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Your Hormones and the Internet

When the bill arrived for a recent restaurant dinner, one of our friends whipped out her phone and scanned the bar code at the bottom of the cash register receipt. She subscribes to a website that accumulates points (and, no doubt, collects data about her purchases). Accumulate enough points and you might earn, for example, a $3 gift card. Now, $3 isn’t going to change her life. But who walks away from free money?

In truth, it’s not free money that inspires her to take a few seconds to scan the receipt. It’s a hormonal response -- a little jolt of dopamine accompanies that $3 gift card. No doubt this bit of fun is subject to our overlords at Google tracking her activity. A headline that went by a few years ago said, “The Internet Knows More About You Than Your Spouse.” Yup!

Another friend showed off her new Apple Watch at a social gathering a few weeks ago. It has most of the functionality of her iPhone and she doesn’t need to carry her iPhone around with her anymore.

Now, let’s combine the two. Suppose the scan was no longer necessary because it was built into the loyalty program at the credit card company. And suppose the Apple Watch allowed for a scan to capture the credit card information instead of having to hand over a plastic card. Both features are technically feasible today.

Now, Google is capturing your transaction – where you ate, what you ordered, how much you spent – and calculating what it wants to include in your feed whenever you open a webpage on your computer. Or your iPad or your iPhone or your Apple Watch.

Next, let’s take the chip from that Apple Watch and embed it under your skin. Add to the chip the capability to measure your dopamine responses. And your cortisol responses. Your body loves dopamine and hates cortisol. So, those hormonal responses could determine what stimuli Google fed you. Again, those features are technically feasible today (and are being developed by scientists at Rutgers University).

If this seems far-fetched to you, I’ll point to a Wall Street Journal report this week that Apple is working on iPhone features that help detect cognitive decline and depression. The article mentions that the Apple Watch already measures atrial fibrillation, a pre-cursor to stroke. And Apple is working on sensors that can measure the amount of cortisol in in hair follicles on your arm.

Separately, a Swedish company has developed a chip that is embedded under the skin of about 3,000 Swedes who think it’s inconvenient to have to use keycards or credit cards to interact with the electronic world that surrounds them. Here in the U.S., the National Center for Biotechnology Information – an agency of the federal government – is already working “to develop a physiologically accurate Human-on-a-Chip,” that would modulate endocrine response.

I have envisioned such technology deployed on a broad scale in The Awakening of Artemis, which takes place in 2049 America. In that future world, we would need to add other implanted sensors that could determine what you are seeing, hearing and tasting to complete the picture. And, it seems to me, that could happen sooner than 2049.

The missing element? You would have to live in a world that fed you the stimuli that you love and eschew what you hate. That seems possible to me as government begins to view itself as a service business – free healthcare, free college tuition, free pre-school. Can that $3 gift card be far behind?

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