'Biohacking' is a fascinating, thrilling - if not slightly scary - phrase. And it's a phrase that is normally associated with an underground culture of individuals trying to modify, mould, even merge their bodies with tech. The aim being an enhanced, almost superhuman, body. This is a culture that tends to encourage comparisons to the development of futuristic 'cyborgs' from sci-fi films, people who are half-machine and half-human (think Six Million Dollar Man) with all the exciting and worrying connotations that come attached. These connotations also suggest this is a vision of some far off future. But biohacking is here today, and, surprisingly enough, it may just be the future of business.
Companies are beginning to come round to the idea of one form of biohacking - that is implantables - being used in the workplace as a way to streamline their workforce and business. And it's steadily becoming more mainstream, with several companies introducing optional chip implants for their employees over the last few years.
But before I even begin to touch on how likely this future is and what the ethical repercussions of a technologically-enhanced workforce may be, it's worth defining what 'implantable' means. Speaking to Monster.com, Jim Hunter, Chief Scientist at Greenwave Systems, an international IoT software provider and services integrator, defines implantables as 'technology that is installed into body tissue for the purpose of measuring surrounding tissue, controlling biological function, or dispersing drugs.' Obviously, some implantables are already in commonplace use in medicine - think pacemakers - to enhance and extend people's lives. But there is much more potential that has yet to be unlocked with medicine. Hunter believes that utilizing implantables is 'the logical direction to blend technology with humans to improve our overall quality of life.'
But can implantables improve the quality of your work-life? Epicenter, a Swedish startup hub which is home to more than 100 companies and some 2,000 workers, began to offer implantables to their employees in January 2015. Around 150 workers now have them. These implants take the form of microchips the size of a grain of rice that allows the users to open doors, operate printers, or buy lunch, all with a simple wave of a hand. They essentially function as swipe cards, but, unlike swipe cards, it's physically impossible to leave them at home if you miss your train or oversleep.
The implants use Near Field Communication (NFC) technology to connect with readers. This is the same technology that goes into contactless credit cards or mobile payments. When activated by a reader a few inches away, data flows between the two devices via electromagnetic waves. The implants are 'passive,' meaning they contain information that other devices can read, but cannot read the information themselves.
'The biggest benefit I think is convenience,' says Patrick Mesterton, co-founder and CEO of Epicenter in an interview with the Telegraph. 'It basically replaces a lot of things you have, other communication devices, whether it be credit cards or keys.' Having the implants essentially limits the risk of human error, and speeds up several processes for workers throughout the day, saving wasted time that adds up over the weeks, months and years.
And Epicenter are not the only organization to have started using implantables to increase efficiency in the workplace. A Wisconsin company called Three Square Market (32M) became the first US company to adopt the technology when they began to offer RFID implants to staff in 2017. The main function of the 32M chips right now is to improve their company's security. Employees are able to use the chips for entry into the front door and to log into their computers. In a world with a heightened awareness of security and cybersecurity, implantables could be one of the safest ways to ensure data is safe. 'It's the next thing that's inevitably going to happen, and we want to be a part of it,' 32M Chief Executive Officer Todd Westby said in a statement. '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.'
While it's a seriously cool idea - who doesn't want to be a cyborg at the end of the day? - the intrusive nature of the implantations and the invasion of privacy will be a great concern for the majority of the public. Responding to privacy concerns, Wetsby insists that they contain 'no GPS tracking at all'. The workers choosing to have the implantables do so because they see the benefits their co-workers enjoy using them, one relatively painless insertion being worth the convenience. At 32M they've even begun to have 'chip' parties, with drinks and, well, chips.
While having technology physically implanted into your body by your company may feel like an intrusion, it's actually the next logical step of our lifestyle. How many of us have mobile devices on us constantly? They might as well be part of our body. And they are only going to become more vital to our lifestyle in the era of the IoT, as Gartner predicts that there will be 20.8 billion IoT devices in circulation by 2020. A new generation will likely not blink an eye at the thought of having tech installed directly into their bodies.
But where will the casual office biohacking stop in the workplace of the future? A recent PwC study predicts that by as early as 2030, organizations will begin to realize the benefits of human enhancement in the workplace. That way businesses can 'push past the limits of human ability by investing in augmentation technology, medication and implants to give their people the edge'. The same report suggests that employees will willingly augment, with 70% of those interviewed saying they would consider using treatments to enhance their brand and body if this improves employment prospects in the future. Facing the age of automation, perhaps biohacking is the best method to ensure you have that edge on your competitors and stay employed.