Meet the biohackers who are putting technology into their own bodies

Meet the biohackers who are putting technology into their own bodies
Credit: Kseniya Forbender

Technology has become increasingly intrusive. Just a few decades ago, the idea of being near-constantly tethered to a device may have been unpalatable, particularly when that device sends your every activity to corporations and means you are contactable 24 hours a day. In 2018, though, we can hardly imagine living without one. Willingly integrating technology into your body, or biohacking, therefore seems like the next logical step.

We have welcomed smartphone devices into our lives – often paying substantial amounts for the privilege – because they are unbelievably useful. Many expect the next logical progression in personal technology to be wearable. Why carry a distracting smartphone when the power of the internet can be harnessed by some lenses? Overlaying directions onto the roads themselves, or having a landmark’s information appear as you look at it, are two easy-to-imagine use cases that barely scrape the surface of augmented reality’s seemingly limitless potential.

A world in which everyone is wearing powerful computers on their faces may be some way away yet, but there are already those looking past it. To some, the logical endpoint of humanity’s relationship with technology is full integration; the augmentation of the human body with tech. This is known as ‘biohacking’, and there is already a community of those dedicated to the practise.

There are already a dizzying variety of examples, largely coming out of the US and largely performed in a DIY environment. From injected serums claiming to cure HIV, to the insertion of magnets into the fingertips – the biohacking industry is seemingly open to anything.

Binary District Journal spoke to Kevin Warwick, leading expert in cybernetics and Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Coventry University. Kevin is perhaps best known for Project Cyborg, a platform for researchers and developers working in the cybernetics space. He was the world’s ‘first cyborg’, thanks to a series of groundbreaking experiments that cemented his place as a trailblazer.

Biohacking is on the horizon

We asked Kevin how long he thinks it will be before biohacking steps out of the shadows and into the mainstream. “From a scientists point of view, it’s always the difficult one to call,” he says. “Because you know the technology is there. I know that from what I’ve just said it sounds all science fiction, futuristic, but the technology to do the first experiments is there now, but we’re on hold for it to go ahead.

“The first thing is, when will the first experiments happen? They could happen at any time. If you and I decided to go ahead with things despite any ethical concerns, technically we could do it now – but nobody actually has done. So that’s point one: there needs to be a scientific step, but it could happen now.

“Then, the question is how quickly does it get developed? You can look back at the telephone when that came about, it needed a network infrastructure. OK, you could have a telephone, but you couldn’t call anybody because nobody else had a telephone. It needed that network and it needed commercial enterprises coming in. Also, it needed society to need it and want it. Those are difficult calls.

“You could say ‘in 20 years’ time you will be able to go to the corner store and get it’, but it also might be 100 years. It’s so difficult to say, but I do think the first experiments could happen now and I can’t see it being much longer before they do. Then, people might get excited about it, while still being worried about potential risks.

It’s like laser eye surgery – 20 years ago people were scared stiff about the thought of having lasers blasted into their eyes. Now, it’s something you have to have. Societal impact and people’s concept of risk affect how quick the take-up is. So, to say ‘In 50 years’ time we’ll have this’ is a very arm-waving thing. It could be 10 years, it could be 100 years.”

Oddities and grand promises

Naturally, some curious cases have emerged in the early stages of biohacking’s development. There have been a number of ‘pioneers’, with wildly varying degrees of success. One famous example is Aaron Traywick, who died in a sensory deprivation tank in Washington D.C. earlier this year.

Founder of Ascendance Biomedical, Traywick was viewed by the biohacking community as one of the figures most likely to make groundbreaking progress. A complicated, problematic character, Traywick held ideas that many saw as revolutionary, but he never quite realized his vision.

In February, Traywick appeared on stage and told the audience that Ascendance Biomedical had developed a vaccine for herpes. After dismissing questions about the project’s formal ethical oversight, he revealed that he himself had been diagnosed with herpes and injected his own leg in front of the audience. The stunt made waves, inciting equal parts intrigue and vitriol.

Josiah Zayner, a fellow biohacker, became aware of Traywick when he saw a similar stunt streamed live on Facebook. To him, the herpes ‘cure’ was nothing more than a bad PR stunt. “The idea that any scientist, biohacker or not, has created a cure for a disease with no testing and no data is more ridiculous than believing jet fuel melts steel beams,” he posted on Facebook. “Ascendance Bio are not legit in any measure. They have created no cures.”

Perhaps the most famous biohacker is Neil Harbisson. Born completely colorblind, the Catalan-raised 34-year-old was the first person to have an antenna implanted into his skull. The antenna, which he describes as an organ he designed to experience color, picks up the light vibrations of different colors and sends the information to his inner ears, allowing him to hear differences in color as varying frequencies.

Harbisson quickly realized that he did not have to limit himself to colors that are visible to the naked human eye. His antenna can now pick up ultraviolet and infrared frequencies, the former of which is useful if he wants to detect how safe it is to sunbathe on any given day, for example. He hopes that more people will follow suit, not necessarily with his exact project but with modifications more broadly.

Harbisson’s current project is Time Sense, a wearable headset that allows the user to physically feel the passing of time around the circumference of their head. A small heat sensation circumnavigates the skull every 24 hours, and Neil hopes that by wearing it indefinitely he can develop a new form of ‘instinctual relationship with the time of the day.’

The project is about more than giving humans an organ through which to perceive time, though. By linking time to a physical sense, Harbisson hopes that he will be able to manipulate his own perception of time by tricking his brain. For example, if he wants an experience to feel longer, he can slow down the movement of the heat and this could theoretically trick his brain. For Harbisson, the project is about testing what is possible and examining how the brain reacts, rather than bioengineering himself toward a specific capability.

Punk biohackers lead the way

For all the high-profile pioneers and the startups claiming to use forms of biohacking, there is an equally active underworld far removed from the boardroom. Comprised of 5,000 or so people across the US, ‘grinders’ are DIY cyborgs that claim they exist to “improve the human condition.” Not for the squeamish, grinders will slice themselves open to install RFID tags, magnets, key fobs and other devices into their bodies (usually their arms or hands).

There is a particularly active community in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Here, a quasi-anarchist, anti-corporate attitude pervades biohacking. Tattoo studios double up as makeshift operating theaters and the members have a cyberpunk aesthetic – this is a far cry from Silicon Valley. ‘Grinders’ will do things that would never make it past the initial suggestion at a major tech company, and this is the point. Biohacking is, at present, part of the body modification counterculture.

For Kevin, these people are pioneers. We asked him if he knew that he was something of an icon in their community. “They’re icons for me as well!” Kevin laughs. “It’s incredible. Rather than a lot of the developments going on in the academic world, in research labs and things like that, there is this biohacking community. My own personal feeling is more power to them! They’re getting on with it, they’re doing an awful lot. Some of it is more for artistic purposes, which is interesting. Some of it is people doing the same as others have done, which is not so interesting. But others, they’re trying different things, implanting in different ways, seeing what happens. Some of it is absolutely good.

“So, I’m in touch with several of the key players – Tim Cannon, Ryan O’Shea, particularly in the Pittsburgh group. I respect what they’re doing enormously. On the other hand, I have to watch what I say, because if I’m giving some sort of university academic stamp of approval in some way, it might excite some people to literally go into their garage and start chopping their arms about. There are dangers associated with it. I think once or twice there have been some infections, but I don’t know that there have been too many serious illnesses or anything.”

Could our brains be hacked?

The dangers of biohacking potentially extend further than those associated with the fitting of the devices, though. For a lot of people, the idea of putting something that could be hacked into their bodies is unpalatable.

“I look at the bigger picture,” Kevin tells us. “There are always people worried about hacking in. If you’re having implants, the really exciting stuff begins when its into the nervous system rather than just underneath the skin, or at least affecting muscles and things like that. In a way, muscular movement, apart from therapeutic purposes (helping people who have some problem controlling limbs), it’s difficult to see too many immediate applications.

“Going into the nervous system, though, instantly you’ve got the hacking problem that is seen by many people as an issue. If you’ve got an implant in your brain, could somebody hack into your brain? I mean, the answer is yes, even now with Parkinson’s disease, somebody could hack into the brain stimulators, but all they’re going to do really is give you Parkinson’s disease. If you’ve got it and the implant counteracts it, they can stop that working.

“It’s limited, though. The nervous system, but in particular the brain, is unbelievably complex and everybody’s is differently organised. There is a blueprint – this is what your brain and nervous system are like – but everybody is different. So, it’s very difficult and I don’t think hackers have got the background in the first instance.”

Is it legal?

The legality of biohacking is interesting. Clearly, it is in the interest of those using the technology that it is safely regulated in some way. The situation gets complicated when an individual opts to have a procedure performed on themselves; there is very little regulation, beyond ethical considerations, to stop them from doing so. We asked Kevin how stringent regulation is and will be.

“That’s a very good question,” Kevin says. “I think, when you include medical professionals, then you need ethical approval. I wouldn’t say it’s regulation, I don’t know what you’d call it. The medical professionals are not going to go ahead with any operation, or anything like that, unless they have ethical approval. So, I think there is quite a good regulation for that.

“If you’re doing it yourself, though, it’s sort of open season. If you don’t include the medical profession, it’s up to you what you do to your own body I think, generally. That’s the general law. The worry is the big picture. Let’s say that you and I have brain implants and we can suddenly communicate directly brain-to-brain. Intellectually, that could make us superhuman. There’s no overseeing world, or even governmental, body that says yes, no or whatever.

“You get some ethical committees. In the US, they’ve got a presidential committee on bioethics, but it’s about 90% political, just worrying about what they’re doing in other countries and what they’re not doing in America. So, it’s not ethical or regulatory in the sense that we would know it, it’s more making sure the US doesn’t drop behind anybody else, which is a different thing altogether. If we wanted to become super-intelligent and take over the world, essentially there’s nothing stopping us doing that.”

Ultimately, a mainstream future for biohacking will come down to genuinely useful use-cases. Amal Graafstra, owner of Seattle-based company Dangerous Things, believes that point will come when implants can replace your physical keys or your wallet. Amal himself can unlock the door to his house with an implant fitted in his hand.

For Amal, the devices work best when there is absolutely no management. The devices he inserts have no batteries and only operate when they are within the magnetic field of another device, maybe an inch away. Amal wants his products to disappear and become just a functional part of the user’s body. “An implant system is just ideal because it’s always there,” he told VICE. “You never forget it. You kind of forget about it, actually. It’s really something that doesn’t interfere with your life until you need to use it.”

This post was written by Charlie Sammonds for Binary District, an international collaborative technology community which creates unique competency-based workshops and events on new technologies. Follow them on Twitter.


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