We’re constantly disproving old beliefs and finding out new things — about ourselves, the planet and the universe. Just yesterday, I read how scientists have proven that Homo sapiens existed in a place and time way earlier than what we believed last week, which means that some clever people now have to reformulate what was phrased as “the story of human evolution!”

And you know what, recent studies show that trees can communicate, and at the same time we continue to see technological breakthroughs that no one thought were possible just a few years back. Exponential technologies that are converging are currently altering our realties and perception of realties in a way that’s impossible to foresee.

If I said I’d only go so far, I’d be fooling myself — the barriers for what’s acceptable are shifting faster than ever before. My underlying value set probably won’t change much, but as far as physical augmentation goes, I’m not sure where I’d draw the line. I hold some serious reservations about a lot of issues, but because this development isn’t happening in isolation, I seriously have no idea where the accompanying shift in norms will take us, but I’m excited to see what’s in store.

So when are you planning your next upgrade?

I’m waiting for the next version of the chip that supports encrypted data, so we can really start to dive into this space with clients, and create some really interesting products and services together.

After talking to Pernille, I’m still intrigued, but less spooked. And though I still can’t anticipate the consequences of where this might take us, I’m not going to stop watching this storyline unfold.

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