Man vs Tech: The Cyborg Evolution - what happens when man and machine collide?

T3 joins the cyborg evolution by sending its man to get an NFC chip implanted in his hand

There are plenty of perfectly good wearables out there now, so why feel the need to have one implanted under the skin? It means being stabbed, potentially setting off shop alarms, risking infection, never being able to remove it and, of course, potentially getting hacked.

Puny flesh

It also means the ability to interact with machines by simply waving a hand. It’s not quite Jedi level controls but it’s as close as we can get right now. But this isn’t about practical applications alone, it’s about being one of the pioneers of the singularity.

The singularity is when machines become smart enough to improve themselves faster than puny fleshy humans can, at which time we’ll be left behind, unless we can upgrade. While implants to connect your every thought to the internet, contact lens displays and thought communication may be a while off, we are starting to work towards that.

 

This implant is one of a few options out there right now. The NFC chip under the skin works much like the chip in your phone or bank card. That takes some of the fear out of the implant as it is inert, only reacting to radio waves which ping off it, giving it life for that time so it can be recognised. That’s not to say this is a dumb tag like the chip in your cat or dog, this can be loaded with data to be sent, too.

Right now NFC is more mainstream meaning the chip can actually be used in the real world. Using it in place of a wallet at the myriad contactless payment points is reason enough to get the upgrade, if just to see the face of the bartender in the pub. But with car and door locks also using NFC, this represents the opportunity to finally do away with keys completely. 

No more getting locked out of the house, no more locking the key in the car and no more faffing to stab a bit of metal into a hole every time you want to enter.

The procedure

Getting the chip actually installed is the moment when all these lofty thoughts of what could be done simmer down to a single focus – being stabbed.

Thankfully I was in the good hands of a professional. After speaking with Professor Kevin Warwick, who helped pioneer implants with his magnet implant back in the late eighties, I was put in contact with Mac McCarthy. That name alone had me sold. He is a seasoned professional in body augmentation and, I was assured, could install the NFC chip safely.

I was told Mac would be happy to help and all I had to do was make my way to him in Wolverhampton. The address? Dr Evil’s Body Modification Emporium. Yup, I was definitely reconsidering this decision.

Luckily Mac was welcoming, super professional and at ease with the procedure. He showed me the syringe that had the NFC chip built-in. This is something anyone can buy from the internet. But you’d definitely want a professional to do the nitty gritty as it’s a lot thicker than any needle you’ve seen before – think more like a knitting needle which needs to go an inch deep into you. Hmm.

 

The best place to install the chip was the back of the hand between thumb and hand base where the flesh is thick, blood vessels and bones are minimal and it should hurt least. The injection hole was marked in pen with a dotted line to where the needle would penetrate to deposit the chip.

He pinched the skin, I winced, he stabbed, I bled. He ejected the chip and withdrew, I bled some more. He patched me up and that was my 10-second procedure done.

It didn’t hurt as badly as I’d expected and after some post-procedure tips I was on my feet as a trans-human. The swelling took a few days to subside leaving the rice-sized chip visible in my hand when squeezed in a certain way. The entry hole scabbed and healed over with no mark a few weeks on. Getting people to touch the chip and see the surprise is worth the procedure alone. Then I discovered what can be done with it… 

Using a cyborg hand

Getting a no-name chip accessed and updated to actually be useful was always going to be tough, right? Wrong. This thing can be programmed using a smartphone.

The chip, catchily named, NXP MIFARE Ultralight C has a not-so-whopping 924 bytes of memory and works close-range only. Despite sounding like the spec sheet from a nineties Casio watch this thing is pretty damn versatile.

After downing the NFC Tools Pro app for a few quid I held my phone to my hand and it was instantly recognised. Luckily I use Android as Apple won’t give iPhone users access because of its lockdown on those systems.

The only other downside here is the chip can be programmed to carry out one task at a time only – but with software updates that could soon change.

App programming

Immediately I programmed the chip with my business card details. Now when I meet someone they can tap their phone to my hand and my contact card will be added with name, number, address and email. So it makes you memorable (that guy with the chip in his hand!) and won’t get lost like a physical business card. You can also get it to activate phone functions like go silent, send an email, open a link or app, play a sound and more.

Contactless payments

Paying for things with a hand swipe was always going to be the big one. While this can be difficult to set up with your bank, if you go to your bank card manufacturer they’ll be able to help. It will mean a wallet with limited cash but to me that means it’s more secure anyway. The result is the ability to tap a contactless card reader in shops and make payments. Yes this can be more embarrassing than anything, especially if it fails. But it’s a conversation starter (and wasn’t using your phone to make those payment embarrassing not long ago anyway?).

If in London it’s worth setting this up to pay at Oyster card readers – no more fumbling for a bank card or ticket and if you get collared by a ticket inspector you can give them a real surprise when offering your hand as a ticket.

Goodbye door keys

Smart locks are another great use for the chip. Yep, thanks to a Yale NFC-enabled lock, I can now get in the front door when drunk without worrying about finding that keyhole. No more waking the wife up because I’ve forgotten my key either – this one is a real winner. Of course you do worry about how secure NFC is on your front door.

No more locking keys in the car

The other big use for this bad boy is to unlock a car. At the moment that’s not just any car – Land Rover and Jaguar are the ones pioneering NFC locks. The Jaguar F-Pace and new Land Rover Discovery offer an optional NFC Activity Key which lets you leave the main key in the car, inert, and go swimming in the sea while the wrist worn Activity Key stays waterproof. We geeked out with the Land Rover engineers to get this chip working in the same way, which meant unlocking the car using my hand alone. Incredible!

This chip hasn’t changed my life completely – and there’s so much more potential. But it’s a real glimpse into the future. And I love it.