What embeddable technology could mean for the future of business
What if we could remove the need to carry around all of those keys, cards and other access and identification technology forever?"
How many times have you locked your keys in your car or left your office swipe card at home?
How often have you been left shivering with embarrassment after completing your grocery shopping, only to realise you’ve left your wallet or purse at home?
We all go through the regular ritual of checking our pockets and bags to make sure we have the keys and cards we need to access our homes, workplaces and bank accounts. But what if we could remove the need to carry around all of those keys, cards and other access and identification technology forever?
That future is now a reality for a very small percentage of the population who’ve embraced so-called 'embeddable technology'. Embeddables, now more commonly referred to as 'insertables', refers to tiny radio-frequency identification (RFID) implants placed under the skin that can be activated and scanned by RFID readers.
These tiny, cylindrical chips encased in protective glass are about the size of a rice grain and can be inserted under the skin using a syringe, normally between the thumb and forefinger of a person’s hand. The technology involved is similar to the ID chips we place under the skin of cats and dogs but the growing use of embeddables in people is already having profound effects, particularly in the business world.
In the same way your card or phone can swipe you into a building or pay for your groceries, insertable RFID chips now mean you can do the exact same thing with a simple swipe of your hand.
The first wave of this technology has already been used to design smarter, more secure office buildings. Epicentre, a hi-tech office complex in Stockholm, Sweden, made headlines last year when it announced that around 700 workers would be voluntarily fitted with tiny RFID implants that enable them to gain entry to the office, operate the photocopier and even buy lunch.
Users can personalise the information stored on their chip, which can also be programmed to interact with apps on their smartphone.
That’s hard to believe, but true, and only the beginning of the possible applications of embeddable technology we might be faced with, according to futurist and MYOB chief technology advisor Simon Raik-Allen.
He believes in the practicality of the technology and its endless potential benefits for business. “Instead of passing out a business card, we’ll pass our wrist over a potential client’s inbuilt scanner, or to take a payment we’ll ask someone to swipe their hand, rather than their phone or credit card,” Raik-Allen says.
As Apple continues its ongoing battle with the banks over the proprietary technology in Apple Pay, the rise of embeddable technology may render smartphone payments obsolete before their time.
While only one case study, Raik-Allen says examples like Epicentre highlight the increasing numbers of innovative professionals who are looking to streamline their access to secure personal and professional information. “Embeddable technology is likely to form a key part of the workplace, helping us to train more effectively, access and share knowledge quicker and interface with highly complex and rapidly evolving systems.
“While we don’t really have comprehensive data on how many people have RFID implants, retailers estimate the total number is somewhere in the vicinity of 30,000 to 50,000 worldwide.”
Real-time insights and information are the lifeblood of every successful business, so the effects of embeddable technology in retail and logistics are promising to be seismic. Anyone that’s been frustrated by not being able to access a signal when trying to load a GPS map on their phone may be interested in an experimental use of embeddable tech called Southpaw.
Electronic engineer Brian McEvoy designed and tested Southpaw (on himself), which has been called the first internal compass, and it could have a massive impact on industries that rely on logistics and their employees’ ability to navigate in remote locations. A miniature compass is sealed inside a silicon coat and implanted under the skin. An ultra-thin whisker then brushes the underside of the skin when the user faces north.
Although this may seem straight out of a science fiction novel, these applications of embeddable technology could also be the future of retail and what Simon Raik-Allen calls “the augmented shopkeeper”.
“They’re working in the back office when a customer enters their store and even though there’s no bell on the door, they feel the presence of the customer through a small nerve activated on the back of their neck or hand. “As the customer walks around the shop, they’re made aware of their movements through a map of nerves that lightly fire as they shift position and a blink of the eye brings up the linked store cameras in a retina display, showing what the customer is looking at as the shopkeeper goes out to greet them.”
Biometric data is already making inroads in many industries. For example, wearable technology such as smart watches have already revolutionised the fitness industry by enabling people to track their heart rate and steps during a workout. Raik-Allen believes the fitness industry will be truly transformed by providing users with a more constant source of embedded biometric data and says the travel industry will be similarly improved through embeddable tech.
“With all of your personal data stored in an RFID implant, business trips will be made much easier by simply scanning your chip and connected luggage tag at a single airport terminal, instead of wasting time in lines to show paper passports and visas.”
While this level of adoption is still many years away, the current implications for embeddable technology are already being considered by industry leaders.
In a 2015 presentation at various tech conferences titled “Kill all Passwords”, PayPal’s global head of developer advocacy Jonathan Leblanc said that embeddable, injectable and ingestible devices are the next wave in identification for mobile payments and other sensitive online interactions.
This raises an important question, as currently, when your credit card details are stolen, you cancel the card and get a new one. If someone stole the details of an embedded chip, would that mean a trip to the doctor?
“Combining the physical and the technological, and making them both accessible through the internet, will require an enormously enhanced level of security,” says Raik-Allen. “An embedded smartphone that’s been hacked by malware might be a major irritation, but someone able to disrupt your artificial heart or hack the functions of your embedded AI to affect your behaviour could be a life-threatening risk.
“Similarly, business leaders need to be aware of the impacts and opportunities that embeddable technology will have on their business, especially in the early adoption phase so they can leverage it to help their business rather than hinder it.”
With any revolutionary new technology, moral and cultural decisions also need to be considered to ensure these advancements drive humanity towards a utopian rather than dystopian society. Simon Raik-Allen uses the examples of smartphone etiquette or social media standards to illustrate how society has evolved new rules and norms which ultimately shape the adoption of technology. “A helicopter has the ability to end a bush fire through water-bombing, but it also has the same ability to start a war, so the technology itself is neither good nor evil.
“There are definite challenges and barriers with embeddable technology that we’ve discussed but the opportunities in technology, fitness and retail are enormous.”
While much of the recent conversation around embeddables has been focused on their applications for business, it’s their potential for saving lives that has interested medical researchers for more than a decade. Dr John Halamka, the chief information officer of Harvard Medical School, put himself forward in 2005 as a human guinea pig for testing an early iteration of RFID implants in order to measure the risks and rewards of embeddable tech in medicine.
While current regulations in many countries prevent licensed medical practitioners from inserting RFID devices into people, Raik-Allen says it’s embeddable tech’s potential in the medical industry that most excites him. “Right now, a doctor can look at you when you’re sick by prodding you, poking you and looking into your ears and nose, but they don’t have the best access to the insights and information on what’s really going on in your body.
“Medical screenings are costing society and the government millions of dollars, without necessarily being the most effective form of understanding the human body. But with embeddable technology, the possibilities are endless as it could save millions of dollars and thousands of lives.”
Whatever the future holds, it appears that embeddable technology is here to stay, regardless of the discussion and debate that will no doubt continue in the coming years.
MYOB Group Ltd (ASX: MYO) is a leading cloud based business management solutions provider. It helps approximately 1.2 million businesses across Australia and New Zealand succeed by simplifying accounting, payroll, tax, practice management, CRM, job costing, inventory and more.
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