Body Hacking: A Cyborg Future Awaits

Warning: This story is about strange surgical procedures, weird implants

“It was the machines, Sarah.” So said time traveler Kyle Reese when explaining the end of days to Sarah Connor in James Cameron’s 1984 classic, “The Terminator.” The film was one of many to exploit people’s fears of machines and a future that relied too heavily on technology.

In the age of the iPhone, 3D printing and Wi-Fi, the culture around technology and people’s fears of potential threats like artificial intelligence have changed. There’s even a surprisingly large corner of the population that would probably laugh at Cameron’s warning against artificial intelligence and a world controlled by machines.

Body hackers, or grinders as they sometimes like to be called, are people who voluntarily subject themselves to surgical procedures that attempt to morph man and machine. Though it may seem like something out of a science fiction film or a creepy dystopian novel, the phenomenon is very real and gaining very real traction.

At the recent Body Hacking Conference at The Austin Convention Center in Texas, Amal Graafstra was there with a needle, sterile blanket and other tools to help implant magnets and microchips into people’s hands.

The RFID (radio frequency identification device) chip being implanted into hands held encrypted information and contained an ID number, both which help the “owner” do things like open doors and unlock their phones. Ironically, many fear RFID chips may be used one day on a national level to help identify individuals and carry personal information to be accessed by outside forces like the government. In a special report by NBC News, there was even a prediction bold enough to claim this would be possible by only next year.

“More than the crazy concept, it’s actually people’s willingness to accept it. That’s why it’s crazy to me. People are just willing to just line up and go, ‘Yeah, stick that in me,’” Sasha Rose, running a nearby booth and watching the line of potential body hackers, told NPR.

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The showcase in Austin was not body hacking’s only moment in the spotlight. Implanting chips into people’s hands is merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the future of what many refer to as “transhumanism.”

Professor Stelarc, an Australian performance artist who has legally gone by one name since 1972, took body hacking a few steps beyond his hands. After finding funding and a group of surgeons willing to help, Stelarc had a third ear surgically implanted, and partially grown, on his arm.

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The ear is an implant put into Stelarc’s arm that has fused with his body, allowing flesh to grow around it giving it a more realistic look. The idea was nine years in the making, according to Stelarc. The goal for the ear is to make it Wi-Fi enabled and to give it a GPS tracker and microphone that allow users around the world to track and listen to everything Stelarc does.

“I’ve got two good ears to hear with. This ear is a remote listening device for other people. They’ll be able to follow a conversation or hear the sounds of a concert, wherever I am, wherever you are,” said Stelarc. The idea of being tracked 24/7 would seem to frighten most, but Stelarc seems to embrace it. “There won’t be an on-off switch. If I’m not in a Wi-Fi hotspot or I switch off my home modem, then perhaps I’ll be offline. But the idea is to try and keep the ear online all the time,” he added.

The ethical questions about these procedures are just beginning to form real conversations. While the procedures are voluntary, many fear the risks far outweigh the perceived rewards.

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Science for the Masses, an independent research center with the goal of promoting and helping people to better understand biohacking (also known as the previously mentioned body hacking), conducted a study with one of their group members with the goal of enhancing eyesight to see in the dark. y using a concoction containing chlorin e6, the group squirted the eyes of their test subject — turning the man’s eyes completely black. He wound up being able to make out shapes and see up to fifty meters away in the dark.

Peter Rothman, editor of H+ magazine, which covers a variety of health and technology topics including transhumanism and virtual reality, wrote a story critiquing that see-in-the-dark study’s amateur procedures and revealing that the doctor who held the patent for the concoction that enabled the night seeing superpowers, had lost his medical license.

When Rothman asked Dr. Jacque Duncan, an opthamologist at UCSF Medical Center, about the potential health consequences of the chlorin e6 infused concoction, she said she could find “no evidence” that it was “safe.” She also said she would “strongly urge people not to administer this medication to the eyes,” noting the potential damage to blood vessels and retina cells.

And then there’s Sander Pleij, a Dutch man who suffered from chronic cluster headaches. He had a neurostimulator implanted into his body which could be controlled by a handheld remote. The device was meant to use electrical impulses to calm headaches Pleij would suffer. The device had severe psychological consequences.

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“The image of a knife flashed through my mind, knife in my skin, in my scar; I would cut myself open with it, rip the technology from my body, if I couldn’t control myself … what? No! But the fear doubled: now I was also afraid I would cut the whole thing out of my body. What was my body doing to me? What was I up to?” He later wrote in a blog about the experience.

Even Stelarc, happy with his third ear, faced an infection when he tried to have a microphone implanted in his arm.

Potential medical risks and ethical concerns, however, are not near enough to quell the excitement many have for body hacking and its potential future.

Perhaps the most famous face of the body hacking movement is that of Neil Harbisson (shown in the photo at the top of the story). Harbisson is a color blind artist from Barcelona who has a camera connected to a rod that reaches to the back of his head to a device connected to his skull. The device, Harbisson says, allows him to detect colors by listening to the dominant colors around him and translating them into musical notes.

Harbisson found a doctor willing to perform the surgery after a medical ethics committee in Europe refused to sign off on such an operation.

Harbisson seems to represent the first real step in transhumanism and body hacking. He says he doesn’t identify as human anymore, but prefers “cybernetic organism.” Speaking to NPR, Harbisson said, “If we define ourselves as organisms, suddenly our group is wider. We are on the same level as an insect, or as a cat, or as a plant.”

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