No, Mrs Duval, you CANNOT track a mobile human by wireless like a car!

by Guy Kewney | posted on 01 September 2002

One day, it may be possible to fit a passive "chip" into any human, so that their presence can be detected by a world-wide computer network, wherever they go. That day is a long way off ...

Guy Kewney

Call me cynical, but I simply don't believe that you can track a person fitted with a chip everywhere they go, as Kevin Warwick seems to be saying in today's Mirror today's Mirror.

I don't believe it any more than I believe Hop-On can build a phone costing $30 out of recyclable components.

In a way, I can almost sympathise with Kevin Warwick, Reading University's resident "lurking horror from the future" - a man who has been reported as fitting cyber-implants to himself and his wife, so as to enhance their sex life, amongst other eccentricities. He was asked to fit something magic to the child so that she could be traced, if she was abducted.

"Danielle Duval will be implanted with a microchip to track her every move. If she was kidnapped, her exact location would be discovered via a computer," reported the Daily Mirror's non-technology correspondent, Lorraine Fisher. Well, no, it couldn't - not this year, and probably not for another decade after that.

Technically, the trick is feasible - in theory. Intel has demonstrated that it can track passive network components, wirelessly, inside an area where it can cause those chips to resonate. It has also shown a type of SF film of a possible future, where such chips would be scattered in the ground, along the roadside, in every building, in every phone, in every car, in every computer -until they were ubiquitous.

And it has also shown that such chips would be "free" - it would take a corner of an ARM processor, amounting to about 2% of the silicon, to turn this into something that would broadcast to the next chip, which in turn could pass on to the next one until they reached a wireless cell or access point.

However, we have one or two steps to take before we get there. First, Intel has to actually build one of these "soft" radio chips, which will work on any frequency whatever. So far, it remains only a theory that it can be done. And then second, they have to build millions of them. And third, they have to find a way of getting people to deploy them. Fourth, they have to wait for this deployment process to reach the stage where there's such a chip on every corner of every street and field.

The only way of doing it, today, would be to implant a radio beacon in the child's flesh. This doesn't discourage the Duvals: "If a car can be fitted with equipment to enable it to be tracked when it is stolen, why not apply the same principle to finding missing children?" asked the child's mother.

Easy question to answer. A car has a socking great lead battery capable of powering a PC for several hours, and would still be able to start the engine after that. The typical child today is not born with such a power source, nor can one be fitted.

I have no earthly way of knowing whether Kevin Warwick explained this to the Duvals. What they said, quite understandably, was: "Like us, Danielle needs to feel she's safe and could be located in a real emergency."

"Feeling safe" is a state of mind. If you can induce that state of mind by putting a chip under the skin of a youngster, who will ever know that it's bogus?

Technology made it possible for this family to be unnecessarily frightened by the prospect of the child being abducted. She should, of course, be afraid of her parents, before she started to worry about strangers offering sweets; statistically, the chances of being molested by "pervs" occur predominantly in the family, not in the streets. As the Mirror said, she's more likely to be struck by lightning than to be abducted - many times more likely, in fact!

But today's news networks engulf us in awareness of really unusual events, making them seem commonplace. I've never met a lottery winner, but I've read about dozens. Almost none of us will ever meet the English football captain, but we all know far more about him than we know about the folk next door. And we know more than we need to know about Soham and Richmond Park and Hungerford. Naturally, we're anxious.

If a simple pet-identity chip (I'll bet that is what this child has in her) can make her sleep better at night then who cares if it's fantasy? And if Kevin Warwick doesn't mind making a prat of himself - and he never seems to have found this a problem in the past - why shouldn't he prescribe this placebo?

Well, because it's nonsense, is the main reason. So, alas, in 90% of the content of the tabloid papers, you might reasonably argue. And indeed, it is; but is that any excuse for adding to the pile of nonsense?

I don't think it is.