Can we 'fool Mother Nature'? Do we want to?

Machlokes / Controversy

Jewish World Review / Oct. 19,1998 / 29 Tishrei, 5759

Can we 'fool Mother Nature'?
Do we want to?

"The more things change, the more they remain the same," is cliched, huh? The story of the Tower of Babel is read publicly in synagogues across the world on Saturday. This modern-day version would make great sci-fi, or maybe even satire, if it weren't so pathetic --- and true.

By David S. Oderberg

IMAGINE THAT YOU have been fitted with a tiny electronic device, measuring nearly an inch long and a third of an inch wide. This device receives and emits radio waves in the presence of transceivers in 'intelligent' buildings fitted to recognize the unique signal emanating from the tiny 'smart' chip in your body. This chip, implanted just under the skin on your arm, has immense advantages. With it you can open and close doors, pass through security channels set up to recognize your identity, operate machines such as computers and faxes, and generally negotiate your technological world with greater ease and convenience than at present. You can even use your chip to carry out daily commerce.

Swipe your arm over a scanner and you can make payments, have your account debited automatically, check you bank balance. In short, you can do everything which currently requires you to lug around a walletful of credit cards. One small catch, though: because of this chip, your whereabouts are known to others at every minute of every day. You can be tracked like a car or airplane.

Orwellian nightmare? Delusional apocalyptic fantasy? One would have thought so, until it emerged in the British press a short while ago that Kevin Warwick, professor of cybernetics at the University of Reading -- my own university, as a matter of fact -- has decided to try out such a scenario on himself.

Seeing himself as a latter day Edward Jenner -- the pioneering scientist who tried out the smallpox vaccine on his own body -- Prof. Warwick has entered the hallowed halls of self-experimentation by having just such a silicon chip injected under the skin near his elbow. He is, as far as anyone knows, the first person to do so. The results of his experiment are not yet known. He has to take antibiotics against the risk of infection, and is a little concerned his body will reject the alien device.

Speaking of the doctor who agreed to implant the chip, Prof. Warwick says: "If it all goes wrong and my arm explodes, which I have been warned could happen, my wife will probably sue...".

The good professor is, nevertheless, sanguine about the possible side effects. For he sees himself as a crusader at the cutting edge of cybertechnology. Already famous for his little machines -- looking a bit like cockroaches on wheels -- which, he glows, behave for all the world as though they have intelligence (something I and others doubted when we saw them in action), Prof. Warwick is thrusting forward in the attempt to fulfil the prophecy of his own recent best-seller, March of the Machines.

"It is possible," he says, "for machines to become more intelligent than humans in the reasonably near future. Machines will then become the dominant life form on earth." Is this a tragedy? No, he adds blithely: "We are just an animal, not much better or worse than the other animals. We have our uses [sic], because we are different. We are slightly more intelligent than the other animals."

The professor looks forward to the day when machines rule our lives. The fact that his microchip enables him to be traced is no great worry. His secretary finds it a boon: "It was often hard to find Prof. Warwick...but since the implant we always know where he is."

And so would your employer if you were similarly implanted. You would be monitored every time you clocked in and out of work, or left the workplace. Prof. Warwick surmises the chip could carry all sorts of information, such as medical records, past convictions, financial data.

"It is quite possible for an implant to replace an Access or Visa card. There is very little danger in losing an implant or having it stolen," he said. But it seems Prof. Warwick is alive to the dangers of the microchip implant: "I know all this smacks of Big Brother," he comments.

Where the technology will ultimately go "I really don't know and would not like to envisage."

By now, you may well be feeling a little spooked. This is not surprising. Nor should the experiment itself be such a shock. After all, on October 11th 1993, The Washington Times reported on the "high-tech national tattoo" made by Hughes Aircraft Company --- an implantable transponder which the company called "an ingenious, safe, inexpensive, foolproof and permanent method of ... identification using radio waves."

In 1994, in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, it was reported that a local humane society offered pet owners, for $25, to inject their dogs or cats with a microchip, to prevent their being lost or stolen. A Dr. Carl Sanders, electronics engineer and inventor of the Intelligent Manned Interface biochip, told the Monetary Economic Review that satellites could be used to track people fitted with the IMI chip: "We used this with military personnel in the Iraq war where they were actually tracked using this particular type of device."

Whether soldiers have actually 'volunteered' to be surgically implanted with the chip, as opposed to carrying it on their clothing, is not made clear by Dr. Sanders. But what we do know is that proponents of this technology envisage first using it on animals (now widespread, particularly dogs, cats and cattle), then prisoners (more effective than electronic ankle tags), then children (e.g., newborn babies, so as to prevent their being switched or lost) and elderly people suffering from Alzheimer's disease (to prevent their wandering and getting lost). After that, who knows? The potential for the chips to replace credit cards and cash is huge, and will tempt financial institutions in turn to tempt their customers to 'try out' the chip with no obligation to carry it permanently, and monetary rewards for those who persevere.

Supporters of the injectible microchip say it is just the logical extension of a technology that already allows the heavy monitoring of people through pagers, cellular phones, 'smart' cards, and cars fitted with Global Positioning System transponders. On the other hand, could it not be said that the advent of the chip implant is the final outrage which demonstrates the inherent unacceptability of its technological ancestors? We are, it seems, fast approaching a world that even George Orwell was not able to envisage.

Had the microchip implant been known in his day there can be no doubt it would have replaced the 'telescreen' in his dystopian novel 1984. The fact that the corporations and individuals promoting its use are not being bombarded daily with protests from millions of outraged citizens is itself cause for wonder. How, particularly in countries such as the USA and Britain in which civil liberties are so prized, is it possible for so much propaganda to reach the mass media with barely a hint of contrary opinion?

Prof. Warwick has gained enormous publicity, and is flooded with calls from journalists wanting to know how his little experiment is going. Until, however, a sufficient number of citizens make known their implacable opposition to the totalitarian trend of a technology which threatens to reduce most humans to the status of cattle, the likes of Prof. Warwick will go about their evil work unperturbed.

JWR contributor Dr. David S. Oderberg is Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Reading, England, and a freelance journalist.


©1998, David S. Oderberg. A version of this article appeared in the Washington Times.