By 2018, it may be possible to purchase a contraceptive microchip that you implant under your skin that delivers birth control hormones automatically into your blood stream every day for as long as 16 years. That’s the vision of Microchips, a Massachusetts-based startup formed by MIT researchers who are developing a remote-controlled drug delivery microchip you would implant under your skin near your abdomen (or, if you prefer, your backside region). Without having to go back to a doctor, women would be able to switch birth control hormones on and off at the touch of a button.
That’s a big idea and it’s no wonder it’s attracted the attention of Bill Gates, who is backing the microchip contraceptive through the family planning unit of his Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Gates sees the contraceptive chip as not something really intended for the Western world — where, no doubt, plenty of single women might line up to use the device – but for the developing world, where it is more than just a lifestyle choice, it is a form of reproductive justice. According to the Gates Foundation, 120 million women in the world’s poorest societies could benefit from voluntary family planning.
Where things get really interesting is that the same technology could be used to deliver just about any drug, not just birth control hormones. In fact, Microchips calls itself a “programmable drug delivery” company. The first clinical tests of the device delivered hormones to women suffering from osteoporosis. The way the chip works, the hormones are housed inside an impregnable platinum and titanium seal. A single electrical current triggered by the remote control essentially “melts” the seal, enabling the hormone to flow out. In the future, those modules could be loaded up with all sorts of drugs to regulate the human body.
Of course, there are a number of issues that need to be worked out before we can talk seriously about these contraceptive microchips triggering a new round of medical innovation. Let’s start with the technological issues first. These microchips need to be implanted under the skin, something that brings with it a certain amount of squeamishness. There’s something about having a microchip implanted under your skin that sounds a bit too much like a cyborg science fiction nightmare. In a best case scenario, the contraceptive microchip won’t be available on the market until 2018 and clinical trials won’t start until 2016.
And, then, of course, there are the moral and philosophical issues. Contraception and birth control are one of those hot-button issues that can drive normally rational people crazy. Plus, let’s face it, the idea of implanting a microchip for such an extended period — 16 years — could lead to all kinds of unexpected scenarios and use cases. Parents could theoretically give it to their (sexually active) teenagers in high school so they won’t have to worry about them dealing with family planning issues until they are well past their grad school years.
And the fact that the contraceptive chip is wirelessly controlled by remote raises the specter of all kinds of security risks. If you think the problem of “revenge porn” is only getting worse, what about the future risk of “revenge pregnancy”? Others have warned of the risks of “ovarian hacking” if groups of hackers get their hands on these wireless, remote-controlled devices.
Yet, talk of technology-enabled drug delivery devices sounds a lot like the era of medical nanobots promised by Ray Kurzweil. For nearly 30 years, futurists have been suggesting that, one day, we’ll all be ingesting pills with the same functionality as these implantable birth control microchips. You’d swallow a pill once, and it would unlock tiny medical nanobots smaller than human blood cells that would travel within your bloodstream, delivering hormones and patching up the human body from within.
Kurzweil, for example, has already outlined a future in which we’re all ingesting magic nanobots that are super-targeted at specific cells or even specific sections of your DNA. Any illness, any condition, could be magically corrected by ingesting the right medical nanobots. Assuming there are no side effects, it means that we all could live forever. Fanciful, perhaps, but somehow the idea of nanobot medicine doesn’t sound as bizarre as it did a decade or more ago.
But first steps first. Let’s get used to the idea of implanting stuff under our skins and regulating our human bodies through the use of microchips and remote-controlled devices. That’s going to be a big hurdle to clear. (Think about how many people have trouble with just the TV remote.) But let’s think about this from a big picture view, the way Bill Gates is. It’s not about using innovation to foster a new round of promiscuousness in Western society – it’s about giving tens of millions of women in non-Western societies around the world the opportunity for voluntary family planning as well as revolutionizing medicine by using computer chips to disrupt the traditional doctor-patient relationship.