- LOS ANGELES (Reuters)
- Picture a chip the size of a grain of rice that can be injected into
your body and give detailed information about you to anyone with the right
- A scene from a bad science fiction film? A radical research
project in some secret government laboratory?
- The chip is neither fiction nor obscure science, but
a soon-to-be-marketed product ready to make its way to customers in the
- The use of high-powered chips melded to the body has
been a recurrent theme of sci-fi from the 1984 cyberpunk novel ''Neuromancer''
to the 1999 blockbuster film ``The Matrix,'' but the announcement of a
commercial-ready product by Applied Digital Solutions this week will focus
real-world attention on the potential and risks of such technology, experts
- Designed to store critical personal medical data, the
chip could mark the start of a more urgent debate about potential privacy
invasions at a time when privacy advocates are on the defensive over anti-terror
initiatives after Sept. 11.
- ``It's certainly going to raise issues that we haven't
dealt with before,'' said Stephen Keating, executive director of the Denver-based
- Such radio-activated chips are already used to track
cattle, house pets and salmon.
- But this would mark the first attempt to apply the technology
to human beings, offering a potentially controversial means for hospitals
to ``scan'' patients in emergency rooms and for governments to pick out
- Applied Digital said Wednesday it would begin marketing
its implantable VeriChip in South America and Europe, initially as a means
to convey information about medical devices to doctors who need a quick
way to find out how and where patients with pacemakers, artificial joints
and other surgically implanted devices have been treated.
- When activated by a radio scanner, the chip would emit
a radio signal of its own from under the skin that would transmit stored
data to a nearby Internet-equipped computer or via the telephone, the company
- The chip itself could be implanted in a doctor's office
with a local anesthesia and the site of the injection could be closed without
stitches, it said.
- But the company already has its sights on more ambitious
applications for the chips, which are currently capable of carrying the
equivalent of about 6 lines of text. Future versions could emit a tracking
beacon or serve as a form of personal identification, an executive said.
- ``There are enough benefits that outweigh the concerns
people have about privacy,'' said Applied Digital Chairman and Chief Executive
- Other experts remain skeptical, citing immediate practical
problems, such as the need to set standards that would make such chips
more universally readable, and longer-term concerns over civil liberties.
- Even so, such implants are certain to become more widespread,
said technology forecaster Paul Saffo.
- ``Of course, we will do this,'' said Saffo of the Silicon
Valley-based Institute for the Future ``And it won't be just for the functionality.
It will also be for fashion. You've got a generation that's already piercing
themselves. Of course, they're going to put electronics under their skin.''
- TOUCHED BY A DIGITAL ANGEL
- Applied Digital, which has a $95-million market value
and has been scarcely followed on Wall Street, plans to file an application
with the Food and Drug Administration in January to market the chip in
the United States, a process that could take another year to 18 months,
- The Federal Communications Commission has already licensed
the chip's use of radio frequencies because of an existing version used
to track runaway pets, said Sullivan.
- The Palm Beach, Fla.-based company is just coming through
a two-year-long restructuring, reorganizing a far-flung telecommunications
business around a patent it acquired in December 1999 for a transmitter
that could be implanted in the body and powered by muscle movements.
- The first related commercial application was a remote-monitoring
device called Digital Angel, introduced at the end of November, which combines
a wristwatch-like sensor linked to a wireless transmitter and a global
- The device can transmit information on body temperature,
pulse and location and has been sold as a way to track Alzheimer's patients
and children who might wander from home.
- The company has also won a three-year trial contract
with California to supply a version of the product that would track paroled
prisoners in Los Angeles and alert authorities when they had violated the
terms of their parole by leaving a set area.
- Sales of the new implanted chip could total $2.5 million
to $5 million in 2002, Sullivan estimated, a small fraction of a potential
market the company has projected could be worth $70 billion or more.
- Wall Street is excited about the chip. Applied Digital,
which saw its stock rise 18% to 45 cents on the Nasdaq on its initial product
announcement on Wednesday, is in talks with major pacemaker manufacturers
about a joint-marketing plan that would see the VeriChip implanted at the
same time as the heart-regulating devices, he said.
- Some see new opportunities for high-tech security after
the hijacking attacks on New York and the Pentagon killed nearly 3,300
on Sept. 11. The attacks brought new support for the use of such technology
by government and more interest in its future commercial applications,
- ``People are becoming less concerned about what information
is out there,'' he said.
- Erwin Chemerinsky, a civil rights expert and law professor
at the University of Southern California, conceded that the public mood
has shifted, but said:
- ``It all depends on how this is used ... when the government
is invading the body there are always special privacy concerns.''
- ``This is rightly going to prompt debate, as you can
imagine, but the good news is that we'll have years to figure it out,''
said futurist Saffo.