Implants: a different type of ‘back-handed’ payment

4th May 2022
Sam Holland

Now more than ever before, people are reliant on technology, particularly their smartphones and smartwatches. But most people’s devices are on them – not in them. That’s where tech implants come in: this article looks at what tech implants are, how some of them work, and what users may think about such a controversial use of technology.

Some background on tech implants

The first person to have an implanted microchip was Kevin Warwick, Professor of Cybernetics at the University of Reading (UoR). In 1998, the chip was inserted in Warwick’s left arm, and due to its RFID (radiofrequency identification) capabilities, the implant allowed him to interact with the intelligent building facilities of UoR’s Cybernetics department. He used the implant to open doors, control light switches, and even have the lights start blinking just by entering the room.

Nowadays, there is more of a market for implanted technology. Far from being used for university-based R&D, it is also an increasingly common part of the medical and industrial spheres, too. 

Examples of the former, secondary, and latter spheres are as follows:

  • Implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICDs) that send electric shocks in response to irregular heart rhythms

  • Implanted building access devices that essentially work like ever-present ID cards so that registered staff can always enter their place of work

  • Most recently, an implanted microchip that enables its user (and wearer) to pay via a contactless transaction – from the very back of their hand

As this contactless transaction implant is the most recent use of implanted tech. It shows that such devices are no longer exclusive to business and healthcare contexts and is in fact trusted by a portion of the consumer world. The next section will consider the technology involved and whether this move to the commercial sphere is a good thing.

More on contactless ‘backhanded’ payments

As of 2021, the first company to offer the NFC (near-field communication) implant for sale is the British-Polish biotechnology firm Walletmor. The company refers to the in-body chip as ‘the wallet of tomorrow’. At a hardware level, it can be considered very similar to the NFC facility on a smartwatch: it uses passive RFID meaning that the required electrical signal will require no power source and will always be functional.

The use of a passive signal is important as it reflects the company’s efforts to ensure that the implant is safe. According to Walletmor’s FAQs page, the device is encapsulated in the most biocompatible (i.e. safe for the human body) material and by being a passive, rather than active, communications device, it not only requires no power source whatsoever – but emits neither radio waves nor radiation.

Again, the whole system is comparable to the experience of when a user pays with the contactless function on their smartwatch: it is always on their person, available at the flick of the wrist, and for as long as the tech remains functional, requires no communications settings at all (consider that a smartwatch with passive NFC can still pay contactlessly even when in flight mode and no signal zones).

The above information suggests that implantable tech may indeed be functional and safe. But the question remains: will users feel comfortable with it?

The question of consumer interest

While it is clear that people are already buying commercial implantables such as the above, it is worth wondering whether they are the exception to the rule, namely the rule that on-the-go technology should be on your person – not in it. In other words, only time will tell whether most people will accept the idea of having a device that could stay inside of them for years. Note that it won’t stay implanted for life, as such devices expire and need to be removed accordingly. The Walletmor implants expire after seven years, for instance, which will probably lessen users’ hesitations – even if it does so just slightly.

For now though, given that a lot of people don’t even like the thought of having medical implants inside of them, it stands to reason that non-medical implants will continue to be met with much squeamishness. And while one could argue that it may just take time before people will warm to the convenience and (at least ostensible) safety of implantable tech, it remains likely that such people will still remain in the minority. After all, the said alternative device, namely a smartwatch, is comfortable, functional, and offers plenty of other functions. If we are to assume that most people would rather the minor inconvenience of having to remember to put on their smartwatch every day, then consumer interest in wearable – not implantable – tech will probably continue to skyrocket long before any alternative devices start ‘getting under people’s skin’.

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