It sounds like the premise of a "Black Mirror" episode. In Sweden, more than 150 employees at a startup called Epicenter have surgically implanted tiny electronic chips into their hands, allowing them to open office doors, print out documents, and purchase drinks. In other words, gone are card keys and debit cards, and in their place are microchipped thumbs, which do the swiping, printing, and buying for you.
While implanting electronic devices into the body is hardly a new procedure (think pacemakers and pet collars), this is the first known widespread use of chip implants by a company and its employees.
Of course, "getting chipped," as it's called, brings up all sorts of interesting, not to mention disturbing, issues.
[A]s with most new technologies, it raises security and privacy issues. Although the chips are biologically safe, the data they generate can show how often employees come to work or what they buy. Unlike company swipe cards or smartphones, which can generate the same data, people cannot easily separate themselves from the chips.
And where there is vaulable data to be found, there are hackers.
Ben Libberton, a microbiologist at Stockholm's Karolinska Institute, says hackers could conceivably gain huge swaths of information from embedded microchips. The ethical dilemmas will become bigger the more sophisticated the microchips become.
“The data that you could possibly get from a chip that is embedded in your body is a lot different from the data that you can get from a smartphone,” he says. “Conceptually, you could get data about your health, you could get data about your whereabouts, how often you're working, how long you're working, if you're taking toilet breaks and things like that.”
I'll let you extrapolate from there.
In other technology news, the Trump Administration has begun to release its ideas for changes to the controversial H-1B visa program. Although no executive order has been handed down on the matter, there's been some indication of how Trump & Associates intend to alter the program. Here's the New York Times on the latest H-1B developments:
The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services announced on Friday that entry-level computer programming jobs would no longer automatically qualify as a “specialty occupation,” which is a basic requirement for receiving an H-1B work visa. And on Monday, the Justice Department warned that it would look closely at any employer that showed a preference for hiring H-1B workers instead of Americans.
These steps will most likely fall short of dramatically affecting big tech companies like Google and Facebook. But the industry is still anticipating an executive order from Mr. Trump that could create additional changes to how H-1Bs and other work visas are issued.
The fear, if you're a tech company that relies upon immigrant tech talent, is that the Trump administration will scale back the visa program, which many in Silicon Valley believe needs to be severely ramped up. Last year, there were only 85,000 visas handed out and some 236,000 visa applications.
As for the main disagreement between the tech industry and the Trump administration, it has to do with who stands to benefit and who stands to lose in the expansion of the H-1B program. Most tech firms say that they (and thus the U.S.) will benefit if the highly skilled immigrants who are educated here in the U.S. are allowed to stay and work in the U.S. in higher numbers. Whereas Trump seems to believe that these highly skilled workers take jobs away from qualified Americans. In turn, many tech employers like to point out that there aren't enough qualified Americans for the jobs they need, and so the highly skilled immigrants are essential and aren't taking away jobs from anyone.
Chiming in today on this issue, over at Bloomberg, was Carnegie Mellon Silicon Valley Distinguished Fellow Vivek Wadhwa, who called the Trump Administration's stance on the H-1B program "brain dead," explaining, "They are doing the same stupid things they did with the Muslim ban and now they're haphazardly applying them" to the visa program.
Wadhwa points out that India and China are ahead of the U.S. when it comes to innovation, citing the many more "unicorns" (startups valued at more than one billion dollars) in China than in America. And he says he's done his research into who's running those unicorns and many, he says, are co-run by American-educated foreign workers.
He also says that Apple, the most innovative American company, is being forced to copy technology from Chinese mobile companies due to Apple's inability to innovate on its own, due in part to the current constraints of the H-1B program.
Here's the entire interview, which is a pretty good primer (if you're not up to date) on the central issues of the H-1B debate.
Lastly, all this talk about technology, tech firms, and innovation had me thinking about the fascinating (and somewhat unsettling and scary) podcast I caught last week in which Adam Alter, the author of Irresistible, a new book about the consequences of living and working in the tech age, spoke with Dave Davies of NPR's Fresh Air.
In the podcast, Alter notes that many tech firms design their apps and programs specifically so their users become addicted, which, among other effects, means less productivity at work and school. And perhaps the most unsettling section of the podcast involves the irresistability of video games. Here's Alter discussing one real-life scenario of a gamer gone very wrong.
There was a person I spoke to, he was a straight-A student, he was very high-achieving, and he was also on the football team at his college. He started playing World of Warcraft because he, as he described it, was quite lonely and he found that there were a lot of other like-minded people on the game.
He developed an addiction pretty quickly because he found that it was basically a much better alternative world to the real one, and he spent a lot of time there. He played instead of sleeping, and his greatest binge was a 45-day binge where he played almost continuously. He paid a doorman in the building to bring up pizza, so by the end of this binge there were stacks of pizza boxes to the ceiling. He put on about 40 pounds of fat. His skin was pale. He lost hair. He ignored hundreds of phone calls.
He eventually picked up a phone call 45 days later after sleeping roughly an hour each night. It happened to be his mother and she came, collected him, and took him to reSTART, this Internet addiction treatment center. He's now thriving, he's doing very well, but he had to go through multiple rounds of treatment.
Luckily, I gave up my video game habit when Intellivison went out of business.
I also found it unsettling to begin to think about just how much time I spend per day on my so-called smartphone. According to Alter, the average time for a modern adult is three hours a day. Yes, the average. Alter himself couldn't believe this, and so in the course of conducting research for his book, he decided to find out exactly how much time he spent on his phone.
Paradoxically, in order to figure out how much time he was using his phone (in order to try to lessen his time on it), he had to download an app to help him. The app is called Moment, which keeps track of how long you're on your phone each day. Sure enough, Alter found, much to his surprise (he thought he was on his phone for maybe an hour each day) that he landed about average: he uses his phone just more than three hours each day.
The entire podcast, just 30 minutes long, is well worth your time. So while you wait for the next season of "Black Mirror" to drop, give it a listen (perhaps on your smartphone).
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