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I've got a computer under my skin - Injectable technology

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RFID tagging products - video 2007

The office really gets under your skin - Mobile communication takes leap into the unknown.

On the desk in front of me is a needle – the same size as for blood transfusions. I have just tipped out of it a tiny glass container, no bigger than a grain of rice. Inside is an injectable computer: a chip, power generator, transmitter and receiver. It’s a complete mobile communication system. My wife bought it for me for £25 but she’s worried about electromagnetic radiation and being married to a bionic man. (Feature article by Dr Patrick Dixon published in The Times - Interface Section 30/12/98).

(For RFID update see: The next techno-wave: RFID - 10 billion wireless tagging devices . Wal-Mart races ahead with Radio Frequency Identification Devices (RFIDs): electronic barcodes for manufacturing, distribution and retail - major concerns about data leakage, privacy and civil rights.)

Several million of these injectable computers were made in 1998 by companies such as Datamars in Switzerland. In future, these devices will hold bank account details, cash, passport, national insurance numbers and medical records.

Otherwise known as RFIDs or Radio Frequency Identification Tags, first versions were used in Swatch watches, to pay for things like ski lifts or buses. You paid money to have credit loaded onto the watch which became a travel pass.

At a recent World Economic Forum meeting at Davos we were all given these watches to access our secure personal message system. These latest injectable devices have just taken things a step further. What next?

I approach my car which knows who I am. The door swings open and the driver seat plus steering wheel adjust to my usual settings, the radio starts to play on my favourite station and a speech unit offers to navigate me around traffic jams to Heathrow.

When I pass through the body scanner, the airport system matches me to a booked plane seat, gives me immigration clearance and then tracks my progress towards the departure gate.

As I board the plane, a sensor in the aircraft door activates the chip which tells the on-board flight system who I am. "Welcome Dr Dixon, seat 4a is ready for you. This flight is worth 450 air miles."

I arrive in New York and hire a car, which also recognises me from a distance and adjusts everything exactly as at home. The hotel room unlocks and bills me as I enter. Room service arrives to stock the fridge with favourite minibar items plus the extras I usually order such as fresh milk, bread and French cheese.

None of this is science fiction. All of this is possible using today’s tools. It’s just a question of connecting them together and 1999 is the year of new connections.

These high-tech injectable body-chips need no battery and last forever. They are powered by radio waves from devices such as scanners, and once activated begin transmitting and receiving data, which can be stored permanently. 1999 versions will measure body heat. Further ahead, expect readouts of blood sugar, blood pressure and pulse.

Today these chips are being injected into animals ranging from cats, dogs, race horses and exotic fish. If the government has its way, every pet in the country could be carrying these "pet passports" giving owner details and vaccination history. They are also being used in all kinds of products and packaging so that retailers, wholesalers and distributers can track the exact location of what they sell.

For more traditional people on the move Nokia’s latest Communicator will be released early in the new year. The first was launched over two years ago with complete integration of a digital mobile phone with e-mail, web browser, conference calls, fax, diary, word processor and contacts book. Even now the old Communicator is streets ahead of any competitor as a mobile office.

The new model is half the size, more powerful with colour screen and batteries lasting up to a week. Sadly it has no video camera, limited not just by phone technology but by network data speeds set at a miserly 9600kbps.

Expect plenty more scare stories in 1999 about radiation from mobiles and pressure on manufacturers to give health warnings. There is some evidence that mobiles can alter human cells, raising blood pressure and affecting brain function. The risks are probably very small in normal use, but media hype will make many think twice before injecting computers under their skin.


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