Biohacking is defined as a sort of citizen biology; most of the work is done in small, independent labs by people in their spare time, mucking about with things like modifying plant DNA to impact growth or isolating certain genetic material to enhance or improve on it. The basic idea of the movement—improving on biological entities, sort of like upgrading your computer.
The potential of biohacking was unleashed when Professor Kevin Warwick and his colleagues in the Cybernetics Division wanted to know if they could build a computer that would interface with the biological systems of a person. They could.
Dubbed “Project Cyborg,” Warwick implanted the first chip in his arm in 1998. The chip sent out a signal that allowed a computer to track Warwick, opening doors for him and turning on lights and computers as he moved through the department. That experiment was soon followed by another, in which Warwick implanted one chip in his wife and a similar one in himself. The matching chips allowed him to feel what she was doing, and Warwick claimed it was a sort of electronic telepathy.
Biohacking can involve modifying cells on a genetic level, and what cells can be made to do is pretty wild. JuicyPrint is an up-and-coming project that hacks bacteria to respond to light. The bacteria produce cellulose, and with some alterations to its genetic code, that cellulose production can be tuned to respond to the presence—or absence—of light. Shine light on it, and it produces cellulose. Take the light away, and that production stops.
Biohacking doesn’t have to alter DNA or genetic material. It can also combine technology with the biological along the lines of Kevin Warwick’s vision. The people that do it are called “grinders.” One of the first examples of this was the insertion of magnets into a person’s fingertips. Not surprisingly, it’s a rather underground movement, and it’s usually done in places like body modification shops and piercing parlors. The movement is catching on. Take Pittsburgh’s underground Grindhouse Wetwares, run by an electrical engineer and a software developer. The name comes from the idea that there are three different elements in what they’re doing—the computers and the machinery are the hardware, the programs are the software, and the humans? They’re the wetware.
Rich Lee is 34 years old, and he knows that he’s going blind. He lost most of the sight in his right eye overnight, and he’s looking toward a time, very soon, where he’s going to be legally blind. While he still has his sight, though, he’s training himself to use echolocation.
It’s done with sound-transmitting magnets, which Lee has implanted in his ears. While they’re usually used for things like listening to music so no one else can hear it (or is even aware that you’re doing it), Lee is also training himself to interpret the sounds that he hears. The magnets were implanted by a body modification artist in Las Vegas and act as receivers for sound. Listening to music, for example, means that Lee carries a battery pack and an amplifier that relays sound through a coil. The coil transfers the sound to the magnets, and the magnets vibrate, allowing Lee to hear the music.
Humanity+ is an international, nonprofit organization dedicated to mainstreaming what many basement biohackers are trying to do—improve humanity with the help of technology. The organization operates under the mission statement of using technology for ethical reasons, as well as focusing on the expansion of human capabilities to create the next step in human evolution. That includes extending the human life span and cracking through barriers when it comes to things like smart prosthetics, cryonics, and regenerative medicine.
In the case of biohacking, a posthuman is as close to an end goal as you can really get in an ever-changing field. Transhumanism—and the idea of creating the transhuman—is only the middle step. The end goal is posthuman. The posthuman is defined as a creature that’s no longer human by today’s standards. It would be a sort of humanity that is as far from what we are today as our primate cousins are from us. We recognize their thoughts, their feelings, and their family structure, but we still retain our feelings of superiority with the knowledge that most of us no longer have the urge to throw our poop. Posthumans will see us, as we are today, as the poop-flingers.
Biohacking bodies doesn’t always have to mean getting out a scalpel and starting to cut. The “nootropics” movement is one that’s growing quickly, and it’s based around the idea of taking brain-enhancing drugs to make you focus better, think faster, and work more efficiently. Not surprisingly, one of the hubs of nootropics experimentation is in Silicon Valley, and thanks to Reddit, the field of nootropics has turned into a pretty cool crowdsourcing experiment.
In 2006, the FBI established the WMD Directorate, and a part of that is the Biological Countermeasures Unit. Its official job is to prevent acts of bioterrorism, and with biohacking, that’s become increasingly more difficult to oversee. That’s not necessarily because of the biohackers themselves, but because it’s increasingly easy to get access to lab equipment and biological agents. In each of their 56 field offices across the country, there’s at least one person trained in biosecurity. They’re also making it a point to reach out to scientists of all levels not just so they know what’s going on, but so that they can help ensure DIY researchers are doing things safely. In 2013, a group of biohackers were invited to a meeting with the FBI in California, where they were quizzed on just what they were doing and why. The outreach program is a part of the learning curve that’s required to find the balance between encouraging citizen science and making sure the next deadly flu isn’t accidentally released. Unfortunately, one of the most famous cases of suspected bioterrorism is an incredibly sad, tragic story.
Steve Kurtz is a professor of art at SUNY Buffalo. In 2004, he and his wife, Hope, were preparing an art exhibit for the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. Hope Kurtz suddenly passed away due to heart failure, and when her husband called 911, first responders saw the petri dishes that were being prepared for the exhibit. Even though they were harmless, Kurtz was arrested and held in custody, his wife’s body seized from the coroner for further analysis. Bioterrorism groups descended on his home and office, including representatives from the Department of Defense, the Joint Terrorism Task Force, and Homeland Security. His home was condemned as a health risk, and it wasn’t until a week later that the Commissioner of Public Health for New York State finished testing the samples and concluded that there was nothing hazardous about them. It was only then, too, that Kurtz could reclaim his wife’s body. Even Kurtz’s cat was confiscated as a possible carrier of disease, though he found the cat back in his home after he was released.
So what are the cons?
While many biohackers say that organizations like the FBI are overreacting to the potential dangers, others are trying to show just how under-the-skin implants can be used for evil instead of good. US Navy petty officer Seth Wahle picked up a chip that was originally supposed to be used for monitoring cattle. He injected it into his hand, and it’s now undetectable—by humans, at least.
Wahle has demonstrated how the chip can be equipped with a Near Field Communications (NFC) antenna that sends a signal out to any nearby Android phone. It prompts the user to open a file, and once they click on the link, they’re giving full control of their phone to a remote computer. The whole thing is still in its infancy, but the principle is sound. The amount of programming needed to make the link appear legitimate is certainly not extensive. Currently, the remote computer is disconnected when the phone is turned off, but that’s also an easy enough problem to solve by downloading a program on the hijacked phone that starts when it’s turned on.
Done with the help of a security consulting firm, the implants and the programming show just how easy it is to not just implant a device that’s activated simply by coming in contact with its target but that’s completely undetectable by all our military and airport security systems. Wahle and his colleagues suggest that this is just the beginning of the biohacking threat and point out that it can be done with materials anyone can get their hands on.
This article was originally on List verse