The internet of human things: Implants for everybody and how we get there

Imagine a future where you don't have to carry dead cow hide stuffed with plastic cards and cash.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

Over the past several years, the Government of Sweden has been moving toward becoming a completely cashless society. By 2025, most Swedish citizens will perform all their financial transactions using debit and credit cards, mobile devices, PCs, or wearables.

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But a small, growing number have gone even further than using conventional technology to make payments. They are using implants -- tiny, rice grain-sized microchips that use Near-Field Communications (NFC) technology -- to communicate wirelessly with reader terminals installed in stores and other public places.

I have a similar implant installed installed in my chest. It's a loop recorder, a tiny device that records electrocardiography data from my heart in order to monitor a corrected atrial fibrillation condition (that was detected by an earlier version of my Apple Watch) from a radio frequency ablation procedure I had done in August 2018. 

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This device communicates with a wireless reader at my bedside; late at night, it uploads data to a cloud-based database that my medical provider uses to track my progress. So far, so good. I've had no events since early September.

Wearables and the Infrastructure to Support it Must Come First

Before we can even think about using implants as a way of facilitating payments and moving to a potentially cashless society, we have to make the infrastructure that supports wearables more ubiquitous and foolproof than it is now. The proliferation of wearable devices, such as smartwatches, will be the stepping stone to becoming cashless, as will the further adoption of implants. Think: the Internet of Human Things.

Today, I use an Apple Watch Series 4, and at every opportunity, I use it to pay for items at different stores using Apple Pay. But not every store has a terminal compatible with the Series 4's NFC, and the interaction with compatible terminals is not consistent from store to store.. 

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Occasionally, I get a so-called compatible terminal that doesn't actually work, so then I try it with my iPhone, which also has similar NFC technology installed on it to work with Apple Pay. And, if that doesn't work, I pull out my credit card as a last resort.

Why am I insistent about using Apple Pay on the Watch? Well, when it does work, it's super convenient. I used it for the first time probably about a year ago on my previous Apple Watch when I was at a local Mexican restaurant on a Sunday morning and noticed I forgot to put my wallet in my small messenger bag/pocketbook. Sure enough, the restaurant had a compatible terminal. It worked. Tacos a la Apple Pay! I was hooked.

Wallets Must Die

Let me be clear on my motivation for wanting to make wearables -- and eventually implants -- our default method of brick-and-mortar payment: I hate physical wallets. I don't like dragging around a thick hunk of cow hide filled with a bunch of credit cards I don't use that often. Then, there are loyalty program cards and various IDs I have, such as my license, various types of permits, and medical insurance and drug plan stuff when I have to pick up prescriptions.

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Have you ever lost or had your wallet stolen? Or your keys? The amount of work it takes to get your life back in order is ridiculous. How many of you do the paranoid "life check" triple play every day for your wallet, keys, and smartphone? When I am traveling, I might do that three times a day, easy.   

So now, let us imagine a future where you don't have to walk around carrying cow hide stuffed with plastic cards and cash. A future without losing wallets (and your entire life in it) and the disruption that ensues.  A future where many of us can leave our homes every day with literally nothing on our person except a smartphone and perhaps a wearable device.   

And So Should Your Keys

So, currently, I have to stuff a dead cow thing into my messenger bag along with a huge key chain. Part of that key chain is my electronic key fob for my vehicle that is essentially an RFID chip. The car has a sensor that knows whether it is present. 

Let's talk about keys for a second. Most new vehicles are equipped with a chip reader to begin with; if we were equipped with implants in our hands, we could lock, unlock, and start our vehicles with no keys at all. We could also install electronic smart locks on our doors or in garages. We've already put things like Ring on our front door; it would be trivial to add RFID/NFC technology to those devices in a successive generation as well, if I wanted it to open the garage.

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As it is, I never use the front door to gain entry to my home. I use a button in my car to open the garage door, which replaces the remote. And, in the rare instance that fails, or I'm coming home using an Uber or another taxi, there is a keypad installed on the outside of my garage. It would be a rather simple addition to put that RFID/NFC tech in the keypad. 

The Wallet-less Transition Happens in the Cloud

How would one implement this vision? Well, for starters, the reader terminals for RFID/NFC would need to be ubiquitous -- and as we know from trying to use payment systems like Apple Pay and Samsung Pay and Google Pay, we aren't quite there yet.

But assume we can get those readers everywhere. Then what? The management of these electronic wallets needs to be assumed by major financial institutions. And even companies like Apple.

Here's what I envision: Your bank gives you a site where you can link it to your implant or to your wearable. They may even be the original issuing authority on the implant -- but it should be transferable from one institution to another. On that site, you have stored credit card accounts. Regardless of which "wallet" you want to designate when you use your implant or your wearable, it would know what credential/card to use for the vendor that you are at -- and you control it all with an app. 

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For most adults, I do not see more than basic data stored on an implant itself -- it would be a serial number/unique ID, which would be linked to the cloud provider, where encrypted user information would be stored or federated. This virtual wallet would contain credit cards, virtual ID cards for health insurance, corporate IDs, licenses, and permits.

With this site and app, it would be possible to create virtual credit cards tied to specific retailers, if you want, in order to mitigate card lifting/skimming issues, but the strong multi-factor authentication mechanism itself required for this technology would also mitigate that. 

Additionally, depending on the type of transaction, the virtual bank controlled "Cloud Wallet" would also have additional multi-factor requirements, such as what Motiv is doing with movement/walking patterns and a handshake gesture using its health wearable and various online services, like Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon. There are many ways of capturing additional biometrics, such as through heartbeat and motion, which are unique to every individual, including the type of facial recognition technology used on modern iPhone models, which could be installed on terminals.

The proliferation of biometric multi-factor authentication would heavily discourage criminals from attempting to physically remove an implant or even a wearable from someone's person to use it for unauthorized purchases.

The Challenges of a Cashless, Wearable, and Implanted Society and the Overall Benefits

There are, of course, some caveats and concerns about a digital divide if we move closer to a cashless or wallet-free society. The elderly and the financially disadvantaged -- who do not have sufficient technology at their disposal  -- may need to continue to use cash.

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Realistically, cash has to remain a form of legal tender. Despite advances toward ubiquitous connectivity, there will continue to be situations -- such as severe weather events and infrastructure disruptions -- where people  need some cash on hand to pay for things.

And while not everyone has to use wearables or even implants, it may be beneficial to provide elderly under the care of a loved one with RFID/NFC medical ID bracelets or necklaces with similar functionality to an implant, so that -- in the event they become lost or end up in a hospital -- their medical histories can be quickly retrieved. But an implant is the more foolproof method, because it cannot get lost. Humans, not implants, get lost. 

The location of missing elderly and children could be more easily established with an increased build-out of RFID infrastructure on a national basis if the readers were installed all over our highway system -- at major local intersections and in major public spaces where people congregate. The more people that have RFID/NFC implants, and the more reader infrastructure that exists, the less chance that abduction is seen as a viable crime, as well.

Clearly, this is not a problem we are going to solve overnight. But as we observe countries like Sweden and its citizens going through this process, we should consider the benefits of what this technology brings and not the just Black Mirror-style tracking paranoia that we often see regarding this technology in sci-fi media. 

Would you use a RFID/NFC implant in place of a regular wallet if the support infrastructure were ubiquitous? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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