Future tech

Microchip implants give Jedi powers to lifelong Star Wars fan

Australian ‘bio-hacker’ Shanti Korporaal has modified her body with RFID and NFC chips she has programmed to open doors, store her health and contact data and turn on her smartphone

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 September, 2016, 8:03pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 September, 2016, 8:02pm

“Phone, keys, wallet.” It’s a mantra repeated by commuters the world over. Not so for futurist and entrepreneur Shanti Korporaal. Hers is different, something like “phone, hand, other hand”.

The 27-year-old Australian beat the system – no more patting herself down, no more misplaced keys – with two jabs of a needle. The twin microchips implanted in the webbing of her left and right hands are keys and wallet, compressed into glass capsules the size of rice grains. (She’ll have to wait a little longer to embed a wee smartphone.)

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“I grew up watching Star Wars,” says Korporaal. The mystical powers of the Force made a lasting impression. Now, like a Jedi, she has the power to wave through doors.

To those of us who do not have microchips under our skin, such technological conveniences may seem a little perplexing. To the small but growing community of “bio-hackers” – which has existed, in some form, since the 1980s – it is simply another step in the long history of human self-improvement.

Through her companies, including Future Sumo and Chip My Life, Korporaal and her husband, fellow futurist Skeeve Stevens, aim to make tech implants more widely available.

Thanks to the RFID chip embedded in one hand, Korporaal can unlock her office’s garage with a back-handed bump to a scanner as she zips into work on her Vespa. On the other hand in the same spot, the fleshy space between her thumb and forefinger, sits a near-field communication (NFC) chip that stores her health and contact data. She can feel a chip’s hard lump if she probes with a finger; otherwise, she’s used to them.

A doctor implanted the chips into Korporaal’s hands in May, though perhaps the person most famous for the procedure is a professional body piercer named Amal Graafstra. He has embedded chips into some 1,200 hands, according to Korporaal. “It’s a really simple, 2-second procedure,” she says. “It’s in-and-out, in terms of the needle.”

Though the needle bore has to be large enough to inject the chips, a little local anaesthetic goes a long way. The worst part, Korporaal says, wasn’t the procedure but the recovery process that kept her away from lifting at the gym for two weeks.

After the implant, setting up her Jedi abilities took little more than a Samsung smart lock, which costs a few hundred dollars, and cloning the RFID in her work keycard to her microchip.

RFID technology itself is fairly mundane – it works passively, similar to a barcode, requiring no internal energy source. (If your pet is microchipped, that’s an RFID chiptoo.) The NFC chip in Korporaal’s other hand, likewise, is of the same type used in Apple Pay systems. The goal with that chip, she said, is to use her hand like a wallet.

For all the science-fictional and futuristic inspiration behind bio-hacking, Korporaal sees mainstream parallels everywhere. Take dieting.

“You’re literally making small incremental tweaks to your body over time,” she says, “using data from responses to your body to affect change.”

Kindred devices might be a pacemaker or contraceptives like Implanon, the implantable, toothpick-sized rod that slowly releases hormones.

But where pacemakers, artificial knees and IUDs have one job, implanted microchips are flexible. They can also be entertaining. Korporaal recently programmed the NFC chip to activate her smartphone, summoning a video from YouTube.

The video in question? A trailer for the new video game Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, set during a near-future war in which humanity is split against mechanically augmented people.