Jordan: What if you could never ever lose your phone or your keys or whatever your most private and critical piece of personal information happens to be, you’d never lose it. That’s possible. There is a solution for that right now. One that works. You just put it inside your body, just like that. A little computer chip, a little cut, an insertion, a bandaid, and you’re good. Forever. Also, congratulations. You’re now technically part human and part machine. There are hundreds, if not thousands of you walking amongst us right now. They are in our offices and at our gatherings and today, they are in our podcast studios and by extension in your ears. But not like that. At least, not yet.
I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings. This is the Big Story. Tamara Banbury is a first year PhD student in communications at Carlton university. She is also a voluntary cyborg. Hello, Tamara.
Tamara Banbury: Hello.
Jordan: Why don’t you start by defining what a voluntary cyborg is.
Tamara Banbury: Sure. It’s a term that I’ve come up with to make a distinction between people who have technology implanted inside their body for medical purposes or those of us who are voluntary, do it for enhancement and augmentation purposes. So medical cyborgs, voluntary cyborgs.
Jordan: Medical cyborgs would cover something like a pacemaker installed in your chest.
Tamara Banbury: That is literally the number one example everybody uses, including me, is the pacemaker.
Prosthetics will count any technology inside the body. For women IUDs would count
Jordan: What is inside your body?
Tamara Banbury: I have two computer chips, one in each hand. And technically an IUD as well. Right?
Jordan: What uh– I know what an IUD does. What do the computer chips do?
Tamara Banbury: So the one in my right hand is NFC based technology. So that’s near field communication. I can program it to do a number of small tasks that a memory is very small. I think it’s eight bytes, like it is so small. So I play tricks on people with mine right now. Not sure your internet meme history. I Rick Roll people.
Jordan: How does that work?
Tamara Banbury: It opens up the YouTube for Rick Astley’s Never Going to Give You Up when you scan my hand.
Jordan: When I scan your hand with what?
Tamara Banbury: Your phone, any NFC enabled smart phone.
Jordan: Can I do that right now?
Tamara Banbury: Yeah, absolutely. You keep the phone still. I’ll move my hand cause I can feel it vibrate. You’ll feel the phone vibrate when it hits it. There it is.
Jordan: Oh. And the phone beeps and—
*Rick Astley’s Never Going to Give You Up plays*
Jordan: This is the future that you’re listening to. It sounds like a Rick Roll. Why did you do that?
Tamara Banbury: The Rick Roll specifically?
Jordan: No, the chip!
Tamara Banbury: Okay, ‘cause I was like, the story about the Rick Roll is not that great, but I started studying computer science when I went back to university in my mid-thirties and computer science at that time where I was, didn’t take the human into account.
It was all about programming and, and the actual technology. So I switched over to an anthropology major where I could concentrate on the human, but I incorporate technology because I am a– a bit of a tech nerd. At that same time, I was volunteering at the military museum in Calgary, Alberta. It’s the second largest military museum in Canada, and the galleries are all run by active duty service members, and a lot of them were veterans of Afghanistan.
And so some of them had had life altering injuries and including prosthetics because they had lost limbs. So I took this weird combination of computer science, anthropology and the study of humans and prosthetics. And it became about how do you incorporate technology into the body? Either through prosthetics or external devices, and then just started becoming internalized after that.
So after I graduated, just in my spare time, I became even more fascinated. I wanted to find other people who were interested in this kind of thing because it didn’t seem like there were a lot of us. And I found a group down in the United States and they were having a conference in Austin, Texas. And so I flew down on, you know, my spare time, took time off of work and went and met all of these people who were doing amazing things with technology in their bodies.
And when I saw people getting these chips implanted, like on the room, you know, in the conference room, I was like, well, that’s really not a big deal. I didn’t do it right then. I did it just a couple of years ago now, but it felt like as an academic, I couldn’t talk about what these people were doing if I didn’t understand it in some way myself.
Right. And this is an entry level way to get into the, you know, to understand what the community does.
Jordan: What are some of the other things that the community does then? What did you see down there?
Tamara Banbury: A lot of people have magnets implanted in their fingers, and it looks so cool. Well, to me. It’s a type of rare earth magnet, and you put it usually in the finger pad of your ring finger and let the nerves grow back around it.
And you can pick up small metal objects like bottle caps or paperclips.
Tamara Banbury: But apparently you can also feel electromagnetic fields. So the example they always give me is that like a microwave when it’s going will set off a three foot sort of fuzzy area of power
Tamara Banbury: Whereas a coffee grinder has a really condensed, sharp type of power because it’s, it’s such a small device, so it basically gives you a new, yeah– it basically gives them a new sense.
Jordan: That’s also kind of terrifying. You mentioned that you were seeing them installed a, you know, on the convention floor. Yeah. What’s that process like? I mean, it must be pretty simple if you’re not doing it in a doctor’s office or a hospital or whatever.
Tamara Banbury: Exactly. The chips are not a medical device.
They are considered body jewelry. Okay, so the little–
Jordan: Like getting your ears pierced essentially.
Tamara Banbury: Right, so it’s a little glass tube with the tech inside of it. A lot of people will compare it to a grain of rice, so that kind of shape, I find it, it’s a little bit bigger than that, but similar. It comes preloaded in a syringe from the person I buy it from, and I go to a local piercer in Ottawa where I live, and it just, it takes seconds.
They just basically puncture your skin, push the plunger. Done. I think he gave me a band-aid at the end, but that’s it.
Jordan: And you get that done every time you want a new chip to do something different. So if you wanted the chip in your right hand to do something besides Rick Roll me, you would go to the piercer with a different chip and say, this one does something else.
Take that one out and put this one in.
Tamara Banbury: No. So I can rewrite the chip that’s in my right hand. I can change,
Jordan: Without taking it out?
Tamara Banbury: Correct. Yup. I just use an app on my phone and I just scan it, reprogram it with whatever I want to do. If I want to do multiple things with the chip right now, yes, I need multiple chips.
Tamara Banbury: But what most people do who do that is we just keep adding them.
We don’t take them away.
Jordan: What are some of the things you could do with these chips that would make a difference in your everyday life, for example.
Tamara Banbury: So everybody does ask a lot about like, how are they functioning, you know, like what’s their function? Because just entertainment doesn’t seem to be enough reason for people to really think that this would be something for them.
And I get that. So everybody has usually some sort of key swipe card that they use to either get into the office or the gym or something like that.
Jordan: I have three of those
Tamara Banbury: Right, you can buy those kinds of locks and install one in your house and never need to have house keys again. So instead of, you know, swiping your card like at a hotel room door, now you would just wipe your hand in front of your home.
There are, there is a Tesla owner who recently just modified the car so that they can start it with the chip in their hand as well.
Jordan: Well, I, um, I brought you in to the building here with a pass card, and you told me that if you could hack the past card and get its code, you could put that code into your chip and then you could use your hand to get into my building.
Tamara Banbury: Correct.
Jordan: I don’t want to say how legal is that cause that’s maybe not the right application of it. But how far outside of the bounds of the way we traditionally, uh, conduct these kinds of affairs is it, like nobody’s ready for that?
Tamara Banbury: There are some places that are ready, but here in Canada, it’s not a part of the larger conversation.
And that’s why I’m trying to raise awareness of, of the fact that this is happening, that we do need to think about it. So that this legal gray area that sometimes we are in isn’t so scary. Nobody in the community really feels they’re doing anything wrong. We know we’re a little bit weird, but we’re not wrong.
But the line can get crossed when there are gray areas, like who owns the card that you use to get into work? Your card is actually not that secure. You could lose it much more easily than I would lose–
Jordan: People around here lose their cards every day.
Tamara Banbury: Right. Whereas if it’s embedded in my hand. I never have to think about that again.
Jordan: Right. But then I lose my job one day and Rogers wants their card back, but it’s in my hand.
Tamara Banbury: You can rewrite them, right? Like it would be, it would be a matter of seconds and you could just basically clear that and then you too could start Rick Rolling people with your chip.
Jordan: Right. What would you say are the general reactions you get when not people like myself who have read about you or heard about you somewhere and are coming to you to ask specifically about it. But when it comes up in polite conversation,
Tamara Banbury: It happens all the time. Because I love talking about what I do. So the initial reaction is they don’t believe me. Right? And so I always say, you know, yeah, I have a computer chip in my hands, et cetera.
I invite them to touch it because for a lot of people, since they can’t see it, feeling is believing. And there’s two reactions that I tend to get there. People are like, Oh, cool. Or I call it the ick reaction where you sort of get a little shiver and kind of creeps them out to, to feel that hard piece of glass underneath my skin.
Jordan: I mean, there is something, maybe profound is not the right word, but, but something meaningful about realizing that there’s something that’s not you inside your body.
Tamara Banbury: Yeah, and that is actually like. Where my academic interest started is issues of personal identity, body autonomy. Do you have the right to put whatever you want inside your body and it turns out you actually don’t because you don’t own your body.
Jordan: Explain to me how that works.
Tamara Banbury: You are not your body legally, you are a persona in the court of law, so if you lose your arms and your legs, you’re still you right? Your physical form doesn’t actually come into who you are legally. And then we have the rest of the world is known as property. In the court of law. Your dog is property.
It is not a sentience being. It is property as is your computer, you know, your car, your phone, your house, all of that, property. And that’s how the law really distinguishes personas from everything else. So even with medical implants, nobody knows who owns the pacemaker inside a person’s body.
Jordan: Has that ever been adjudicated?
Tamara Banbury: Right now, there is no precedent that I’m aware of to determine absolutely who owns that, and it becomes a bigger issue now in our current climate of data control, because a lot of our medical devices. Have, um, the ability to generate data. So now who owns that data that is generated by your body? Not you.
Even if you have a Fitbit or any other kind of fitness tracker.
Jordan: Well Google just bought FitBit, that I’m wearing, which I check every day. Now all of a sudden, uh, Google knows my heart rate
Tamara Banbury: Right? And so there are so many questions about who has control of your data and when it comes to biometrics, like body data, I really prefer to keep it out of the corporation’s hands, unless you voluntarily give them that information.
But a lot of people don’t really realize the information they’re giving out as they live their lives.
Jordan: So what needs to happen now and how does the work that you’re doing connect to it?
Tamara Banbury: We need to start thinking about ownership of data. When we’re on, you know, different websites, be it Facebook or Google or whatever, we’ve clicked a little box that none of us read, you know, the end user license agreement to say, yup, I’ve read everything, I understand what I’m committing to. But we don’t do that necessarily when it’s a pacemaker being implanted because it’s a lifesaving surgery. So of course, you know, most people are like, absolutely put one in me, but they don’t realize the information that’s happening.
There was an interesting slash terrifying, um, release of data by another fitness tracker called Strava a few years ago. And I don’t know if you’ve heard of it. People find data very interesting in certain nerd circles, and you can generate a lot of interesting information from very basic numbers. So with fitness trackers, it’s quite common when you do your, say your morning workout and you’re running around your neighborhood, like attracts you on a little map and some, some platforms, that’s the selling point. And I believe Strava’s one of those where you get to see the little picture that you, you know, sort of drew with your exercise and you can share it amongst friends on the platform. Soldiers like to use Strava because it’s, it’s a much more intense version than a Fitbit. And from the press release that came out when the story broke, soldiers who were being out on active duty and deployed were turning off their location services and we’re not uploading their exercise to the Cloud, but they were still exercising wearing the fitness tracker. When they came back home sometimes several months later, and they reactivated their location services and started uploading again, they didn’t realize that all of that information from previously, uploaded as well. Strava wanting to just show people, you know, how many people on the planet are using their devices and how they’re using it, released a heat map of the world, showing like glowing marks of where people exercised, including forward operating bases in deserts and in other areas of conflict where the soldiers were running around the outlines of the base, and so they were now absolutely given a location as well as perimeters. So it was—
Jordan: That is terrifying.
Tamara Banbury: a military, you know, intelligence break, but it was unintentional by every person who did it. So we don’t realize as we’re going about our day, what information is out there
Jordan: With these chips in your hands, do you ever think, or have you ever thought about what if something goes wrong? Could I hack the chips in your hands?
Tamara Banbury: Well–
Jordan: Maybe not with these ones because they’re eight bits.
Tamara Banbury: Exactly.
Jordan: But this is the beginning, right? Like there’s, there’s no logical end point to this, which is why– I don’t think it’s terrifying at all that you have little chips in your hands, but the implications of that scare me.
Tamara Banbury: And that’s why I think we need to have these conversations now while they’re just kind of fun and moderately functional, but not at this scary, Black Mirror, you know, a level of Twilight zone stuff where we’re suddenly tracking our children through the neighborhood. Cause these aren’t trackable. They do not have batteries sources in them. It is just a little passive chip sitting inside my skin. It is literally the exact same technology that are in pets that have been chipped by a veterinarian.
Right? So if your cat runs away, you can’t track them on a map as they run through the neighborhood. You don’t know where they are until somebody scans it and then notifies you. Same thing with me. If I go running around the neighborhood, nobody can track me, unless they’re looking at my phone.
Jordan: But that won’t be the case for long.
Tamara Banbury: Correct. Batteries in the human body are possible. Medical devices use them all the time. The people who are doing the voluntary cyborg tech are mostly amateurs. Hobbyists, they’re very smart. They’re very trained, but they do this from their homes quite often, right? So they don’t have the financial backing that large corporations do.
So it’s much more difficult to install batteries into the human body right now at that level. But yes, that will absolutely change. And again, this is why we need to start thinking about this so that we’re not coming back to this conversation 30 years from now when things have maybe gone a bit more odd than we want, and we can’t really take back control anymore. We’ve already lost control of so much of our data online that when we do start embedding technology into our bodies, I want us to have already thought about these types of issues.
Jordan: Are you an advanced agent of the coming robot apocalypse?
Tamara Banbury: Well, that’s one title that I’m going to start using because normally I just say, I’m a Guinea pig.
Jordan: Listen, it’s possible you’re here to get us accustomed to these things so that we all implant them in our bodies. And the technology continues to grow a pace. And then one day somebody takes it all over and all of a sudden this really cool thing that I put in my arm is in control of someone else and it’s strangling you.
This is where my mind goes when we have this conversation, I’m just telling you.
Tamara Banbury: No, that’s great. I love, I love hearing people’s worst case scenarios so that, you know, again, we can start thinking about it, but new technologies, everybody is afraid of them at first and we just get accustomed to them. I mean, look at how much our society is just completely accepted.
The smartphone in what, 12 years I think since the first–
Jordan: And now we’re just learning that we probably shouldn’t have done it quite so easily.
Tamara Banbury: Right. And I mean. There’s an easy way for me to explain to people like how we embody technology already. So you know, you have your cell phone and you think you’ve lost it.
Probably almost everybody has an immediate physical reaction. You feel it in your stomach because we know there is so much of our lives and our identity on these devices and it’s gone and you don’t have control of that now. And then you probably start like patting your body down cause you’re checking your pockets.
You’re identifying your body with that technology. Oh man. And recently a commercial has come out and I can’t remember what the commercial is for, but we’ve been using this example for awhile, we say things like, I’m dying. You know, I’m out of power. I need, you know, something like that. And we already automatically know after just 12 years of smartphones that we mean our phone battery is dying.
But we don’t say that. We say I’m dying. We’ve already incorporated that type of technology into our sense of self. So when I think about the generations that are growing up now who’ve never really known the world without cell phones, they’re going to be looking at these external devices that have so much sensitive information on them and wondering why we just throw them about anywhere.
So what if we did something like, instead of having the SIM card inside the phone, you implant it in the base of your palm, and then you set a reader that looks kinda like a phone screen directly onto that. Like you would hold your phone usually, it activates the SIM card inside, and there’s your phone.
So you play with it as usual.
Jordan: So the phone’s not a part of your body. The phone is an external thing, but it doesn’t work unless it’s in contact with your hand where the SIM card is.
Tamara Banbury: None of your personal information would be saved to that. Reading devices, what I would call it. That’s how I’m imagining one possibility for the future.
You know, my nephews who are like 14 and 15 right now, I think by the time they’re my age, it will be quite normal to have the personal aspects of your information kept within you because these are amazing external devices, but they are incredibly easy to lose and they’re very vulnerable.
Jordan: You might have partially started to change my mind. I’m still a little squeamish, but–
Tamara Banbury: And squeamish is fine. You know, there’s some things that even I won’t do. Um, there are, there are some people in this community who do a number of self surgeries, I guess you could say, because right now medical doctors can’t cut you open so that you can put technology in your body—
Jordan: Just for fun? They won’t do that just for fun?
Tamara Banbury: Shocking, isn’t it? So people have done it to themselves. Some of the more enthusiastic practitioners, I’ll say. Um, I get, I get used to this community. And so I forget that some people get a little bit icked-out by the thought of, of cutting into yourself. Um, but some people have done some fairly major implants.
Jordan: Give me the best example or worst example, I guess, as the case may be.
Tamara Banbury: So there’s a man down in the United States, and I’ll say his name, because he’s in the press quite often, Rich Lee. He tried to implant really what I would call armor plates in his shins. And so he, he did slice open his shins almost from knee to, to ankle in order to implant–
I know, right? See people get squeamish, um, and they didn’t work, and so he had to then take them out. And then just a few months ago, I opened up my Facebook page and there was a fairly graphic photo from him on my newsfeed, um, that some bits had started working their way out through the skin. So we had to go back in and get and get them out.
And he did it at home in his bathroom.
Jordan: Okay, well, let’s start with the eight byte grain of rice chips.
Tamara Banbury: Yes, much easier. Very gentle, and then you can Rick Roll people and you can, I mean, you’d be copying me, but
Jordan: We’ll have to figure it out.
Tamara Banbury: Find your own joke.
Jordan: Thank you, Tamara.
Tamara Banbury: Thank you.
Jordan: Tamara Banbury, part human, part machine. That was The Big Story. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, 100% still organic human. You can find more big stories at thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can find us on Twitter if you’re not too creeped out by us at @thebigstoryFPN. You can head to your favorite podcast app, Apple or Google or Stitcher or Spotify or Pocket Casts, whichever you like, and if it lets you, you can click on those five stars and leave a comment and tell us if you would ever become a machine.
Thanks for listening. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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