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Cyborgs: Not Quite Ready For Primetime

Kevin Warwick, a professor of cybernetics at Coventry University, shows an RFID transmitter like the one what was implanted in his arm in 1998.

Biohackers use technology to enhance their own biologies for increased or extra-human capabilities.

Credit: Kevin Warwick

The medical sector continues to make great strides in figuring out how to replace or supplement missing or injured body parts through technology implants. Over the past few years, completely separate from the medical establishment, biohackers (also referred to as 'grinders') have been taking digital implants one step further, using technology to enhance their own biologies for increased or extra-human sensory capabilities. They are part of the transhumanism movement, which seeks to transcend the current human form and evolve it to be better, stronger, faster through the use of science and technology.

A pioneer in biohacking, professor of cybernetics Kevin Warwick of Coventry University, became the first cyborg in 1998 when he implanted under the skin of his forearm an RFID transmitter that could open doors, switch on lights, and start up a photocopier.

Today, 17 years later, sites like Cyberise Me sell implantable RFID, NFC, and temperature sensor chips at prices ranging from $30 to $50 (the injection prep kit costs extra). Dangerous Things sells RFID chips (similar to those used to tag pets), along with kits to implant them, so that with a wave of the hand, anyone can have the ability "to unlock doors, phones, log into computers, start vehicles, etc." Amal Graafstra, the founder of Dangerous Things, claims he can "also share contact details, YouTube videos, Facebook pages, and more with friends by letting them scan his NFC implant with an NFC-enabled Android or Windows-based smartphone or tablet."

However, most grinders use magnets, rather than chips; they have body modification experts implant magnets in their fingertips, giving them the ability to pick up loose screws while heightening their sensory capabilities for detecting heat or feeling pulses when they are near the invisible signals put out by machines, electronics, and high tension wires. Magnets implanted in the bridge of the nose can hold eyeglasses in place, foregoing the need for full frames. Warwick noted that coiling a wire around a magnet could "excite other fields such as infra-red and ultrasonics and possibly x-rays," although he hasn’t researched the x-ray possibilities.

Clearly there is excitement (or at least curiosity) about biohacking, which is also influenced by the maker movement and its use of open source technology, along with the quantified-self trend. However, there are issues of ethics and privacy that must be part of the biohacking conversation.

In 2004, VeriChip became the only human-implantable microchip approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Animal studies that found a connection between the chips and the possibility of cancer led the company behind VeriChip, PositiveID Corp., to stop making and marketing them in 2010.

Privacy advocates also were concerned that governmental adoption of a technology like the VeriChip could lead to an erosion of privacy, a factor contributing to legislation (already enacted in three U.S. states) that prohibits the mandatory implantation of microchips or other tracking technologies.

Yet Ryan O’Shea, spokesperson for Grindhouse Wetware,a site dedicated to "augmenting humanity using safe, affordable, open source technology," believes the time is now for citizen scientists to take advantage of enhancing their bodies through technology, "because Apple or Google, although they could, are not exploring this opportunity." Though the company does not sell any implantable devices, for which it would need FDA approval, it received a lot of publicity when Tim Cannon had implanted in his arm the Circadia, a smartphone-sized device that could read and transmit his biomedical data to an Android-powered device.

In 2002, the pioneering Warwick took his investigation into human enhancement to another level when he had a microelectrode array of 100 electrodes implanted in his arm to "extend his nervous system across the Internet." The new device would send a signal created by moving his arm over the Internet to a robotic arm in another country. He claimed he suffered no bodily harm as a result of his experiment (except for wires in his arm that sometimes bulge under the skin, which he is easily able to tamp back down).

Looking to the future, Autodesk’s Project Cyborg provides a design platform for biology research on a molecular scale; according to the Website, "Cyborg allows individuals or groups to create specialized design platforms specific for their domains … from nanoparticle design to tissue engineering, to self-assembling human-scale manufacturing."

Designers at New Deal Design, maker of the Fitbit, are working on the Project Underskin concept: a digital tattoo on the hand that runs off the body’s electro-chemical energy to interact with everything it touches, using NFC signals to open doors, collect data on the body, or share credit card information.

The biohacking community continues to investigate allying technology with biology. Predicts biohacking pioneer Warwick, "neural implants are the way we’re going. Just as most people today use cellphones," he said, "we’ll be able to communicate with others just by thinking."

"Think of the body as a new continent for discovery. Of course there are dangers and you may go wrong, but that’s all part of the excitement."

Tatjana Meerman is a freelance technology writer based in the Washington D.C. area.


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