Explore the dissolving boundary between science and science fiction with news from the front lines of discovery and imaginative speculation on how each one could change our world.
If you thought cyborgs came out of cutting-edge laboratories, think again. Biohackers aspiring to enhance their abilities through body modifications—in particular, a sub-group known as “grinders” who experiment on their own bodies—are finding new ways to meld man and machine in their garages. Online forums like biohack.me allow grinders to share ideas and processes, a sort of crowd-sourced genetic engineering.
A Pittsbugh-based biohacking group called Grindhouse Wetware has developed projects ranging from a low-voltage hat that stimulates the prefrontal cortex to a glove that picks up sonar, ultraviolet rays, and Wi-Fi information to create a sort of echolocation. One early biohack involved inserting magnets in the fingertips through a small incision made with a knife or razor blade. This magnet allowed the wearer to feel electromagnetic fields like those from microwaves.
At the first-ever international body-modification conference, held in Germany this October, Grindhouse’s founder became the first member of the DIY-science community to have an electronic device implanted in his body. The biosensor took the team about two years to create and the components cost only $100. Compared to formal research efforts, which often take millions of dollars and many years to achieve results, biohacking promises opportunities for rapid development of new technologies. Furthermore, hobbyists often share their blueprints freely with the public in hopes that tinkering may eventually lead to medical advancements.
In a world ruled by patent law and proprietary designs, the open-source work of biohackers presents a controversial alternative to commercial medicine. Can our bodies—or parts of them—be subject to patent and ownership? A 2012 case that went all the way to the Supreme Court involved a company claiming it owned the rights for a patient to check levels of the company’s drug in their body and adjust the dosage as necessary. Ultimately the court denied a patent, but the case raised questions about who controls our bodies.
Grinders’ experiments could generate medical inventions, as well as less positive outcomes. Fingertip magnets and temperature-recording biosensors seem innocuous enough, but what about more drastic modifications? Procedures take place in non-medical settings, often with tools no more sophisticated than rubbing alcohol, a razor blade, and ice to numb the skin.
Those types of risks are largely individual; however, development of some adverse body technology could have broader societal implications. What about a device that allowed you to capture personal information from someone’s phone, or override security features in an airport or government building? Without regulation of any kind, people could potentially augment themselves for nefarious purposes. Conversely, what if someone took control of a device you’d implanted to manipulate your body functions? Becoming biotic beings promises many new abilities, and not all of them may be desirable.