Derek, his mom Leslie and his dad Jeffrey are the first volunteer test subjects for a new, implantable computer device called VeriChip. Later this spring, pending Food and Drug Administration approval, doctors will load a wide-bore needle with a microchip containing a few kilobytes of silicon memory and a tiny radio transmitter and inject it under the skin of their left arms, where it will serve as a medical identification device. It sounds like science fiction. (Remember the Borg on Star Trek? Resistance is futile!) But VeriChip is quite real. The Jacobs family could be the first in a new generation of computer-enhanced human beings.
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In some respects Derek is a regular eighth-grader. He's quiet and polite. He plays the drums. He used to be on the swim team before he quit to make time for his computer business. He remembers vividly when he first saw VeriChip on the Today show. "I thought it was great technology," he says. "I wanted to be a part of it." And when Derek sets his mind to a problem, he generally solves it. "Derek stood up and said to me, 'Mom, I want to be the first kid implanted with the chip,'" remembers Leslie Jacobs, an advertising executive at Florida Design magazine. "He kept bugging me to call the company until I finally broke down."
Leslie set up a lunch with Keith Bolton, vice president of Applied Digital Solutions, the company behind VeriChip. At first Bolton (who jokingly refers to the Jacobses as "the Chipsons") was skeptical. Since the first wave of VeriChip publicity, he has heard from roughly 2,500 would-be cyborgs. But the Jacobs family is particularly well suited to test VeriChip for use in medicine. If a patient with VeriChip were injured, the theory goes, a harried ER doc could quickly access the victim's medical background by scanning the chip with a device that looks like a Palm handheld computer.
In the case of the Jacobses, that could be a lifesaver. Derek has allergies to common antibiotics, and Jeffrey is weakened from years of treatment for Hodgkin's disease. A few years ago, he was in a serious car accident; and when he got to the hospital, he was in no shape to explain his condition to the staff. "The advantage of the chip is that the information is available at the time of need," Jeffrey explains. "It would speak for me, give me a voice when I don't have one."
The operation to insert the chip is simple. "It takes about seven seconds," says Dr. Richard Seelig, the company's medical-applications director, exaggerating only slightly. An antiseptic swab, a local anesthetic, an injection and a Band-Aid--that's all it takes. Once the skin heals, Seelig says, the chip is completely invisible, and the Jacobses will hardly know it's there. "The chip is fully biocompatible," Bolton says. "No body fluids can get in, and nothing can be loosened or come out."
Applied Digital Solutions--which is trademarking the phrase "Get Chipped!"--has big plans for its little device. In the next few years, it wants to add sensors that will read your vital signs--pulse, temperature, blood sugar and so on--and a satellite receiver that can track where you are. The company makes a pager-like gadget called Digital Angel that does both those things, and its engineers are doing their darnedest to cram Digital Angel's functions into a package small enough to implant. Once they do, VeriChip will be very powerful indeed. That's one of the reasons the Jacobses want to get involved. "There are endless possibilities," says Derek. "For me it's marvelous," says Leslie. "Every day I worry about my husband. We definitely feel it will make us all feel more secure."
Security is part of the VeriChip business plan. The company has already signed a deal with the California department of corrections to track the movements of parolees using Digital Angel. Seelig believes VeriChip could function as a theftproof, counterfeit-proof ID, like having a driver's license embedded under your skin. He suggests that airline crews could wear one to ensure that terrorists don't infiltrate the cockpit in disguise. "I travel quite a bit," he says, "and I want to make sure the pilots in that plane belong there."
Could the airlines or government really require pilots to get chipped? "I think we have a right to demand that," says Seelig. "Our lives are in their hands." It sounds extreme, but there are precedents. In the early '90s several states considered laws that would have required female child abusers and women on welfare to wear birth-control implants. The proposals were not very popular. "There's a feeling that technology has outpaced the policy process," says Steven Aftergood, a senior research analyst at the Federation of American Scientists. "We aren't in a position to apply these new devices with the wisdom and prudence that is needed."