Alexander Huber, the managing director for the Nordic region at the travel agent Tui, has a microchip about the size of a grain of rice implanted into his hand.
And while some say it's a window into a dystopian future where all corporations chip their employees — Huber says he likes it. It’s convenient.
“This is actually the only way I get access to the office nowadays,” he tells Sifted. “I lose my badges all the time so this is great.”
Huber is not alone. Around 3,500 people in Sweden are walking around with a microchip injected with a kind of syringe under the skin in their hand.
Why chip your employees?
For Tui, which introduced chips to its Swedish employees about a year and a half ago, it was part of a “digital safari” that the company arranged.
“We brought in loads of new technology, like augmented and virtual reality, blockchain and the like to play around with it,” Huber says. “One of those things was biohacking and the implant caught our interest. It actually had the potential to solve a problem.”
A few weeks after Huber got his implant, 80 colleagues followed his example. Now around one-fifth of the Tui staff in the Nordics has a chip under his or her skin.
“Think if you could have your train and plane tickets as well as payments on the implant. For me, that would be gold. Or even, better, even have your passport on it so you don’t have to carry around all the things you otherwise always forget,” Huber says.
Epicenter, an innovation center in Stockholm, is the key reason why Sweden has become an implant happy country. Even back in 2015, during the launch of Epicenter, the keys to the office building were given as a chip implant.
“At the start, there were only a few of us that had the implants, but there was a lot of interest from our members and we began arranging chip implant parties,” says Patrick Mesterton, cofounder of Epicenter. "We organised them in connection to our after-work drinks for the community, to our chip ’n’ beer evenings. It became a thing and not just for our members,” he says.
The enthusiasm among chipped people in the Nordics is not shared across Europe, according to Mesterton. “In Amsterdam there is much more skepticism, similarly Germany when it comes to privacy. They cannot really see the benefits.”
There isn’t a simple answer as to why Swedish people have been so positive towards implants in comparison to many European counterparts. Some argue that it has to do with the trust that Swedes have in the system — both the state and companies.
Another possible reason is that sparsely populated Scandinavia, with a population density about a tenth of that of the UK, has seen particularly strong benefits from the internet in connecting the nation.
This has helped made the Nordics enthusiastic about digital transformation and early adopters of technology.
“Internet has facilitated [people's] lives here greatly. The impact has been greater here than elsewhere,” Huber says. “Why do we have 4G over almost every inch of Sweden whilst when in London, you cannot even go online on the tube?”
Susanne Rooker, chief executive at the influencer company Buzzador, has had the chip in her hand for a year and a half.
“A couple of years ago, the discussion focused a lot on the security of the implant, if one could be monitored through it. I think that has diminished and now the focus is more on how much it hurts to put one in,” Rooker says.
But has it lived up to the hype?
The most common use for the chip is getting access to the gym, the office, the printers and perhaps even the food vending machine at work.
This is all well and good, but a few thousand Swedes getting a chocolate bar from a machine at work with just their hand is hardly a revolution.
According to serial entrepreneur and biohacking enthusiast Hannes Sjöblad, there has been too little development of the hardware being implanted to take the technology forward.
Pork chops are contextually similar to a human hand and are great for testing.
“What we have seen over the last few years is that the software has evolved and more services have been added,” he says. “However, the chip’s hardware functionalities have not developed in the same way.”
In order to try and improve this, last year, Sjöblad, Patric Lanhed and Juanjo Tara launched Dsruptive, a new implant and platform, to speed up the development of innovation.
By making it open source it means that other parties can innovate on it and add specific features to the implant.
“If someone wants to have a thermometer and a blue light on a chip, then it can be added. Another one may want a white light and a spectrometer, then that can be added,” he says.
According to Sjöblad, Dsruptive can deliver a variety of chips to startups that want to test their prototypes within a fortnight.
“Then the startup can inject the prototypes in pork chops to test them during the weekend. Pork chops are contextually similar to a human hand and are great for testing,” Sjöblad says.
One area where the implanted microchip is both hailed as a great solution — and possibly a huge future ethical problem — is when using it for health tracking.
Instead of a Fitbit, Garmin or another health tracking device, one may be able in the future to use the implant to track blood pressure or temperature changes.
As a preventive health measure, this could be an easy way to keep track of your body, however, some also point to the issue over who would own this data.
Implants for health tech is the most transformative. Okay, it is cool to pay with the chip in the hand but, ultimately, it is not going to change much.
For Sjöblad, who can see the implants being used en masse as a way of improving health standards all over the world, he focuses on the potential positive impacts.
“Implants for health tech is the most transformative. Okay, it is cool to pay with the chip in the hand but, ultimately it is not going to change much,” he says.
“If we can create a platform as great as Fitbit’s, then we have the ability to gain incredible knowledge about people’s health without having to worry about an external tracker.”
The next step
People who already have a chipped hand will probably have to replace the implant before experiencing any of the new exciting innovation that may or may not be on the market within the next couple of years.
And who knows, by then maybe something else will be the next big thing for the early adopters in Sweden.
“The technique is exponential, it may be outdated in a couple of years because of smarter things like iris scanning, [which] will work without an implant,” Mesterton says. “I have respect for how fast technology develops so it is very possible that [chipping] could become obsolete before it becomes mainstream.”
It is very possible that [chipping] could become obsolete before it becomes mainstream.
Rooker says she would obviously like to have new features on her chip but, so far, she is really happy with the few things it can do for her.
“The best innovations are the ones you didn’t know you missed. Before iPhone, no one thought one needed all those functions, today we cannot live without our mobile. A great product creates that need and if I didn’t have my chip today, then I would miss it greatly, so it has succeeded in creating a need within me,” Rooker says.
Two years ago I got a microchip implanted into my hand. It was the opening of a new virtual reality centre in Stockholm and the first 10 people to show interest were given an implant for free.
Since I had been planning to get a chip for about a year, I jumped at the chance.
Aside from getting a VIP membership and access to the centre, I would be able to use it for tickets on the Swedish railway and use it to get access to my office without a card. And who knew what more in the future, I thought?
What excited me the most was the idea of using it on public transport, using it to pay for stuff like a bank card and also using it as a key for my future digital security system at home. The most exciting features were not available by then, but it could not be long before almost all plastic credit cards could be fitted into my chip, right?
I am not particularly anxious about syringes, although I always look away when doing a blood test. When faced with the actual implantation, however, once the person started massaging my skin where the implant was going to sit, my heart rate rose a fair bit.
The needle was not as skinny as the ones used to take blood.
Did it hurt? Yes. Did I get a bruise? Yes, a big one. Was I worried about blood poisoning? Definitely.
The swelling and the bruising eventually disappeared and now only a small scar and a blue outline of the chip is visible to the eye.
So, how much have I used the chip? Nil, nothing, nada.
For one, I realised I was not as tech savvy as I like to think. The iPhone 6 that I had at the time is rubbish when it comes to NFC (the technology used for this). On its older models, Apple just doesn't allow a connection between the phone and chip.
I did, however, borrow an Android from work. But being so used to Apple, I never really managed to find out how to use it. Especially not together with my chip.
The Swedish rail company was kind enough to offer to help me load my tickets onto my chip if I popped around to their office. But I never got around to it.
Well, what about the VR-centre, surely I could still have a VIP-badge on my chip? Well, for some reason they never got the access system to work.
Do I still believe that new and great features will one day be added to my chip? Not a chance. In a few years I will have to go through the ordeal to take it out and then decide if I want a new one.
Writing a different article the other week, I was shown a chip that can be fitted under the skin and used for payments. Still a little bit unreliable but it may be ready to use by the time I get around to take out my existing chip.
The only problem is that it is more than four times as big as the one I have now. I doubt that I will have the guts to do it.