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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

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Reporter Angela Swafford goes beyond the call of duty when she merges herself with a machine and gets an implanted microchip.


CURWOOD: No matter how many people populate our nation in the coming years, chances are advances in technology will ensure that their relationships with digital devices will be more intimate than what most of us now experience. And for some, that day is here already. Journalist Angela Swafford goes beyond the call of duty to merge herself with a machine and give us a glimpse into the future.

SWAFFORD: The painless procedure lasted barely 15 minutes. The doctor applied a local anesthetic to my right arm. Then he inserted a thick needle deep underneath my skin. With that, he shoved a half-inch long, three-millimeter wide microchip into my arm. I have become a guinea pig. I was the 18th person—and the first journalist—ever to have this chip implanted. I got it because I desperately needed some video material for a documentary I was working on.

Called a VeriChip, the implant is similar to the 25 million plus chips already embedded in animals all over the world. The tiny capsule in my arm contains a radio frequency identification chip. Right now, it stores only an identification number, like a barcode. But for instance, in the future, it might contain medical information. So, for example, if I ended up comatose in an emergency room, a scanner waved over my arm would immediately recall my medical history. Already, some 10 medical facilities in Florida carry this scanner, but the company is working to expand that.

The most radical, and perhaps sinister, concept for using the chip is to track people and animals through the global positioning system. This technology could be putting society a step closer to the Orwellian prediction of constant surveillance and has applications that are already rife with controversy. Should the chips be implanted in rapists and other criminals or resident aliens? What about companies following their employees' whereabouts? But it could also be used to track a kidnap victim.

So, for this reason, the company has been literally inundated with requests for information from Latin-American firms who are hoping to cash in on this technology, giving the astonishing number of kidnappings in those countries. According to Dr. Harvey Kleiner, who is so far the only physician authorized to insert the VeriChip, hundreds of people are already lining up to get the implant. And the president of the company that manufactures the chip believes that the day will come when most people will have a VeriChip-like device implanted under their skin.

Meanwhile, at Dr. Kleiner's office, my arm felt like a salami at a supermarket's cash register. It beeped every time the doctor waved the scanner over it. At the same time, a long number with many zeros flashed on the scanner screen. I can imagine this number may become embedded in my memory, just like my social security number. For good or bad, I thought, this chip is quietly heralding a time when humans will literally have technology under their skin, and the merger of human and machine will be routine. These will give some Luddites a chip on their shoulder. But for the rest of us, it will be embedded in our arm.

[MUSIC: Frank Sinatra "I've Got You Under My Skin" My Way Warner (1997)]

CURWOOD: Journalist Angela Swafford lives in Miami, Florida. You can find the two-part series she produced for Living on Earth on the environmental consequences of Colombia's drug war by going to livingonearth.org. Also, coming up on our website, profiting from climate change. The push to limit carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is spawning a global market in carbon trading. As trading these emission rights becomes a big business, there are more and more folks trying to find ways to tap potential profits.

Journalist Wendy Williams looked at some of these schemes. She found one controversial effort that's being touted as good science.

WILLIAMS: Well, I visited with a very nice man named Russ George, who has a website, and tells people that if they want to deal with the carbon that they themselves have put in the atmosphere, they can send him a certain amount of money and he'll seed the ocean with iron for them, grow the phytoplankton, and they will have dealt with their personal carbon obligations that way.

CURWOOD: Emission trading and why it's attracting so much attention, coming up next week on our website, livingonearth.org, that's livingonearth.org.


CURWOOD: You're listening to NPR's Living On Earth.

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation. Major contributors include the Ford Foundation, for reporting on U.S. environment and development issues, and the William and Flora Hewlitt Foundation for coverage of western issues. Support also comes from NPR member stations, and Bob Williams and Meg Caldwell, honoring NPR's coverage of environmental and natural resource issues, and in support of the NPR President's Council. And Paul and Marcia Ginsberg, in support of excellence in public radio.



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