Three Square Chip says that its medical RFID implants will be powered by body heat, and McMullan’s plans to develop a single piece of hardware to aid patients with a wider range of conditions could make the chips more affordable than devices with more specialized (and limited) functions. “Many heart patients, right now, the only time they know they’ve got a problem is when they’re in the back of an ambulance,” McMullan says.
The company estimates that it will be selling chips capable of tracking a wearer’s live vital signs in a little more than a year, but a few other developments will come first. McMullan hopes that people will soon consider storing their medical information on encrypted RFID chips, and the group is also working on a way to make GPS-enabled chips available as an option for families to track relatives suffering from severe dementia—another use for the chips that poses both obvious benefits and legitimate concerns.
“There’s an interest but also a controversy with the actual GPS tracking,” says Luis Martinez, a preventative-medicine specialist in San Juan who has worked with McMullan on chip development since before last year’s media frenzy. “A lot of parents will feel actually safe if they can track real-time where their children are, given abductions, child trafficking, and all that.” But, he says, there are even more use cases: “Other populations … are being looked at for different reasons: law enforcement, or say you could use a GPS chip to identify registered sex offenders. I think it’ll be a case-by-case basis where different countries or different societies will decide.”
At the same time as the technology is becoming more powerful, people are becoming more comfortable with the notion of implantables. “If we think about 1998 to now, a lot has changed about the way we regard the body,” Heffernan says. This shift, she says, is traceable from body modifications such as tattoos and piercings all the way up to the chips McMullan is developing. “Pacemakers are routine surgery. Plastic surgery is less taboo now.” Hundreds of thousands of American bodies now contain cochlear implants, IUDs, nerve stimulators, artificial joints, implantable birth-control rods, and beyond. “There’s a trend toward putting devices inside the body, not just for life or death situations but for convenience, such as contraceptives, menstrual aids, contact lenses,” Heffernan says. “So as we’ve become more comfortable with this, insertables become more acceptable.”
In the year since Three Square Market’s chip party, the technology has become mundane to those surrounded by it. “We don’t think about it within the company really at all,” says the customer-service manager Melissa Koepp, who chose to get the implant. Her nonchipped colleagues are similarly nonchalant about the company’s futuristic update. In fact, one of the most common reasons employees opted not to receive the implant wasn’t about the implications of the technology at all: “When I watched them chip Todd,” says Katy Melstrom, the vice president of marketing, “and I saw the size of the needle, I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll wait until we get a smaller version.’”