These Young Cyborgs Are Building the Future of Modern Medicine
Little green lights blink beneath the surface of Tim Cannon's forearm.
He could have shelled out for a smartwatch or a Fitbit to take his vitals, but instead, Cannon asked a body-modification artist to implant a computer chip called Circadia under his skin. For three months, Circadia was a part of him — a bulge, like a pack of cards, rising from his arm. It relayed internal biometrics, specifically his temperature, to his tablet computer.
Cannon's experiment was proof digital implants were the future of health-tracking, and he's now working on an even more high-tech device. When Cannon implants the next version of Circadia, it will send him texts when he's getting sick.
Cannon is what some call a biohacker. He's a citizen scientist who actively works to improve his body's physical performance, functionality or aesthetics with technology. He works at the group Grindhouse Wetware, founded in 2012 to provide safe, affordable open-source technology for "augmenting humanity."
"We were attempting to create a technology using open-source tools on a hacker budget," Cannon said in a video explainer he filmed after the surgery. "We believe once things are made accessible, that's when real innovation happens."
Grindhouse believes its subdermal implants could be the future of medicine. If people can monitor their blood pressure, heart rate and levels of bodily chemicals in real time, they can work toward fixing a problem like an encroaching fever before it causes side effects.
"Right now, much of medicine is reactive," Ryan O'Shea, head of external operations at Grindhouse, told Mic. "Once you have a heart attack, you are treated for your bad heart. Once you have a disease, doctors try to address it. The fact is many of these problems can be predicated and treated long before it is too late."
"You've burned a lot of calories today and are running a deficit," says your phone. "I suggest you eat before your 4 p.m. meeting, preferably something with a lot of protein."
Receiving real-time information on the same device that monitors your calendar, location and the local weather means you'll be able to integrate your organic self and digital life. For example, O'Shea imagines "an alert from your phone saying, 'You've burned a lot of calories today and are running a deficit. I suggest you eat before your 4 p.m. meeting, preferably something with a lot of protein.'"
High-tech health tracking is huge right now. The current obsession with keeping real-time data on everything we're doing is basically a light version of biohacking. Using tech to monitor our bodily functions hit the mainstream with the popularization of the Fitbit, the wellness-tracking implications of the Apple Watch and the constant sleep-calibrating of the Jawbone.
Grindhouse and similar labs want to achieve the same results through more extreme methods. Where Apple Health stops, the homegrown cyborgs start.
Meet the biohackers modifying their bodies for science. Biohacking has found a common cause with the body modification community — people who use creative piercings and tattoos to change their features and push the boundaries of body art — and transhumanists, who support using science and tech to physically and mentally improve humanity.
"As we see more crossover between transhumanists and body modification people, you're going to see more of what we've already seen — magnetic implants, different chip implants and other implanted technologies," Erik Sprague, a performance artist better known as the Lizardman, told Mic.
Sprague, 43, is almost completely covered in tattooed green scales. He has a split tongue and subdermal implants that give his face a reptilian shape.
He believes there will be a demand for implanted devices, like a phone in your head. "As tech advances," he said, "it's going to be easier to give people the peculiarities they want."
Mic asked other body modification artists what's on their wish lists. "I want personal GPS," said Samppa Von Cyborg, a Finnish body modification artist. He's concerned that governments could use GPS implants for surveillance, but he sees a huge benefit: "It could be used to find someone if they are kidnapped."
Von Cyborg is known for more extreme projects. A big name in the old-school world of silicon-horn implants and scarification, his more recent experiments deal with functional LED or vibrating implants. He's currently working on a universal platform for implants that use wireless inductive charging — the same wireless tech sometimes used to charge smartphones.
If implants become the norm, how will the rebels stand out?
"You can basically modify the implant how you want," Von Cyborg told Mic. "In the future, it could have a Wi-Fi receiver and transmitter, so you can control other devices in your home." One example: "Controlling your air conditioning ... activated with magnetic switches."
Von Cyborg worries the mainstreaming of technological implants might take away from his beloved fringe body-mod community. If implants become the norm, how will the rebels stand out?
"You might have companies like Apple or Google doing this," he told Mic. "The old-school modification community ... would want it to be more traditional 3-D implants under the skin, not have it be invisible."
Biohacking lives in the Goldilocks zone between the experimental world of extreme aesthetic implants, to which Lizardman and Von Cyborg belong, and professionally implanted surgical implants for medical purposes, like cochlear implants.
"This is the human body in the Internet of Things."
Here's the coolest tech coming out of the biohacking scene: These self-described DIY "grinders" are so invested in the future of medicine that they've turned their own bodies into experimental platforms, pushing the limits of what humanity is capable of and correcting problems in their bodies.
In 2013, Rich Lee, a director and familiar face around biohacking get-togethers like GrindFest, implanted sound-transmitting magnets in his ears to receive audio from a recording device worn under his shirt. He'd been developing it for years, spurred by a medical emergency: In 2007, he woke up with blurred vision due to what he called the ocular equivalent of a stroke, damaging his retina and sending him down a path toward legal blindness. He started looking for ways to take control of his senses.
"A cornea transplant is useless in my situation," Lee told Mic. "There is no cure, so the damage I have sustained is permanent."
By connecting the implants to an ultrasonic rangefinder, Lee wrote, the implants hum when objects get closer or further away — like the echolocation used by bats to "see" shapes based on how sound waves bounce off of them.
"I did a cool experiment with it and a contact mic[rophone] that allowed me to hear joggers approaching from a long distance away," Lee told Mic. "Nothing could sneak up on me."
Gabriel Licina had a 64GB USB stick with a cable embedded in his arm.
Gabriel Licina, a biochem researcher based in California, experimented earlier this year with eye drops to induce temporary night vision. More recently, he tested a coating for implants, something that would seep into the surface of whatever it's covering — in his case, a 64GB USB stick with a cable embedded in his arm — to prevent infection.
"The design of the device needs to change a lot, the cable is ridiculous, but we needed a way to test input output," Licina told Mic. "I made the device as simple as possible to do the testing. This means it's also totally unrealistic for anything other than that one purpose."
Ben Engel, a 20-year-old in Utah, made a bone-conduction Bluetooth headset implant from a headset he bought from Amazon. He deconstructed it and put it inside his head where the sound travels to the inner ear through the skull.
Since the headset is going under his skin, he replaced the "answer" button with what's called a reed switch, triggered by a magnet he has implanted in his finger. "This means no one but me can press buttons on it," Engel told Mic.
Like Lee, Engel's implant has a higher purpose than cyborg phone calls. He wants to translate data from the Internet into compressed audio waves, which his brain learns to pick up using a concept called sensory substitution, kind of like mastering a new language. He feeds information to the brain via unusual sensory channels, and the brain figures how to use what it receives.
"I will know if people on Twitter are happy or sad," he told Mic. "I will be able to tell large political events before they even happen, just based on how millions of people are acting that given second of the day."
It's not just for predicting the future. Engel's grandpa, who wears hearing aids, wants the surgery. First, though, Engel has to prove it works.
"I will know if people on Twitter are happy or sad. ... I will be able to tell large political events before they even happen, just based on how millions of people are acting that given second of the day."
If Lee and Engel represent countertop citizen science, labs like Grindhouse show what happens when the community gets together for a common cause: the acceleration of alternative research.
Grindhouse works on other projects besides Circadia. One, called Northstar Version 2, will include gesture recognition, turning your hand into a "magic wand" to link a hand signal to an action, like turning off lights in the house, locking a door or sending a text message.
"All of this will be possible in a future in which this data is collected and shared between our devices," O'Shea told Mic. "In this way, our cars, our homes, our phones, our environments become part of the regulatory systems of our body. This is the human body in the Internet of Things."
The home labs aren't the only ones getting into biohacking. Neuroscientist Dr. David Eagleman and Dr. Scott Novich, from the sensory augmentation company Neosensory, work with sensory substitution using touch.
The basis of Neosensory's research goes back to the 1960s, when Dr. Paul Bach-Y-Rita published a paper in the journal Nature called "Vision Substitution by Tactile Image Projection," which looked at how a physical apparatus replaces vision — in this case, via 400 solenoid stimulators, like vibration motors in cell phones, to read the environment and send back a pattern for the six sight-impaired test subjects to feel in their backs.
It's the beginning of what Eagleman calls the "Potato Head" model of evolution: All of the body parts that deal with senses are basically plug-and-play devices. "There's nothing really special or fundamental about the biology that we come to the table with," Eagleman said during a March 2015 TED Talk. "It's just what we have inherited from a complex road of evolution. But it's not what we have to stick with."
During the talk, Eagleman showed off his team's latest experiment: VEST, or Versatile Extra-Sensory Transducer, which captures sound from the environment and converts the information to patterns of vibration on the skin.
When Eagleman speaks, a computer tablet picks up his voice. The tablet maps the pattern via Bluetooth onto a vest covered in vibratory motors, like what's found in mobile phones. Just like the way we learn different sounds mean different words, a wearer of the vest eventually learns what different vibrations on different parts of the vest mean.
"We've been testing this with deaf people," Eagleman says. "After just a little bit of time, people can start feeling, they can start understanding, the language of the vest."
But it isn't just for correcting imbalances. The vest also received real-time data from the Internet — in this case, stock market feeds — to then predict whether the wearer should buy or sell a stock.
If that catches on, and becomes a subdermal implant, we could start seeing stockbrokers with little sensors all over their backs, turning them into walking, talking, market-predicting cyborgs.
Neosensory builds non-invasive technologies — wearables instead of scalpel jobs. Even with safer operating methods, they still needed to resort to using a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for the VEST. It's the same plaguing reason you hear about massive companies like Apple and Google having inexhaustible bankrolling for their own consumer-driven products, while purely science-driven or academic research suffers from a lack of cash.
"It's amazing, and also a bit scary, that the technology for doing DIY biological [and] medical research at home is rapidly becoming more and more accessible in terms of availability of specialized knowledge and the cost for equipment," Dr. Novich told Mic. "In parallel, the funding climate for science in academia ... isn't particularly healthy. There's a heavy bias towards funding research in mature well-established fields. Potentially innovative and disruptive research is getting pushed aside. This is where biohackers have the potential to shine."
The risks are serious, even potentially fatal. These procedures don't happen in emergency rooms and surgical centers, so there's a lot of opportunity for infection. Many people who get implants take them to piercing artists or other modifiers, like Von Cyborg. The other problem: Artists trusted to do the work are few and far between. Lee got his implants done by an artist named Steve Haworth, who also implanted Circadia in Tim Cannon.
"Depending on what's being worked on ... biohacking at home might be one of the most dangerous pursuits out there," Novich told Mic. "Mistakes can be fatal, particularly when proper laboratory procedures aren't followed. Plus there are all of the ethical implications that come along with this work from creating or destroying synthetic life to developing dangerous DNA sequences."
It's all for the future of medicine. "The DIY cyborg community turns out to be unrestrained by the red tape, legal liability and pesky ethical considerations which plague the healthcare industry," Lee told Mic.
If the home labs don't have to adhere to medical standards, it opens the door to potential breakthroughs unhampered by safety regulations.
Right now, Lee is making a bone-conduction hearing aid for his aunt. The customizable, Bluetooth-enabled device costs $35 in parts — considerably cheaper than the $5,000 he estimated it would cost from a doctor-prescribed machine.
DIY biotech may not be the sleekest or the prettiest, and it can get bloody. But Lee and his fellow biohackers are the citizen-science guinea pigs helping to produce safe but accessible technology.
Technology they literally know inside and out.