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Sunday, July 14, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

The future is gaining on us... be afraid

Special to The Times

Have you seen that ad everyone's talking about? The one with the perky teenager and her caring mother discussing her new implant?

Mom: "It's just so much easier. When Sarah goes out, we agree on where she will go. And this way, the biochip keeps us both informed. She gets the freedom, and I get the security."

Sarah: "Before I got my chip, my mom didn't really let me go out. But now, since she knows where I'm gonna be, it's cool when I go out with my friends!"

Bing. Big happy smiles all around.

You say you haven't seen that commercial yet? Your spouse hasn't either?

That's because biochips won't be on television for at least a few more months... even though they're already in people's bodies.

Sound a bit far-fetched? A little too much like science fiction or fantasy? Then how about superheroes, human clones and alchemy?

If you think it only happens in the movies, get ready for a rude awakening. All this — and more than Orwell or Huxley could have dreamed — is coming soon. And not just to a theater near you.

The Biochip

On May 10, the Los Angeles Times reported that Applied Digital Solutions, a corporation based in Palm Beach, Fla., had injected eight people with its patented "Verichip," an implantable microchip designed especially for humans.

While many were surprised or shocked by this announcement — some even thought it was a hoax — there was one segment of the population that probably was less surprised than others: pet owners.

Many cat and dog lovers are already quite familiar with the technology; biochips have been used to identify and track pets for well over 10 years now. In fact, getting Fido or Tabby chipped is about as commonplace these days as getting them vaccinated.

But chipping people? That's a whole new ballgame, with a whole new set of rules. Problem is, the rules have yet to be created and the first pitch is already speeding toward home plate.

For those unfamiliar with biochip technology, it works like this: An animal or a person is implanted, either by injection or surgery, with a small microchip slightly larger than a grain of rice. The chip is encased in a biocompatible material that allows it to remain in the "chipees" for the duration of their life. Essentially, it's a life-long ID tag.

The biochip is programmed with specific information that can be read by a scanner gun similar to those commonly used in grocery or department stores. The information contained on the chip can vary, though for the most part, it follows a standard pattern. For pets, the chip contains their name, owner information, address, telephone number and the like.

For people, the biochip currently stores their name, Social Security number, address, phone number, insurance information and their medical history (known allergies, prescriptions, etc.). All of this information is available with the simple click of a scanner's trigger.

Soon, the biochip will not only contain massive amounts of personal information — bank accounts, credit cards, real-time vital statistics and more — but will also be outfitted with Global Positioning System (GPS) technology, allowing chipped individuals to be monitored and tracked wherever they go.

If you had concerns about Internet privacy, just imagine how your hubby is gonna feel when you look him up on the Web to see if he really went over to Bob's house to watch the game.

Oh, and you were thinking about attending that WTO anniversary rally? Mr. Ashcroft will be very displeased to know that you were participating in such subversive activities. Expect a personally delivered letter from the Office of Homeland Security.

Did you just hear that sound? Must have been Orwell spinning in his grave.

Augmentation and Gengineering

Speaking of spinning — web-spinning, that is — there's this little movie out right now in a few theaters across America. Maybe you've heard of it. It's called Spider-Man, and it's about to become a true story.

Now granted, it's probably not going to happen like it does in the movie or the comic book. No radioactive spiders endowing young Peter Parker with the proportionate speed and strength of an arachnid. No, the more likely scenario is a man in a white coat injecting young Parker with a vile substance that will augment his physical abilities to a truly superhuman level. Think steroids on crack.

Not a pretty picture. But one that the military and the entertainment industry can't wait to paint.

In the not-too-distant future, G.I. Super Joe will be battling it out on the next American war front, laying waste to any "normal" soldiers who happen to get in his patriotic way. He may be a cyborg — part man, part machine — or he may be a muscle-bound 400-pound stud with skin as tough as Kevlar. Whatever the case, he'll be one bad mother.

And the part he really likes is that once he gets back from war, there's a whole slew of TV offers lined up for him. The World Wrestling Federation has its new "X-Treme" matches, and NBC has that great new game show, "Prison Riot," where Super Joe gets to make mincemeat out of convicts and terrorists.

He's tough all right. But even he's scared of the gengineered humans — the crossbreeds. They're not even homo sapiens anymore.

Through a process known as "chimerism," embryos of two different species can be combined together to make a completely new one. Human genes are able to mix with those of lions, gorillas, eagles, and yes... even spiders.

Believe it or not, a professor of anatomy and cell biology at New York Medical College has even filed a patent for his very own chimera, affectionately known as the "humouse." What next, the "humanatee"? Maybe a Portuguese man o' war that's actually part man, part jellyfish? Sounds like a good villain for Spider-Man. Or Ant-Man. Take your pick.

If the sun looks a bit different today, it's because you're witnessing the dawn of the superhero. Try not to stare too long.

Human Cloning

Dawn has turned into day. Imagine, as hard as it is, that your mother is in a coma, with little or no hope of ever waking. Your father and brother decide to clone her, in order that she can "keep on living." How do you feel? What would you do?

This is exactly the terrifying scenario faced by Ashley Huxton, the female lead in my recent novel, "((Frequencies))." Despite her protests, her family has decided to "rebirth" her mother through the use of cloning. Needless to say, Ashley ain't happy about it.

Would you be? There's now a woman roaming the streets who looks exactly like your mother in every way, but when you sit down and try to talk with her, she can't even tell you when your birthday is, let alone your first name. It's great to have mom back, isn't it?

Rumors abound every week that human cloning is under way and recent media events such as the Ted Williams controversy (his son froze his body and wants to sell his DNA, his daughter is horrified) suggest that we will be facing this moral dilemma sooner than we think. While there have been many attempts in the U.S. to ban human cloning, the situation is quite different in other parts of the world. Most countries have few or no restrictions on the cloning of a human embryo.

The unfortunate reality about human cloning is that it will never bring back the person you're trying to bring back. It will only bring forth someone who looks like the person you want.

As they say, all that glitters is not gold.

Nanotechnology

And all that is gold does not necessarily glitter. Not at first, at least, when it comes to the emerging science of alchemy — oops, I mean nanotechnology.

The theory goes something like this: All things, whether plant, animal or mineral, are ultimately made of the same stuff, namely atoms. Therefore, lead can be turned into gold, air into sand, or water into food, simply by re-arranging their atoms into the proper configurations.

How the heck does one just "re- arrange" atoms? Through the use of molecular assemblers, aka "nanomachines," tiny, self-replicating nanoscale devices that can manipulate matter at the atomic level.

Sure, nanotech sufficiently advanced to perform alchemy is still quite a ways away, but the University of Washington, along with hundreds of other universities and research institutes, now have nanotechnology labs and departments to work on "smart" drug-delivery systems, gene therapy and other applications. In fact, the UW has the distinction of being the first university in the nation to offer a nanotechnology Ph. D. program.

You say the lead into gold thing doesn't sound so bad? Nor does a fancy new drug-delivery system? Fair enough. Technology's not an inherently evil thing.

But let me leave you with a final thought: If nanomachines can play Legos with your molecules, and there exist in this world those who would commit acts of evil, what happens when they make use of that technology? I'll let you do the math.

Joshua Ortega is a Seattle author and former journalist. His debut novel, "Frequencies" (Omega Point Productions), is available at bookstores and on the Web at www.amazon.com, www.bn.com and www.omegapp.com/frequencies.html.

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