Is ‘Biochipping’ A Good Idea?
Down a narrow side street in the Swedish city of Gothenburg sits the Barbarella piercing parlor, a regular haunt for locals who decorate their bodies with piercings and tattoos, and which claims to offer the area’s finest collection of ear discs and nose rings. But on a frigid evening in November, the shop is the setting for a very different kind of body enhancement: biochips. As darkness falls on the port town of nearly 600,000 people, Jowan Österlund wanders in, wearing a baseball cap and T-shirt, to meet two new clients for his small startup, Biohax International. From his backpack, he pulls plastic-wrapped syringes, each containing a tiny, dark microchip that is barely visible from the outside. Inside the unassuming package is Österlund’s prized product, a window into what today is a fringe tech obsession but which, he believes, will one day be a giant industry. “You are creating an entirely new type of behavior and entirely new types of data that will be massively more valuable than what we have now,” Österlund says. “It is kind of a moonshot. But in the long run, this is what is going to happen.”
Perched on a stool in one of the piercing rooms, Österlund jams the needle into Claes Radojewski and pulls it out again, leaving a one-kilobyte microchip inside him, in the fleshy part between his left thumb and index finger. In a matter of seconds, Radojewski has become a trailblazing biohacker, much to his own surprise. “I have never even been inside a tattoo parlor,” says the program manager for MobilityXLab, an innovation center in Gothenburg for the auto industry, run in partnership with Ericsson, Volvo, and others. “My girlfriend asked if it was some kind of crisis because I was turning 30 soon.” In fact, Radojewski says he has wanted a biochip since he learned of the technology a few years ago: “In Sweden, we like to use new tech in our daily lives.”
Österlund, the needle-wielding entrepreneur, is convinced that there are millions more around the world who will soon want chips implanted into their bodies. As proof, he points to his Facebook messaging app, which is jammed with unbidden requests every day from people as far away as Australia and Mexico. He also receives emails, he says, from curious investors “on every continent except Antarctica.”
The enthusiasm of the curious notwithstanding, Österlund’s progress has been slow. He began the company in 2013, committing to it full-time only in 2016, and its revenues remain minimal. At the moment, he says, “I get by. I am not getting rich.” Will he, I ask? “Yeah. Oh, yeah,” he says. In fact, Österlund, 38, could be at the groundswell of a big wave, in which more and more of the functions we perform on our external devices will shift to implants that we insert into ourselves. In November, a report by MarketsandMarkets Research in India estimated that the global biochip market would be worth about $17.75 billion by 2020. And earlier in 2018, no less a futurist than Elon Musk announced he was backing a California company called Neuralink, which would implant electrodes in the brain to monitor thoughts.
Österlund’s Biohax is already making progress on a small scale. It has “chipped” more than 4,000 people in Sweden as well as others across Europe. Though many biochip projects are focused on health uses like heart-rate or blood-sugar monitoring, Österlund is so far marketing his chips to people with no medical ailments. Applications range from making purchases to opening locks to passing through security barriers—anything, really, that we’re already doing with chips on plastic cards. “Tech will move into the body,” he says. “I am sure of that.”
First, Österlund and other “chippers” will have to overcome understandable doubters, from privacy advocates to medical ethicists. Though the chips are inert and, therefore, theoretically harmless, for many people the very idea of having a permanent connectable device inside them evokes notions of losing control over the one sphere where they can still truly be themselves: their bodies. Invariably, even minor reports of companies using biochips ignite outrage. When BioTeq Ltd., a biochip company in England, said in November that it had implanted about 150 microchips into people around Britain, the British business organization BCI said, “It makes for distinctly uncomfortable reading.” The country’s Trades Union Congress warned that biochips “would give bosses even more power and control over their workers.” Recent problems suggest the need for careful oversight: A report by the International Consortium for Investigative Journalists revealed that medical patients in numerous countries had been injured by “poorly tested implants” (not all of them biochips) because of a lack of regulations for new devices.
And yet individuals enchanted by the technology are driving its early adoption. Among those who arrive at Barbarella wanting a Biohax chip is Annie Kjellson, 29, a structural engineer, who wheels her 18-month-old son through the door in his stroller and sits down to receive her injection. “I have been thinking about this for years,” she says.
Despite the uncomfortable sci-fi oddity it represents, there is an inevitability around biochipping, if for no other reason than the sheer convenience it promises. The wallet in my purse slung over my shoulder is jammed with pieces of plastic, declaring me a gym member, a journalist, and a customer of two banks and a credit card company, all of whose passwords I occasionally forget. There are also cards giving details of my health insurance, which airlines I fly on, where I shop for groceries, and where I get my hair cut. Then there is my bunch of keys—primitive tools that have opened doors, chests, and lockers for thousands of years, and to which we somehow remain closely attached. The morning after I return from Sweden, I lock myself out of my apartment while racing to go play tennis. That requires a complicated handoff, by way of a taxi from five miles away, where another set of keys sits idling in my husband’s pocket.
For biohackers, these antiquated habits are senseless. “I used to lose my keys all the time. Now I unlock the door to my house with my hand,” says Aric Dromi, an Israeli-Swedish futurologist who has a Biohax chip implanted in his hand, and who sits on the advisory board of Hack for Sweden, the Swedish government’s organization aiming to embed big data into all the country’s public services. I saw that effort in action when I hopped aboard a Gothenburg-bound train with Österlund from the seaside city of Helsingborg, where Biohax is based. As the conductor came down the aisle, Österlund held out his hand, in which his ticket was embedded on his biochip. She swiped it without a thought: Sweden’s entire national rail network is now biochip-capable. So too are many of the 172 gyms run by Nordic Wellness in Sweden, where gym members and staff can open the secure turnstiles and lockers with their hands and view their exercise profiles on monitors. Of course, electronic cards do the same thing in gyms around the world, but the biochip enables members to exercise without carrying anything on them.
Over espressos in Gothenburg, Dromi tells me he is convinced that millions of people will eventually have microchips in their bodies—perhaps in the near future—simply because it makes sense, at the very least in order to store their passwords and make keys redundant. Plus, he says, it is more secure than the items we currently lug around in our wallets and purses. I protest, telling him that an electronic fob unlocks my apartment building in Paris. “Yeah? Let’s see it,” he says. When I fish it out of my purse, he swipes it across the near-field-communication (NFC) reader embedded in his smartphone and then holds up the screen to show the string of data that unlocks both sets of doors to my building, 950 miles away. “I can clone this in five minutes,” he says.
Biochips are far more secure in some ways. To break into Dromi’s nearby house, for example, you would need to physically drag him there, demand to know where on his body his biochip is implanted, and move his hand across the NFC reader mounted on the doorpost. NFC readers, effectively the enabling devices for biochips, are proliferating. Last June, the Car Connectivity Consortium, which includes the world’s major automakers as well as tech companies like Apple and Samsung, agreed to a standard digital key system, allowing drivers to open their car doors and start the engine from an app on their smartphones. The agreement does not mention customers being able to insert the data for their car keys on a chip inside their bodies. But it would require almost no extra effort to do so, and every biohacker I meet in Sweden tells me that losing keys was one of the main motivations for being chipped. The chip is encased in medical glass, and it has a tiny antenna and integrated circuit that transmit data when close to an electronic reader. So far, Biohax chips have only one kilobyte of memory, but that will increase as the possibilities of what chips can do expand.
In fact, once you start viewing the world through the eyes of biohackers, more and more aspects of current life begin to seem absurd: the doctor’s receptionist, for example, who digs out your personal medical record from a filing cabinet; the bus driver who sells you a paper ticket when you board; or the times you scrounge for change for a restaurant tip. All those things, and thousands more, could be managed with a biochip the size of a grain of rice. Biohackers call these endless, biochip-less actions “friction”—moments that divert our attention and hog space in our brains that could be better used for, say, writing poetry or playing with the kids.
The possibility of biochipping—and not just in science fiction books and films—has been around for years. As far back as 2004, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved an implantable chip for Applied Digital Solutions in Delray Beach, Fla., which aimed to have people store their medical records on a chip in their upper arm. The device could be lifesaving: If you were rushed unconscious to a hospital with no identification, doctors would instantly be able to scan your blood type, medical history, and organ-donor status. Yet three years after the FDA approval, the company said in a securities filing that it had failed to find a market for its chips, and that it “may never achieve market acceptance or more than nominal or modest sales.” The company explained the failure by saying that physicians were skittish about discussing the device with their patients, who remained suspicious about invasion of privacy.
Biohackers say the criticism is uninformed. They point out that because biochips are inert and passive they pose fewer privacy risks than smartphones, which continually transmit our whereabouts. Such logic hasn’t stopped a drumbeat of scary stories about biochips ushering in an Orwellian system of control. Fictional portrayals of biohacking have also promoted a dystopian view of the future. “Every implant in any sci-fi movie is a tracker or an explosive device,” Österlund says. “Look at The Matrix or Blade Runner or Johnny Mnemonic. The implant is always connected to something really creepy or bad.”
There are probably few better places than Sweden to try to break those stereotypes. Engineers in Sweden, whose population is slightly bigger than New York City’s, have invented the world’s first Internet calling app, Skype; the largest music-streaming platform, Spotify; and one of the first mobile phone companies, Ericsson. Sweden is also almost cashless, with less than 1% of purchases paid for with banknotes and coins. “It is a cultural thing,” Österlund says. “We have a faster adoption rate in Sweden, and there is probably a higher level of trust in our government than [in] many other countries. We aren’t scared that we will be taken advantage of.”
In some respects, biochipping is already well accepted. Swedes and others have long inserted biochips into their pets to find them when they get lost. And heart pacemakers, another type of biochip implant, have been in wide use for decades. Yet many people remain unconvinced about being chipped for digital convenience. “From a business perspective, it looks like technology for technology’s sake,” says Richard Oglesby, president of AZ Payments Group, a global consulting firm in Mesa, Ariz., that specializes in payments. “Implanting chips is invasive, unnecessary, and not particularly useful. There are wearable solutions that can easily and conveniently accomplish the same things.”
Then again, it may be that biochipping hasn’t yet caught on at scale because some of its adherents have sprung from the counter-culture universe of piercing parlors and tattoo artists, not from corporate engineering labs. Biohax’s Österlund, for example, founded his first company, Cutting Edge, in 2004, as a body-piercing business that specialized in some far-out practices, like hot-steel skin branding and septum piercing. In fact, almost every biohacker I met in Sweden was heavily tattooed, including Österlund, who lifted his shirt one night to show me a large inkwork of a woman stretched clear across his belly. (“You should see the rest of it,” he chuckled.) For many bodyhackers, it is an easy extension from tattoos and piercing to implants. “People find themselves extremely fascinated that you can alter body functions,” he tells me, as we zip up Sweden’s west coast on a high-speed train. “I am allowing my body to speak to machines. And it is a lot better being digital in a digital world than analog in a digital world.”
If biochipping is ever to take off, of course, it will need to become a real business. Österlund is doing what he can, starting with attempting to raise capital for Biohax. He says a Swedish investor, who remains unnamed, made a “six-figure” investment in Biohax in December. And Österlund claims that he has lined up about 100 doctors and nurses to work with Biohax to implant chips, once he has formally commercialized the business beyond its current tattoo-parlor stage.
In late November, Biohax signed a partnership deal with Verisec, an information technology security company in Stockholm, to provide an electronic-identity platform for Österlund’s biochips. That would allow Biohax chips to be used for regular electronic payments, not just for those within closed environments like a staff cafeteria, and to store documents like driver’s licenses and passports. Österlund calls the deal “the beginning of the big time.”
In the U.S., the use of implants to measure glucose, heart murmurs, and other conditions has risen steeply in the past few years, all devices that until recently were available only as external monitors. “It is a short leap to having that on a chip that’s inside you,” says Raj Denhoy, a medical technology analyst for Jefferies Financial Group in New York City, who believes the growth trajectory for biochips will be steep. “The use of clinical data to drive better treatment outcomes is something that is going to get much, much bigger,” he says. “To the extent that biosensors allow medical interventions to be better, that is undeniable.”
Little by little, biochips are going mainstream. Three Square Market, a tech company in River Falls, Wis., claims to have chipped 673 people in the U.S., including 85 of its employees, who are using the device for “personal data retention and some for door access also,” according to CEO Todd Westby, who first tested the technology on Biohax chips. “At this point, we are still developing and learning its capabilities,” he says. Last summer, reps from Japanese companies working on the Tokyo Olympics committee visited Österlund to see how they might use biochips for the smooth running of the Games.
Across Sweden, too, Österlund has become a featured attraction at corporate events, where he shows up with a stock of syringes, ready to inject anyone who wants to be chipped. Last March, he demonstrated Biohax chips to PricewaterhouseCoopers executives in Malmö, on Sweden’s border with Denmark. Måns Liljenlov, PwC’s regional marketing chief, immediately signed up and now unlocks his office and locker and buys lunch at work with a wave of his hand. He says he is planning to renovate his house this year and install chip readers instead of keyholes. When I reach him in late November at a gathering for clients in Helsingborg, he tells me his Biohax chip has proved a valuable conversation topic with clients. “People keep asking me for my business card,” he says. “I tell them I don’t have business cards, but they can swipe my LinkedIn profile, which is in my biochip.” The profile pops up on someone’s smartphone when he brushes his hand against the screen. “People say, ‘What? You’re joking!’ ” he says. “Then they all want to feel my hand.” (They can feel all they like, but they won’t detect the chip buried beneath his flesh.)
Other established companies also are calling. In October 2017, Tui Group, the world’s biggest travel company, invited Österlund to Stockholm, where it has its regional headquarters, for a demonstration of his wares. Österlund was overwhelmed with requests and returned twice to fulfill all the orders; now about 100 out of 500 staffers are chipped. “I think I was the very first to get chipped in the office,” says Alex Huber, managing director of Tui Nordic, which oversees Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Finland. Now chipped staff can wave their hands to enter their offices in Stockholm, buy lunch, and print documents on office printers. Huber says he is baffled by the resistance to biochips. “This is a mental barrier we have to get over,” he says. “Our phones do a lot more.”
For Österlund, the challenge now is to try to seize some of the market share for biochips before being trampled underfoot by bigger companies, which could begin mass-producing their own. Though he knows of efforts to launch biochips in Britain and Germany, he believes that Biohax is “way out in front.” Biohax chips are made by NXP Semiconductors in Hamburg and assembled in Shenzhen, China. But Österlund aims to manufacture in Sweden starting this year. Dromi likens this stage to the very start of electric vehicles: “Is Biohax going to be the biggest in the market? No one can know that. Are they going to pave the way for mass acceptance? Yes.” One single decision could turn Biohax into a major player, Dromi says—for example, if the Swedish military or Ikea begins to use them. “From day one, it would be a really big thing.”
For now, Biohax is testing its systems and installing better security and privacy provisions on the platform. “We could roll out in 26 countries next week and sell and sell and sell, but it would not be a very responsible thing to do,” Österlund says. “We want to have an insanely robust platform and safeguard everyone’s integrity and privacy. The most important thing is that this does not turn into the Wild West.” I suggest to Österlund that an even worse outcome would be an authoritarian government, or company, compelling people to be chipped in order to control them. “Oh, no,” he says. “Please, I hope that will not happen.” Better to leave that possibility to sci-fi movies.
A version of this article appears in the January 2019 issue of Fortune with the headline “Biochipping: Sci-Fi No More”