Technological marvel or liberty destroyer?
Geoff Metcalf interviews scientist Charles Ostman on sub-dermal biochips

By Geoff Metcalf

What was considered science-fiction fantasy only a few years ago is now everyday reality -- sub-dermal computer chips used for identification and location purposes. While today, the use of these devices is predominantly restricted to animals, there are grand plans for multiple human uses in the very near future. With this technology comes ethical and privacy issues and the very real possibility of criminal misuse.

Berkeley scientist Charles Ostman is an expert in nanotechnology and the exploding realm of biochip applications. WorldNetDaily reporter Geoff Metcalf recently interviewed Ostman about sub-dermal biochips and the controversy surrounding them.

Question: What is nanotechnology?

Answer: Some people tend to think of this as "little things" or little machines. There is an aspect of nanotechnology which that facilitates. But nanotechnology is really a fabrication process. Eric Drexler, who founded the Forsyth Institute (of which I am a member), coined the term mechanosynthesis. I think that sums it up really well because the theory here is that one is attempting to instigate molecules to move about, behave and, in a sense, connect together in a way they normally wouldn't do.

In biological systems, all living things are, in a sense, nanofoundaries. If one were to go inside a living cell, into the nucleus and look at the ribosome which physically takes molecular components and sort of rearranges them according to the instructions it gets on a contiguous basis, that is, in essence, a nanofoundary.

Q: You were involved in developing some of the technology for these sub-dermal biochip implants. Normally, if you put something under your skin -- a splinter or something -- the body will reject it.

A: Yes, this is true. I'm glad you started out on that foot because it's not so much that all of a sudden a couple of guys in a lab made a biochip and bam, here we are; it's not like that at all. What this really is, is the outcome of a very linear progression of what had been very different and autonomous pockets of technology that all came from different directions but converged on a common target, being able to create highly complex micro-devices. These are called SOC or "system on chip," incorporating fluidics, mechanical systems, optics and all kinds of different materials. In some cases, people from the biophysics and what is now called the nanobiology world began to recognize that maybe they could start to apply some of their most recent nanobiological techniques as a fabrication process and integrate it with these new more advanced systems on a chip component.

Q: Normally in science, you have such unique subcultures that I was amazed the guys in room "A" would even talk to the guys in room "B."

A: That is often the case. Up until very recently, it was a very competitive environment. There was obviously a lot of bantering about looking for grant money -- and various department chairs were vying for control over this project or that project.

Q: Synergy between disciplines is not something that is usually encouraged or accepted.

A: Up until recently. The thing that has been driving this is the industry. That's the point I was hoping to focus on.

I am a senior fellow at the Institute for Global Futures, and what we do there is specifically look at the synergistic potential of newly emerging technologies and how they might be reorganized to facilitate some new development or some new industry infrastructure. We put together alliances and reports and that kind of thing.

Q: Let's go back to the splinter under the skin and the body's normal response to reject it. What did you do to this sub-dermal biochip implant so that it doesn't get kicked out of the body?

A: What you need to do is satisfy several different conditions. You want to keep the immune system neutralized. You want to encourage it to bind to muscle tissue or dermis tissue. There is actually a very, very broad range of different applications. There is this company that produces something called the "Digital Angel" which I guess everyone is so upset about.

Q: WorldNetDaily is on that like white on rice.

A: I'm sure you are. But there are an enormous number of other people who have really focused on many different kinds of ways to solve complex medical problems. Things like returning sight to sight-impaired people or repairing spinal-cord columns.

One of the projects involves an implantable system that will dispense insulin on a continuous basis using very, very sophisticated biosensors that are inside the body and then provide a feedback circuit to the dispensing system so that instead of taking shots, you just have one of these devises implanted every so often. There are also neuroprosthetics. There are three companies now that produce devices that actually tap into the brain at different locations. One is to actually override epileptic seizures so that instead of having to take chemistries to solve the problem, it electronically neutralizes the event before it happens.

Q: I have heard discussions about testing those on some prisoners with behavior modification.

A: This is an area that concerns many people. Some take the narrow view that somehow this technology is evil and is going to cause all these problems. But there are two sides to it. What I try to do in my publications -- and the reason I go on the air from time to time -- is not to try to push opinion but to inform, so that people can take a more reasoned approach to what kinds of opinions might drive policy eventually.

Q: Let's focus just a bit on the sub-dermal biochip implant. What are they capable of doing, and how are they powered?

A: The Air Force really pushed this agenda quite a few years ago.

Q: They wanted it for pilots.

A: Exactly. The theory was that a downed pilot could be tracked within a certain range, and this was a good attempt. It was still kind of primitive at the time but, at least, they were willing to pioneer the effort. A number of years later, NASA began working on something similar but different. Rather than trying to track the location of a downed pilot, their whole purpose was to be able to monitor vital signs of the human physiology in their astronauts so that when they are out doing space walks, they could keep a data thread on their state of being.

More recently, there was a British physician, Dr. Warwick, who made headlines last year when he put a sub-dermal implant in his arm. This was a full sort of bio-scan system so that when he walked into the clinic, the system would, a) know he was there, but, b) more importantly, be monitoring his vital signs and updating in real-time his medical records. And this kind of suggests where this is going. It is one thing to say biochips are going to be required as an ID system -- this could come to pass, if policy were to be driven in that direction.

Q: Everybody can see the benefits of it. It is benign if it is used for the purpose for which you intend it. The concern is, once you got it, you are then subject to the cavalier, capricious whim of whoever the controller is.

A: I tend to agree. The larger issue really is, what are the policy directives? How do we protect the value of what this technology might be able to provide versus seeing it obviously contorted in some very unpleasant ways?

Q: Several people have asked: Can you zap these implants with some kind of electromagnetic field and turn them off?

A: These things are very delicate. They operate on picoamperes of current. The human body is actually a dynamo. It actually produces about 200 volts per linear foot on average. It takes a fairly small amount of current to run a fairly complex circuit. The computer industry made all that possible. In fact, all your handhelds and laptops are crammed to the rafters with extremely high-efficiency circuitry. Harvesting that fabrication potential and marrying it to biological materials is kind of where all this came from. The point is, if one were, in today's world, bent on thwarting the transmission aspects of the device, one could. But that would simply create a sort of arms race in the biochip world to make increasing robust ones to counteract this.

Q: The concern is that these chips also have the capacity to be traced, as in the pilot model. What are the capabilities of these chips in their varying flavors?

A: I think what you are leading to is, can these chips be used as a real-time transceiving system?

Q: Yes; linked up with GPS.

A: It's not just GPS. In fact, IBM had an ad on television. It shows a guy walking through a store, picking things up and putting them in his pocket.

Q: And the guard is eyeballing him.

A: And as he's walking out the door the guard says, "Oh, here's your receipt." It was kind of humorous, but not really. That is exactly where this could go. There is a very strong desire in many different arenas, whether it's banking, HMOs, insurance providers -- and quite a swath of people in both the corporate and what I call the institutional or government world -- who clearly have their own particular reason for wanting to see an ever grander, real-time, interactive, transactional sort of process dynamic in which you, the individual, are constantly being updated and queried for whatever your type of use may happen to be, whether it is purchasing things, traveling about, or being on the telephone or other forms of media traffic. There is very specific interest to sort of integrate this all into one giant ubiquitous data grid.

Oddly enough, the Internet has kind of driven this. There is a very real fanatical interest to get to this real-time connected economy realm that says, "I can be anywhere in any point in time and I think the thought and, suddenly, the thing of my interest appears before me."

Q: Digital Angel appears to be one potential result of everything you have been talking about. WorldNetDaily has written, and I suspect will be writing about Digital Angel. I assume you are familiar with it?

A: I'm quite familiar with the device and the company but I think this is a first attempt to commercialize what has already been in existence for some time. Clearly, they've gotten their own patents, but really more of a process patent than a device patent. They are trying to position themselves to market the modernization of localized personal tracking from both a security perspective and as a way to optimize certain mission-critical applications.

This is a company that was founded a couple of years ago and were the first company to kind of take the prototype of what the Air Force had been working on for some time and mix it up with the version NASA had been developing. They wanted to combine the best of all current possible technologies to make a mass producible, implantable, fairly inexpensive device that would allow someone to be tracked or traced, or to serve the purpose of identification.

Up till now, there has been a big push to have an integrated ID system digital cache where your presence is sort of traced on this ubiquitous data grid, for the sake of transactions. But one of the failure points, or one of the real challenges, is the combination of authenticity versus personal verification, so that when you do transact, they know that it is you.

Q: That's why banks and airports are pushing these retinal or iris scans.

A: Correct. So now what you are seeing is this combination where you are trying to mix together biometrics of many different types, a fully integrated exchange of database systems into a sort of common protocol.

Q: The question that is often asked is, "Hey, if these sub-dermal biochip implants are tucked into you, can they make you sick on command? Can they do something to you?"

A: It depends on where they are put and for what purpose. Behavioral modification is a serious topic and probably one of the scary ones that I personally have some thoughts about. Back when the human genome project was first getting started, they wanted to look for behavioral correlations between certain biophysical aspects of neurophysiology in the brain and certain psychological known ailments -- the theory being that instead of treating these ailments with drugs, they implant a device and the device could insert electrical signals or modify electrical signals to essentially accommodate the same effect but in a more precise way.

Q: They are doing that in research with prisoners now, aren't they?

A: I'm not sure with prisoners precisely, but I do know that with mood control in severe depression cases, yes, it has already been done in clinical trials. The epileptic seizure control: already been done in clinical trials. In fact, it is available commercially. The next thing around the corner is schizophrenic prevention control. Actually, there are five companies I know personally who all have this on their annual report. They talk about market share and international markets. To them this is just another commodity.

Q: Some folks have suggested that, like human cloning, this technology should be banned and made illegal. However, how can you possibly put it back in the bottle? If it is outlawed, won't outlaws pursue it for illegal enrichment?

A: More importantly, we live in a global economy. The box is not only open; it is a dot on the horizon. I actually served on a financial impact study for this multi-agency committee that just facilitated $625 million for the first-ever national nanotechnology policy directorate. Essentially, we are now financing a program kind of like NASA but for nanoscale technology -- and it is going to be applied as we are speaking today.

Q: The sub-dermal biochip implant offers all kinds of benefits -- from downed pilots to prisoner control to medical records -- but people are still more than a little hinky about this invasion of privacy. Is there any way to protect against the downside?

A: The answer to this is not to just make it all go away. It's not going to go away. That is simply not going to happen. What I think might be possible and feasible is to maximize the potential benefits and obviously restrict its misuse, but to be able to enforce that through the dispensation of policy.

Q: Here's the worse-case scenario. First, they introduce sub-dermal biochip implants into prisons; then, they introduce it into the military; and then, they eventually get it into the public schools where it is required and mandatory for kids. Then they just wait for dinosaurs like you and me to die off.

A: I have a different scenario but very similar. Because of the cost of health care -- and the HMOs are very big on this idea -- at birth, your entire DNA is mapped out. They can work out physical and biophysical programs for you prescribed over your lifetime, based on whatever criteria they are willing to accommodate. And, as a price of access or acknowledgement of access, you have one of these devices implanted in you so instead of walking into a Kaiser with your card, when you walk in with your chip, you are scanned and connected directly to their medical database. Clearly, for many people, this would be a great convenience.

Q: Sure, it saves them all that time in the check-out line.

A: It certainly does. And why not tie my credit card records to the same system? I understand the slippery slope.

Q: It's the potential for abuse of power under the color of authority we have already seen. I have personal friends who have been targeted by the IRS for their political positions.

A: I understand completely. However, contemporary life is different now. Once upon a time, a person's personal life was defined by their 'person.' Nowadays, you are a virtual entity in this ubiquitous domain. Your transaction and behavioral history is essentially broadcast throughout the planet and, really, we are already there now. It's not like you can reverse the clock. Rather, we should ask, what is the ability for us to adapt to this realm in a way that can harvest what it has to offer but not be subject to it?