Implantable fintech: A concept that's more than skin deep

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In a brilliantly titled 2003 American Banker story, “When you can’t leave home without it," the author covered a startup that was offering the potential for payment chips to be implanted subcutaneously. The then-chief e-business officer at Mastercard said, "This is a technology that can evolve in many different directions."

Now, nearly 14 years later, a Swedish startup called BioHax International is offering implantable payment chips for more than half of the staff at a Wisconsin-based tech company, Three Square Market (32M). The company announced that of the 80 employees at its River Falls headquarters, more than 50 have volunteered to get implants that enable RFID transactions around the office.

While this is as much a publicity stunt as it is a pilot, it raises the question of whether it's finally time for implantable payment devices to come to market.

Orwell or all's well?

The Internet of Things has been eroding privacy concerns for years. Amazon has convinced 16% of U.S. consumers to put an always-listening Echo device in their homes, and this week's revelation that iRobot's Roomba could be selling copies of our floor layouts is fast fading from recent memory.

Chip implants aren't even that unfamiliar to anyone who owns a cat or dog. It’s not rocket science. But, for some reason, it crosses a line with the idea of the same technology being implanted in humans, thus distilling our identities to a single identifying chip.

But is it really any different from Apple’s Touch ID, which has convinced countless iPhone and iPad users to scan their biometric traits to make it easier to unlock their mobile devices? Dystopian paranoia is often shortsighted; sell people a practical use case and it’s a winner.

Are we there yet?

Fourteen years ago was a time before streaming content, social networks and constant connectivity. The most popular mobile app was, shockingly, the phone itself (followed closely by a game of Snake). Since then, we have become a lot more accustomed to pervasive and constant access to connected devices on us and around us. So why not in us?

Again, much of this will come down to use cases, user experience, cultural fit and plain old timing.

Wearable technology was seen as geeky and unfashionable as recently as the 2015 end of Google Glass consumer sales. A few short years later, people are sporting designer Apple Watches, Fitbit bracelets and hard-to-find Snapchat Spectacles. We’re well past the first wave of wearables and have discovered that devices we can wear are suitable for some circumstances, not others.

Some wearables even telegraph a new paradigm for technology interaction, such as Apple AirPods. In a survey conducted in May by Experian, an astonishing 98% of AirPod users said they were satisfied or very satisfied. Despite making people look like they have cigarettes sticking out of their ears, AirPods have a strong value proposition of providing wireless and seamless connectivity to Apple’s Siri voice assistant. As consumers, we are moving beyond technology that requires active participation to an expectation that we are always plugged in.

But there is room for improvement. A Morgan Stanley survey cited in The Economist in 2015, found that people want their wearables to be discreet. Since implants fulfill this requirement, they may find a more willing audience than many would expect.

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