Could retail workers benefit from implanted microchips?

Photo: Getty Images
Oct 02, 2017

SCDigest Editorial Staff

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article from Supply Chain Digest.

SCDigest has reported several times over the past few years about the small but growing interest in having one or more RFID chips or similar technology implanted in one’s body, generally in the fleshy area between the thumb and index finger, and using that wireless device to automate an increasingly broad array of everyday tasks.

Referred to in some circles as “transhumanism,” the movement largely started with a man name Amal Graafstra, who made news in 2010 by publicizing the fact that he had a RFID tag implanted in each hand, which he used to perform tasks such as opening his garage door or turning on his computer with a wave of his hand.

This summer, a Wisconsin company, Three Square Market, offered employees implantable chips to open doors, buy snacks, log in to computers and use office equipment like copy machines. It’s not clear how many workers have taken advantage of the offer, though some 50 were said to have signed up initially.

In a recent opinion column in the San Francisco Chronicle, transhumanist Zoltan Istvan, who is running for governor of California as a Libertarian, writes, “I got my RFID implant two years ago, and now I use it to send text messages, bypass security codes on my computer, and open my front door. Soon I’ll get the software to start my car, and then my life will be totally keyless.” His implant cost $60.

Many privacy groups worry about where all this is headed, such as government tracking citizens with implanted chips. But a few similar examples in Europe have been reported over the last several years, including a new program being developed in Sweden that will allow train riders to use implanted chips instead of a physical ticket.

“You could use the microchip implant to replace a lot of stuff, your credit cards, the keys to your house, the keys to your car,” a Swedish company executive told the BBC (via the Daily Mail).

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Will the transhumanism movement gain traction in the years ahead? Do you see applications for retail workers in corporate offices, stores and warehouses to use embedded RFID chips to automate tasks?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"I expect the smartphone or watch will be used to automate these same tasks for a decade or more before implants gain even a little toehold."
"Can you feel the “that’s enough” vibe building among Generation Z? Listen a little closer, it’s getting louder."
"It is only a matter of time before this takes hold across the masses. I think its time has come for the industry."

Join the Discussion!

22 Comments on "Could retail workers benefit from implanted microchips?"

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Mark Ryski

In an age where privacy is under constant attack, I cannot fathom how this level of personal intrusion could become widely accepted. While I understand the convenience and efficiency this approach could have to automate tasks, I would be profoundly concerned about who controls this information and how it might be used for nefarious purposes or hacked by bad actors.

Ken Lonyai

Definitely the stuff of Ebocloud …

There will always be fringe interest in anything, but widespread adoption of implanted chips will meet extreme resistance. The article touches upon the Big Brother concern, which is top-of-mind whenever “implanted chips” are discussed.

Although there are some security/convenience benefits and although recent data breaches are the poster child for more security, there is no true advantage for retailers to be considering these measures. Retail has about a thousand things to get right before this could ever make sense and at $10-12/hour pay, retail associates are very unlikely to see the benefit of having their bodies invaded for their employer.

Chris Petersen, PhD.

And I was worried about retailers tracking my phone in their stores? Just because something can be done doesn’t mean that it should be. The convenience of opening a door or buying a candy bar with an implanted chip would seem to come at a very high cost of personal freedom and security. Unless there are life-saving uses my vote is that transhumanism is dehumanizing.

Ron Margulis

Why would the transhumanism movement gain traction when the same goals can be met without surgically implanting chips? I expect the smartphone or watch will be used to automate these same tasks for a decade or more before implants gain even a little toehold.

Paula Rosenblum

Really? Too, too, too creepy.

Seth Nagle

With the current workforce, I don’t see employees sacrificing their privacy for convenience, however for the younger generations coming into the workforce I could see this catching on. I’m always amazed at how easily teens give away personal information (email, age, sex, hobbies, address) at events for a free t-shirt or sunglasses. As the world becomes more digital the younger generations will be much more accepting.

Steve Montgomery

The difference between this and 1984 is that this assumes people will volunteer to have their privacy invaded at a heretofore unseen level. I agree with Mark; I cannot imagine why anyone would want this type of privacy invasion. Have we become so that lazy that we don’t want to push a button to open our garage door or hit a switch to turn on our computers?

I am sure there will be those that think this is a great idea, that is, until the first hack or until stories come out about how security was thwarted by someone removing a chip from a person’s hand (or worse) to enter a building or restricted area.

Shep Hyken

I’m one of those people that would consider being “chipped” if it made my life better. My only concern is putting a foreign object into my body. However this type of chip is different. This is about making life at work easier. A wave of the hand or other type of gesture and “stuff” happens. I always thought the smartphone would be the ultimate in creating automated convenience. Open up the app, click on something and again, “stuff” happens. This chip eliminates the phone. But, at what point does the level of ease not make any difference? I think we are at the point with technology that we can create an almost transhuman experience. Now how can we use this most effectively?

Art Suriano

We can’t stop technology and no one knows how far it will go. I see this as something in the future, but not within the next few years, most likely decades. First, the technology needs to be perfect. Second, we need to have numerous tests determining if there will be any long-term side effects that could cause harm to the body. And third, the public has to want this technology and accept it. When asked about how retailers can benefit, I would say all employers could benefit — but will they be able to mandate their employees to get these implants? So many questions will need answering before we get there.

I think, for now, retailers need to focus more on where we are in 2017, and why so many stores lose sales because of poor service. They need to implement solutions that involve good old-fashioned human interaction and maybe in about 20 to 30 years we can look at implants as the next best thing.

J. Peter Deeb

Twenty years ago when I got my first mobile phone I could not have imagined all the uses we have for these devices today! Like the advance of mobile technology I think we will progress to RFID or some similar technology that will simplify many of the activities mentioned in the article. Is privacy a concern? Of course but it was also with the phones and we have learned to manage most of the issues.

Communications to retail associates for task priorities, customer service needs, price checks, etc. will be managed this way. Life efficiency will be improved if privacy can be managed.

Tom Erskine
1 year 11 months ago

I don’t mean to be dystopian and it is easy to say never — but imagine that in 10 years an employee has two choices, 1.) install the chip or 2.) lose their job to a robot. It is impossible for us today to make assumptions about how people will make decisions down the road.

Doug Garnett
Doug Garnett
President, Protonik
1 year 11 months ago

My son is working on the retail floor these days. And I cannot imagine a worse idea for the retail worker. So in what universe can this be seen as a benefit to the worker? (And the privacy issues are so obvious I don’t think I need to detail them.)

That some managers might want it isn’t a surprise. In his world at one of the better managed retailers we still discuss absurdities asked of employees on a weekly basis.

A far better answer is to invest in giving the floor helpful devices that deliver value to them — help them be more effective and alleviate headaches and hassles.

Cathy Hotka

With the average tenure of sales associates hovering at the six-month mark, it’s hard to imagine that implanted chips have a future here.

Neil Saunders

There is something rather perturbing about all of this, mostly because of the potential invasion of privacy. As such, while I’m sure chipping would be useful, I can’t see it taking off — at least not in the medium term.

Lee Peterson

I’ve heard of using this technique on your kids, which is semi-understandable, especially for the helicopter parents of the last three decades. But employees? That’s just wrong.

There’s smartphone or even watch technology that’d be perfectly capable of doing the same thing. Can you feel the “that’s enough” vibe building among Generation Z? Listen a little closer, it’s getting louder.

Janet Dorenkott
1 year 11 months ago
In my opinion it is inevitable, and in may cases, it’s already happening. We are already doing it to our pets and some people to their kids and to volunteer employees. As costs continue to go down ($60 is cheap), employee productivity improves & employees start seeing how much easier it is to do their jobs, it will continue to gain acceptance. Do I think it’s creepy, absolutely. But there is an entire generation of kids following us that have grown up with a cell phone attached to their hands. They do not think it is creepy to share everything on social media, or puncture their faces with piercings. Why would they care about getting a chip implanted if it makes carrying boxes easier and getting into doors easier and opening drawers easier, etc? I think it will get a decent acceptance percentage. That said, I think there will be enough push back for technology to continue to evolve. In 10 years, the chips will be cheap enough that hopefully, it will be more like… Read more »
Ryan Mathews
First, a little factual correction. Transhumanism, as a movement, dates back to the futurist known as FM-2030 who first began teaching about it at the New School in the 1960s. It was later advanced as a formal philosophy by Max More in the 1990s. Also implant research is much older than the article suggests. The British engineer Kevin Warwick launched “Project Cyborg” in 1998 having simple chip implants. By 2002 he had graduated to much more sophisticated technologies and implants that interfaced with his nervous system. So, I wouldn’t really credit Graafstra with either the philosophy or being the original implant pioneer. As a futurist I probably look at this slightly differently than the author of this post does. Transhumanism is a movement whose end goal is the fusion of the human and the technological with the end goal of producing a species evolutionarily different from Homo Sapiens. That’s a FAR cry from simple chip implants. And, yes, it is gaining momentum, albeit slowly as the idea of augmenting human functionality gains more mainstream traction… Read more »
Ralph Jacobson

I remember a dance club in Spain that offered implanted chips more than a decade ago. It is only a matter of time before this takes hold across the masses. I think its time has come for the industry.

Mel Kleiman

Most people, especially the younger generations, have already given up most of the rights to their private information to the companies they interact with. Not too many years ago this would have seemed impossible to believe it would happen.

The same is going to happen with RFID implants. It will make life simpler but it will have a high cost in relationship to privacy.

Manish Chowdhary

We’re all sharing similar thoughts here. Many people have similar concerns with their Social Security Number. It is a unique identifier that people routinely share with banks, health care providers, and employers.

Why? Because they won’t do business with you unless you give them that number.

This is similar to the situation that Tom Erskine mentioned in his post here.

People will likely also be concerned with being “hacked.” One or two cases would bring the whole endeavor to a screeching halt.

If there are high ROI applications for this, they’ll be found by the military.

Patricia Vekich Waldron

Are chips just the latest generation of a swipe, manager card of overrides, etc.?

Laura Davis-Taylor

I think what’s hanging us all up is the idea of this chip being permanently implanted into our bodies. No job should be able to demand that. But if that same chip was put “on” our body for our shift and left behind when clocked out, different ball game. There’s a lot of good that could come from this scenario, so the challenge I’d put forth is to get out of cyborg land (just because it’s sexy and gets headlines) and create a product that makes realistic, near-term sense to all involved.

"I expect the smartphone or watch will be used to automate these same tasks for a decade or more before implants gain even a little toehold."
"Can you feel the “that’s enough” vibe building among Generation Z? Listen a little closer, it’s getting louder."
"It is only a matter of time before this takes hold across the masses. I think its time has come for the industry."

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