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We’re always hearing how robots are going to take our jobs, but there might be a way of preventing that grim future from happening: by becoming workplace cyborgs first.
A company in Wisconsin has become the first in the US to roll out microchip implants for all its employees, and says it’s expecting over 50 of its staff members to be voluntarily ‘chipped’ next week.
The initiative, which is entirely optional for employees at snack stall supplier Three Square Market (32M), will implant radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips in staff members’ hands in between their thumb and forefinger.
Once tagged with the implant, which is about the size of a grain of rice, 32M says its employees will be able to perform a range of common office tasks with an effortless wave of their hand.
“We foresee the use of RFID technology to drive everything from making purchases in our office break room market, opening doors, use of copy machines, logging into our office computers, unlocking phones, sharing business cards, storing medical/health information, and used as payment at other RFID terminals,” says 32M CEO, Todd Westby.
The chips make use of near-field communication (NFC), and are similar to ones already in use in things like contactless credit cards, mobile payment systems, and animal tag implants.
The same kind of human implants made headlines when they were extended to employees at Swedish company Epicenter earlier in the year, but this is the first time they’ve been offered in the US across an organisation as large as 32M, which has 85 employees.
According to Westby, when staff were informed of the program, they reacted with a mixture of reluctance and excitement, but ultimately more than half elected to take part.
The costs of the implant amount to US$300 per chip – which the company says it will pay on the employees’ behalf – and the rollout could well be a sign of things to come, meaning employees would no longer need to carry around keys, ID cards, or smartphones to operate or authenticate with other systems.
As for security concerns and whether people ought to be worried about their employer tracking their movements, Westby says the chips don’t include a GPS component and are secure against hacking.
“There’s really nothing to hack in it because it is encrypted just like credit cards are,” he told ABC News.
“The chances of hacking into it are almost non-existent because it’s not connected to the internet. The only way for somebody to get connectivity to it is to basically chop off your hand.”
As if to prove the safety of the technology, the CEO says his wife and children will also receive the implants next week, coinciding with a “chip party” being held at the company’s headquarters in River Falls, Wisconsin.
If employees later change their minds, they’ll be able to have the implant removed – but that might not be enough to alleviate Big Brother-style privacy concerns held in some quarters.
While the chips might not track workers’ location by GPS, they nonetheless could give employers a huge amount of data about what employees do and when – like how often they take breaks or use the bathroom, what kind of snacks they buy, and so on.
On its own, that information might seem fairly harmless, but it’s possible that handing over even that level of information to your employer could one day pose problems – not to mention how the privacy issues could swell as the technology evolves.
“Many things start off with the best of intentions but sometimes intentions turn,” chairman and founder of data protection firm CyberScout Adam Levin told ABC News.
“We’ve survived thousands of years as a species without being microchipped, is there any particular need to do it now? … Everyone has a decision to make; that is, how much privacy and security are they willing to trade for convenience?”
For their part, the leaders of the companies kickstarting this workplace transition don’t seem to see what all the fuss is about.
“People ask me, ‘Are you chipped?’ and I say, ‘Yes, why not?'” Epicenter CEO Fredric Kaijser told Associated Press back in April.
“And they all get excited about privacy issues and what that means and so forth. And for me it’s just a matter of I like to try new things and just see it as more of an enabler and what that would bring into the future.”
In the meantime, 32M’s inaugural chip party is being held next Tuesday.
Clear your schedule, would-be cyborgs.