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elizabeth renzetti

I'm not sure anyone would have predicted Wisconsin as the birthplace of the new cyborg world order. Shanghai, sure. Berlin, ja. But the land of cheese and earnestness?

It gets even more farfetched. A vending-machine company called Three Square Market is offering to microchip its employees, as a way of making life easier. The currently onerous tasks of turning on a computer and putting quarters in a vending machine would cease and be replaced with the wave of a hand. Think of the nanoseconds saved! The radio-frequency identification chips, which are the size of a grain of rice, would be implanted in the hands of willing employees and would transmit information specific to that particular user. As the company's chief executive officer Todd Westby said in a statement, "Eventually, this technology will become standardized, allowing you to use this as your passport, public transit, all purchasing opportunities, etc."

I like the open-ended optimism of that "etc." Who knows where this bio-hacking will lead? Who cares, as long as you don't have to remember where your car keys are and you can buy a Slurpee with no cash.

The future isn't the future; the future is now and we are probably not prepared for its ethical challenges. In 2012, the National Intelligence Council – the far-seeing eye of the U.S. national intelligence communities – released one of its periodic reports, Global Trends 2030. It foresaw, in the very near future, a world in which humans abandon their frail, fallible meat cases for something much more alluring. Think powerful exoskeletons, retinal enhancements, neural implants, all to make us better than we were before. Better, stronger, faster.

In the near future, people may choose bio-upgrades as casually as they choose cosmetic procedures today, the report says. This is a scenario fraught with potential pitfalls: "Owing to the high cost of human augmentation, it probably will be available in 15-20 years only to those who are able to pay for it. Such a situation may lead to a two-tiered society of enhanced and non-enhanced persons and may require regulation."

Technology isn't waiting for regulation, or philosophical rumination. Why would it, when there is profit to be made and godlike dreams to fulfill? Mark O'Connell, in his wonderful recent book about transhumanism, To Be A Machine, calls this headlong rush "techno-progressivism, the belief that the universal application of technology will solve the world's most intractable problems."

But which problems will be solved and for whom? We know that Silicon Valley is filled with deep-pocketed creators such as Ray Kurzweil and Peter Thiel, who have their eyes on a literally limitless future in which human ingenuity will transcend our biological sell-by dates. In 2014, Google launched its offshoot, Calico, to research the possibilities of radically extending the human lifespan. The goal of a surprising number of very smart, rich people is the death of death.

But this isn't just the realm of billionaires, or a vindictive Skynet. It's here, now. It's in Wisconsin, for God's sake – sorry, for gosh sakes. We live with employee microchips and robot pharmacists and diapers that contain sensors so that parents know the exact moment a fouling incident has occurred. It's been more than a decade since a Barcelona nightclub implanted microchips in its most cherished customers, thus ensuring the quick passage of vodka from bar to gullet with no tedious money exchange to slow things down. Doctors are implanting neural chips to ease the symptoms of PTSD and depression. Diabetics can have implants that monitor their blood-sugar levels. The U.S. military is experimenting with neural enhancements to create more effective soldiers.

And who can blame people if they look away from the future that's hurtling toward us? The inequality of today is too exhausting to worry about the inequality of tomorrow. It's all so confusing. It might just be easier to get a chip to turn on the damn computer and not have to worry about calling the IT guys ever again. They'll find other jobs.

One of the books on Bill Gates's summer reading list was Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari's Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. I'm not sure it's great summer reading, considering that it's scarier than all the Terminator films put together. Free will is a myth, individual autonomy will go the way of the dodo in the techno-collectivist future – though Mr. Harari impishly acknowledges that his book is prediction rather than prophecy. There are many paths and none of them is set.

He offers this wise summary of the situation we find ourselves in and our inability to come to terms with it: "The world is changing faster than ever before, and we are flooded by impossible amounts of data, of ideas, of promises and of threats. Humans are relinquishing authority to the free market, to crowd wisdom and to external algorithms partly because we cannot deal with the deluge of data."

So there you have it. There was a flood at the beginning of the world, the Bible tells us, and perhaps there will be a flood at the end – a flood of information. The privileged few will survive, clinging to their microchips to stay afloat.