Cap Cyborg to chip 11 year old in wake of UK child killings

Words fail us. Almost...

Captain Cyborg, aka Professor Kevin Warwick of Reading University, is generally a harmless if somewhat tedious self-publicist whose risible 'experiments' pay his rent and provide the less critical elements of the press with a never-ending stream of stupid stories. But an exclusive in today's Daily Mirror serves to illustrate that such maniacs are not always harmless.

Following the recent abduction of ten year olds Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, the Mirror reports that Wendy and Paul Duval have decided to implant their daughter, Danielle, with "a microchip to track her every move. "If she was kidnapped her exact location would be discovered via a computer."

And guess who developed the chip? That's right, "cybernetics expert Professor Kevin Warwick, 48." The Mirror does not directly attribute its explanation of the device to Captain Cyborg, but it is quite clear that some of the people involved - possibly the reporter, possibly the reporter and the Duval family - have somehow managed to get themselves seriously misled about the capabilities of the technology.

The chip "emits radio waves through a mobile phone network and beams its exact location to a computer. If Danielle went missing, her location would be marked by an X on a computer map.... It will be inserted in her arm by a GP using local anaesthetic. It costs about £20 and will be invisible."

Well then, how does that work? Warwick's experiments in chipping himself haven't gone as far as GPS, at least publicly, and any communications aspect to them has been decidedly short range. An "invisible" device that handles both GPS and mobile phone communications, and doesn't need its batteries changing every five seconds would however clearly make him a large fortune, if it existed.

Which manifestly it doesn't. As regards GPS, you can get an idea of the current state of the art as far as footprint goes by looking at this PDF, which describes the Trimble Lassen SQ GPS module, announced in March. Two penlight batteries can power it for more than 40 hours, it is postage stamp-sized, and is "compatible with active 3.3 VDC antennas." So the small ones aren't invisible, they need two penlight batteries that you have to change every 40 hours, and they need an antenna.

So the "invisible" chip is not a GPS device, and must perforce communicate with a real GPS device secreted somewhere about your person. In that sense it would therefore seem to be well within the technical capabilities already demonstrated by Captain Cyborg, who habitually shoves things under his skin so he can open doors automatically and such, when lesser mortals would merely use a smartcard ID tag. If indeed this is the way the tag will operate, then Warwick is wandering into the dubious territory of VeriChip/Digital Angel, which has been punting cattle tags at the hard of thinking. That one's the size of the ball of a ballpoint, but it needs a scanner run over it to identify you, and can't tell where you are.

OK, but presuming the child protector chip can communicate with an external GPS device, where does that get you if you've been kidnapped? You can tell where you are, but how does the X get onto the computer screen? Mobile phone, obviously, but that needn't be another box, as it could be one with GPS built in, so there's still only one thing to keep hidden. We covered a system of this sort for hunting dogs a while back, and if you look here, you'll see the pawprint of that rig. The dogs of course don't have pockets to put it in, and no immediate need for concealment, but even so...

However even if you've got a concealed mobile phone with GPS, then what use is the tag? The phone rig does all this already, so for as long as you can hang onto the phone, you're trackable, and if you can't, you're not. After that the chip could help them identify you if they find you, and if for some reason you're not in a position to tell them yourself. Again, we're in VeriChip territory here, albeit a somewhat grimmer variant thereof.

So it's complete hokum, and under the circumstances pernicious. The Holly and Jessica case has generated much concern, and some hysteria in the UK, and stories such as the Mirror's serve only to fuel that hysteria by deluding parents into thinking that technology can somehow protect their children. And by pushing positive aspects of tagging, even years before it's actually feasible, they're softening public opinion up for the days when it can be widespread, and when its application can be more sinister.

And Warwick's role? As we said earlier, the technological 'explanation' is not attributed to him, but he's clearly encouraging it. He said: "The implant won't prevent abductions, nothing will. But if the worst happens, parents will at least be in with a chance of finding their children alive." No more chance, it seems to us, than if the implant had not been fitted. Warwick, as is his habit, slides seamlessly into some future where it is feasible: "Children may resent that their every movement is traceable. It's also possible some parents might abuse the system. But I'm confident this has to be the correct course of action in the light of recent, tragic events."

So in the light of recent tragic events the correct course of action for parents has to be the fitting of a manifestly useless tagging device to their child. "The technology exists," says Warwick, "it's affordable and accessible." No it doesn't, no it's not. This is a publicity stunt well up to the usual mark, with the added extra of being in the worst possible taste. It marks the point where Captain Cyborg ceased to be comical, and started to look like something far worse. ®

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