search slide
search slide
pages bottom

One man's quest to pay for lunch with a chip implanted in his thumb

By October, Meow-Ludo Meow Meow hopes to leave his wallet at home — maybe forever.

The near field communication (NFC) chip he has implanted in the back of his thumb could soon let him make contactless payments and potentially catch public transport.

Meow (he had his named changed years ago) is part of a movement of people who are blending their bodies with technology, or biohackers. In fact, the NFC chip is only one part of his dedication to living through experimentation and science. The founder of Biofoundry, a community lab in Sydney, Australia, is also running in the upcoming Australian election as a Science Party candidate.

The chip, which feels like a tiny, hard cylinder to the touch, was implanted in April at a piercing studio in Sydney. It wasn't too painful, he told Mashable Australia, and his thumb was tender for only a short time after. 

"If you think about it like a cat or dog microchip, it's quite quick and quite painless," he said.

The chip can only perform small tasks for the moment, but Meow has grander plans.

Currently, if he holds his thumb to the NFC reader on the back of his smartphone, it can detect the business card the chip is carrying. He can also reprogram the chip using a basic app. While we were together, he programmed it to disclose our location on Google Maps.

"It's basically a little piece of memory that can do some fun stuff," he said.

Working with with technologists Nathan Waters and Phill Ogden, Meow is working on a project to facilitate financial transactions through the chip with just a tap of his thumb on a store's contactless payments reader. Think of it as a fintech startup merged with a biohacking experiment.

By October, the team is hoping to make the implant work with the Commonwealth Bank's EFTPOS tablet, Albert, which is a common contactless payment system used in retail stores. To allow transactions to go through they'll need to build a new app for Albert. The Commonwealth Bank has been contacted for comment. 

They're also going to experiment with ways to integrate the chip with Opal, Sydney's electronic public transport card.

Waters, who doesn't currently have an implant himself, told Mashable Australia the technology to allow such transactions is ready now, but companies need to be on board. "The technology has been around for 10 or 12 years," he said. "The only thing is having partnerships with the Commonwealth Bank and Opal to allow their backend to recognise it."

If companies are open to it, the project could quickly evolve. "Ultimately, it would be great to have a business where people can book in for an implant, pair it with an app and throw away their wallet."

For Meow, the end goal is to have the implant work with PayPass — MasterCard's contactless payments system. This would allow Meow to use his thumb to pay at most retail stores across Australia, as PayPass is widely accepted. 

PayPass requires more memory, however — Meow's NFC chip can hold only 868 bytes. He'd need to put a chip with larger capacity in another finger. "I'll probably put it in the other thumb, and keep this one for hacking," he said.

When Meow first got the chip, he had no idea what he wanted to do with it. However, he quickly realised that it had two main capabilities: authentication and activation.

"The two biggest areas the chip could enable are authentication — I have a little bit of memory inside my thumb that can identify me uniquely — and also, [to] activate things," he explained.

In the short term, such chips could eliminate some of the mundane paraphernalia of daily life. "Your keys and wallet — those two things can be entirely replaced with a chip in your hand," Meow said. "When you put your hands on the steering wheel, that could start your car."

Having unique identifiers within the body could also reduce other moments of friction. "When I walk into a supermarket, it will tag me as I go in, every single piece of food that I buy will be NFC tagged and I'll just walk out. The transaction will happen automatically," he suggested.

If these chips become smarter, their potential could be immense. What if your in-body payment chip was connected to health sensors, for example?

"If you hadn't exercised enough in a day, it might stop you from eating [bad] foods," he said. "If it had a sensor that could detect blood glucose or heart rate, or it connected to a Fitbit, so that the Fitbit says 'Oh, you haven't run today, we're not going to let you buy a Mars bar.'"

Meow has no time for the qualms and queasiness of body-hacking critics. In his view, many people already have technology inside them — among them, pacemakers, Implanon, IUDs and blood glucose monitors.

"I'm very interested in challenging people's conception of bodily sovereignty and their ideas around how you interact with technology," he explained.

Waters agreed there was a stigma to implants, particularly their potential to allow Big Brother-style tracking. "All I want to do is to take the capabilities of what's in my wallet right now and reduce that down to a chip," he said. "Nothing too sinister."

Having unique identifiers built into the body may be a privacy obsessive's nightmare, but for Meow, the age of anonymity is well and truly over. We already give companies immense reams of our biological data — think fingerprint access on our smartphones or iris authentication — and such chips could go someway to halting that flow.

"A thumb swipe, or a fingerprint, or an iris scan, [can be used] to identify or authenticate, but it's actually a lot easier to go the other way," he said. "Instead of getting the computer to read your information, the technology inside you [could] run on the same information." 

If you're wondering where he gets his inspiration for experimentation, you have popular culture to thank. Tinkering with old Omega systems forms some of his childhood memories, but it was really the blurring line between biology and computing that was most alluring, and one film provided an answer.

"The first thing I wanted to be was a genetic engineer," Meow said. "I watched Jurassic Park, and I'm like, I want to do what they're doing."

Have something to add to this story? Share it in the comments.

Leave a Reply

Captcha image