Anyone who’s watched the futuristic Netflix show ‘Black Mirror’ will know of how emerging technology and our reliance on it can have unanticipated consequences – If you have not seen it, I highly recommend giving it a watch!
Yet, we might be closer to the futuristic world of Black Mirror than you think. Around the world, people are pushing the gruesome boundaries of how far we integrate tech with our lives, through a series of implants and body modifications. This is a branch of biohacking – a blanket term used to describe a whole spectrum of ways that people modify or improve their bodies. People who hack themselves with electronic hardware to extend and improve human capacities are known as Grinders or Transhumanists.
A common procedure is to implant a strong magnet beneath the surface of a person’s skin, often in the tip of the ring finger. Nerves in the fingertips then grow around the magnet. This allows nearby magnetic and electrical fields along with their strength and shape to become detectable to the user, thanks to the subtle currents they provoke. For a party trick, the person can also pick up metal objects or make other magnets move around.
Calling this a procedure, though, gives rather the wrong impression. Biohacking is not a field of medicine. Instead it is carried out either at home with DIY kits purchased online or in piercing shops, but without an anaesthetic (which you need a licence for). If you think this sounds painful, you are correct. With no corporate help, the only way grinders can accomplish their goals is by learning from other grinders, mainly through online forums such as biohack.me.
Britain is the birthplace of grinders and in 1998 Kevin Warwick, professor of cybernetics at the University of Reading had a simple radio-frequency identification transmitter (RFID) implanted in his upper left arm, in an experiment that he called Project Cyborg. The chip didn’t do much – it mainly just tracked him around the university and turned on the lights to his lab when he walked in. Still, Warwick was thrilled, and the media were enchanted, declaring him the world’s first cyborg.
RFID implants are now common among grinders and allow users to unlock physical and electronic barriers. Similar technology is already widely used in contactless card payment systems and clothing tags, and Motorola are developing an RFID-activated ‘password pill’ that a user can swallow and access their devices without the hassle of remembering them.
Other examples of biohacking
Circadia, developed by Biohack.me offshoot company Grindhouse Wetware is another implantable device that constantly gathers the user’s biometric data, for example transmitting temperature data via Bluetooth. The medical potential for this device is vast, and it has the most immediately practical benefits.
Additionally, the first internal compass, dubbed the ‘Southpaw’ has been invented. It works by sealing a miniature compass inside a silicon coat, within a rounded Titanium shell, to be implanted under the skin. An ultra-thin whisker juts out, which is activated when the user faces north, to lightly brush an alert on the underside of the skin.
Rich Lee, a star of biohack.me forum, has magnets embedded in each ear so he can listen to music through them, via a wire coil he wears around his neck, that converts sound into electromagnetic fields, creating the first ‘internal headphones’. The implants allow him to detect different sensors, so he can ‘hear’ heat from a distance and detect magnetic fields and Wi-Fi signals too! There is a practical purpose to Lee’s experiments, as he suffers deteriorating eyesight and hopes to improve his orientation through greater sensory awareness.
A damaging concept to users and society?
The question we must ask ourselves is at what point does the incorporation of all this technology make us a different species and what are the ethics behind that?
The bluntest argument against biohacking is that it’s unnatural. For most people, especially those who benefit from medical advancements like pacemakers and cochlear implants, adding RFID or magnets to the body appears to have little value. There are very few people who can’t recognize the benefits of technological progress and how it has helped humanity. Grinding, however is often not recognized as an advancement.
Another argument against human augmentation mirrors the worries that commonly surround genetic engineering. A thought provoking possibility is that those who have access to (and can afford) augmentation procedures and devices will gain unfair advantages over those who do not. Over generations, this could create a large rift between the augmented and the unaugmented. Luckily, the grinder movement provides a solution to this problem as part of its central ethos: open source hardware and the free access of information.
A benefit to the individual and society?
To some, implanted technology represents the next stage in mankind’s evolution that may bring many medical advancements. And, indeed, the idea is not outlandish. Brain stimulation from implanted electrodes is already a routine treatment for Parkinson’s and other diseases, and there are prototypes that promise to let paralysed people control computers, wheelchairs and robotic limbs.
The Wellcome Trust has begun a trial with Alzheimer’s patients carrying a silicon chip on the brain itself, to predict dangerous episodes, and able to stimulate weakened neurons. Military researchers Darpa are also experimenting with a chip implant on humans to help control mental trauma suffered by soldiers.
There is potential to help visually and hearing impaired people by using a chip that translates words and distances into sound, which could mean the end of Braille and sticks. Neil Harbisson is the founder of the non-profit Cyborg Foundation in Barcelona and was born with achromatopsia, the inability to see colours. Since 2004, Harbisson has worn a device he calls the eyeborg, a head-mounted camera that translates colours into soundwaves and pipes them into his head via bone conduction. Today Harbisson “hears” colours, including some beyond the visible spectrum.
These experimental grinders are certainly laying the groundwork for more powerful and pervasive human enhancements in the future, but for now, a Fitbit is more than enough for me.