Is your body not functioning the way you want it to? How much time out of your daily schedule do you relinquish for exercise? Are you tired of moving heaven and earth to support that bag of chemicals and water? Do you wish you could enhance your senses or even add new capabilities to your existing body? While this used to be the realm of science fiction only a few years ago, current and rapidly emerging technologies allow you to repair, replace or enhance that old bag of bones here and now. In this week’s Working the Web to Win blog, I will take you into the lab to explore bio-tech that is being used to repair, replace or enhance human beings. I will also introduce you to a new cult of devotees who are ready, willing and able to undergo painful medical procedures to take the cyborg plunge and bio-hack their way to a better life.
Dr. Geekenstein, I Presume
Steve Haworth isn’t exactly a household name — not yet. Unlike the other two Steve’s of Apple Computer fame, Steve Haworth has not yet achieved the level of rockstar geek status that Jobs and Woz did. But he could well be on his way. That’s because he is one of the pioneers of body modification who routinely performs surgery on people looking to add enhancements to their body. Since he is not a board certified surgeon, this means that these procedures are done without the aid of anesthetic, unless you count ice. Although Haworth’s family has long been associated with medical device engineering, Steve cut his teeth in the 90’s by dabbling with body piercing, 3D tattoos and something called the Metal Mohawk. (You can’t make this stuff up folks.) Fast forward fifteen years and Steve’s modifications are now more sci-fi than technopunk. One of the enhancements that Steve routinely performs is the surgical implantation of rare earth magnets. Now I know what you’re thinking, “Why would anybody pay to get turned into a refrigerator magnet?”
While Steve and other bio-hacking enthusiasts have posted videos which show them moving metal objects with the magnetic field generated by their enhanced digits, apparently there is another side effect of the procedure. Apparently this enhancement also provides the recipient with a virtual Spidey sense that allows them to perceive magnetic fields. For $350 you too can experience the pulse of electric motors, junction boxes, high tension wires and any device that imparts a magnetic field.
Is a DIYborg Really a Cyborg?
There are other ways to enhance your senses, however. Adventurous people have implanted everything from RFID chips that allows them to control nearby devices, turn on and off the lights, not to mention open their garage door without the use of a clicker. There is another popular procedure called Southpaw that involves the implantation of a compass that in essence turns you into a homing pigeon by letting you sense kinesthetically when you are facing north. (I should probably get one of these for my mother, since she is terrible when it comes to following directions.)
Computer chips can also be implanted into you that sense your biometric data, turning you into the human equivalent of a FitBit. Others have had led lights implanted beneath their skin, turning them into a cross between a tattoo and a casino marquis. While most of the devices are tiny, I have seen at least one adventurous lad named Ted Cannon, who had a device the size of a smartphone implanted beneath the skin of his forearm. You can view his video interview here: (Just make sure you haven’t eaten recently.) More telling is that Ted’s company, Grindhouse Wetware, builds devices that are designed to integrate with the human body.
Geordi LaForge, Here We Come
DIYborgs is just one option — there are also eyeborgs, ala Geordi LaForge of Star Trek fame. This was the character in the Next Generation series played by LeVar Burton. Having been born blind, Geordi sported a pair of high tech spectacles that not only permitted him to see, he could see light spectra that no human eye could, including infrared, ultraviolet and radio waves. While today’s version of Star Trek tech isn’t quite as extraordinary as that of Geordi LaForge, it’s getting there. Scientists have already reverse-engineered the retina and created an app that not only reproduces its operation, but it allows a camera to be connected through the optic nerve. In principle, this enhancement could be used to augment the tiny fraction of the light spectrum we currently are able to see. Holy x-ray vision, Batman! (Another group in England is conducting experiments with an implantable lens that can not only provide perfect 20/20 vision to all you who wear glasses, but they claim the lens even provides a zoom capability.)
Do You Want Fries with That?
There are some people who are so unconcerned with appearances, they will risk ridicule, or even worse, to possess enhanced abilities. One of these acolytes is Steve Mann, who has become something of a biohacking legend since he was forcibly ejected from a McDonald’s restaurant in Paris France when he walked into the establishment sporting what amounts to a DIY version of Google Glass. The chief difference was that Steve Mann’s glasses were bolted to his head. Referred to as the “Father of Wearable Computing,” he has been making a techno fashion statement for years.
Although biohacking has, largely, been taking place in basements and back alleys, that doesn’t mean that the phenomenon hasn’t garnered academic attention. One notable is Captain Cyborg, otherwise known as Kevin Warwick, professor of cybernetics at Coventry University. In a 2013 interview in Forbes Magazine that took place in Warwick’s office, which writer Emma Byrne described as “a cross between a toyshop and Tony Stark’s basement,” the professor was asked which project he was most proud. “No question, it would have to be when I hooked up with my wife.” He’s not talking about dating: In 2002, he and his wife Irena installed matching implants that recorded signals from their central nervous systems. They were able to correctly identify each other’s nerve signals around 98 percent of the time.
“Sam Morse, the inventor of Morse code, talked about brain-to-brain communication. He sorted out the distance, but he still needed that physical interface, the finger on the key. Over the years we’ve made loads of improvements in bandwidth and distance, but we still haven’t got past the interface problem.”http://www.forbes.com/sites/netapp/2013/09/30/kevin-warwick-captain-cyborg/
The brain-to-brain interface Dr. Warwick shared with his wife was more akin to a sixth sense than mere communication. (How many men reading this would love to never be asked again what they are thinking by their wives?) More significantly, it’s this extrasensory perception that has Warwick and other researchers interested in exploring the possibilities yet further. When asked about the possibilities as well as the perils in experimenting with the human body, Warwick replied, “When Alexander Graham Bell made the first phone call, at first people couldn’t see the point in what he was doing. What’s the point of the first phone? But it didn’t stop there. I think what I’m doing is like that. Maybe when I’ve been dead ten years people will go, ‘Oh! That’s what that was for.’ What you do in terms of prizes and degrees and all that – that’s absolutely nothing. It’s when you do something no one’s done before. When you push it, that’s what’s exciting.”
That may very well be true. But just as advances in medicine in the past, such as joint replacement and transplantation have become commonplace, I can’t help thinking that somewhere the ghost of Mary Shelley is spinning in her grave. “It’s Alive!”