Would you let your company implant a microchip in your hand?

Well, there are 50 people in Wisconsin who are doing just that. Employees at Three Square Market, a provider of self-service breakroom vending machines, will soon have a microchip between their thumb and index finger, which will let them buy snacks, log into computers, and use the company printer.

Is this a worrying sign of things to come for the Canadian workforce?

To find out, we spoke with futurist Richard Worzel.

Workopolis: For those who don’t know the term, what is a futurist?

R.W. Like a biologist, who is somebody that studies biology, a futurist is somebody who studies the future as a discipline. And the purpose of doing so is to help people prepare for the uncertainties ahead.

How do you become a futurist?

It’s real simple; you raise your right hand and say “I am a futurist.” If you want, you can join the World Future Society, but the real issue is not do you have credentials and letters behind your name, but can you deliver the goods? Can you produce information, analysis, and ideas that help people prepare for uncertainty and plan intelligently to deal with it?

There is a lot of talk of automation, is that something that you’re dealing with a lot these days?

Yes, and as a matter of fact, I’ve just been working with two groups of clients, both very white-collar disciplines and they’re quite concerned about how artificial intelligence is affecting their potential future … so it’s not just blue collar workers that are concerned about automation.

This microchip idea proposed by Three Square Market has reportedly been introduced in some European companies. Is that something you’ve seen?

I’ve read about it in a number of contexts. It started with chipping pets, then there was talk about chipping kids to keep track of them, then chipping older people who might have various forms of dementia. In this case, the concept is to be able to track someone in the workplace, which also means being able to tell how productive they are, how much time they spend at their desk, walking back and forth to the coffee machine, how much time they’re lounging around, or not doing something.

The theory is that you can help people be more productive, but in my mind what you’re doing is telling them we don’t trust you, and we want to keep a much closer eye on you.

The CEO of Three Square Market has said that he thinks this technology will soon be used as a passport, and for public transit. Do you foresee that kind of thing happening?

If so, it’s only a very temporary way station on the way to something better. Effectively, our whole beings are going to be our biometric passports. You’re not going to need a chip, an RFID. We’re going to be surrounded by computer intelligence that watches us and watches over us, and if you need to get into public transit, the transit computer will look at you and check your balance and recognize you from your gait, your height, the color of your eyes; things that are impossible to counterfeit. And it will say, okay this is Richard Worzel and he has a balance in his account. Yes, we can let him in in, and we’ll debit the fare from his balance.

I can see that causing a lot of anxiety.

Absolutely and it should because it can also be used to invade your privacy and to exploit you in ways that you don’t want.

It will solve some problems and it will create new ones. For example, one of the problems that will solve is air travel, which will become much easier because the computer system will recognize you and will say, this is a person we know travels a lot, he is a trusted traveler; we don’t need to give him much more than just a cursory glance to see if somebody slipped anything into his luggage.

Somebody who doesn’t travel very much they might say okay, well, we’ll put them through the regular security line. And somebody for whom there is no information and who is behaving suspiciously, they will get searched thoroughly … so it will make it will allow security forces to differentiate between different kinds of traveller, without having to go through a lot of gymnastics to find out who they are.

On the other hand, it also means that people who shouldn’t be looking at your life will be looking at your life and exploiting information about you to their benefit – whether it’s unsavory politicians, or hackers, or people intent on stealing from you.

What advice would you give to people that are put off by all this? Are there ways that they can protect themselves?

At the moment the best thing you can do to protect yourself is to stay as off the grid as much as you’re willing to.

I heard an expert on cybersecurity last week, and he had a brilliant line: “If you go to a website and start giving them information, and you can’t figure out what the product is … the product that’s being sold is you! Your information is being sold to other people.”

So be careful. Don’t just give away your information because you’re giving away something very valuable.

Want to hear more from Richard Worzel? Listen to the latest episode of Safe for Work, the Workopolis podcast, on Soundcloud or iTunes. You can also listen to it on YouTube below.