Tech

Man Meets Machine: What It Means to Be A Biohacker

Hector Adalid

Amal Graafstra hasn’t used a key to open his front door in 15 years. He doesn’t need one to start his car, his motorcycle, or get into his locked office. He is, assuredly, the only person who can sign into his computer and phone, or access accounts that require personal authentication. He’s even built a smart gun that only he has the ability to shoot.

To activate these superpowers, all Graafstra needs to do is wave his hand.

What new-age sorcery is this? Biohacking. Graafstra is a pioneer in a diverse and growing community of people who look for ways to merge technology with the body to solve problems, enhance abilities, and even add senses. In Graafstra’s case, a thumbnail-sized chip in his hand stores and reads data to act as a kind of digital set of keys. Other implants can create new sensations, like getting a magnet embedded in your fingertip. Some devices are fantastical, like an implant that creates the ability to feel seismic activity anywhere on the planet. And some just look f*cking cool.

If you think having a foreign object inserted into your body to interact with technology sounds bananas, we don’t blame you. But get past the initial what-the-hell? reaction -- start to think about every time you’ve locked yourself out of your house, or, far worse, had your digital identity stolen -- and biohacking can start to sound downright sensible.

Lars Norgaard

DEFINE “BIOHACKER”

Maybe you thought you’d heard of biohacking before. That guy who does the coffee with the butter in it, right? Or the fitness fanatics who tinker with their physiology to “upgrade” performance?

Biohacking is both, and far more. The hacking umbrella is huge, and stretches to include people and companies looking to edit human DNA, merge computers with the brain, use new technologically fueled senses to create art, or morph to an entirely new species. The culture is gaining so much momentum that, as of 2019, biohacking has its own international marketing analysis to pinpoint financial growth.

You’ll hear a lot of terms thrown around to define this community. “Grinders” typically refers to anyone using technological hacks with practical applications, like getting a radio-frequency identification (RFID) chip that helps unlock a phone or safeguard email. “Cyborg” is anyone who has married some kind of technology with his body. “Transhuman” usually means someone who’s adding tech to help him feel superhuman. And then there’s “transpecies”  -- how Neil Harbisson views himself.

“The definition of human no longer defines me,” says Harbisson, who famously became the first person to be recognized by a government as a cyborg after he had an antenna implanted in his head in 2004. The antenna transmits audible vibrations, allowing him to hear and feel color -- including infrared and ultraviolet, traits that snakes, frogs, and fish have, too. (Yes, this deserves far more explanation, but this is a primer, friends; go deep on Harbisson, and trans-species in general, here.)

Harbisson sets his ilk apart from biohackers because transpecies aren’t trying to “hack” or solve a problem. “We are inspired by nature, and by adding senses and organs that are not traditionally human,” he says. “In that, we feel that we become trans-species.”

Mark Kaplan

BUT WHAT CAN YOU ACTUALLY DO WITH THIS TECH?

Practically speaking? The most real-world biohacking applications are to protect digital privacy and allow secure payment -- no low bar considering that identity theft is one of the fastest-growing crimes in the country.

“You’re represented by the cards in your wallet, keys on your keychain, passwords for all your accounts,” says Graafstra, who is the founder of Dangerous Things and Vivokey Technologies, Seattle-based companies that sell “custom gadgetry” to help you go bionic. “Pretty much all of those things are insecure; you hear of data breaches all the time.” Even biometric safeguards like facial recognition and fingerprint authentication aren’t truly secure, he argues. “I can easily grab your fingerprints off of a high-res Facebook photo and reproduce them with a 3D printer and open your phone.” (Um, terrifying.)

Have one of Graafstra’s implants placed into your hand, however, and now you can require that every bank account, email, and app you use must be authenticated by your implant. And the only way that gets stolen is if someone steals you.

While implants like Graafstra’s can process secure bitcoin transactions right now, we’re not at the point where you can wave your hand at a 7-Eleven chip reader to pay for gas. “MasterCard, Visa, and banks in general just have issues with implants -- they find them icky,” he says. “The technology is done, it's just about getting approvals, and we're on the cusp of that.”

The goal to Graafstra and grinders like him is to help people acquire these “frictionless, managementless” devices so they’re ready for that inevitable next step. To date, Graafstra has sold more than 100,000 devices and installed some 5,500 implants himself. (“Installation” can be as simple as using a needle to shoot a fly-sized chip under the skin. For larger devices, however, it’s akin to minor hand surgery.)

For the creative soul, biohacking technology can go far beyond utilitarian tasks. Ask Moon Ribas, a Spanish cyborg activist and performance artist who has implants in the tops of her feet that communicate with online seismographs; whenever there’s new data -- earthquakes! -- Ribas feels the vibrations. The stronger the quakes, the stronger the feelings. She uses this seismic sense to fuel a recurring performance piece called “Waiting for Earthquakes,” where she interprets the activity she feels through dance.

“For me, [being a cyborg] has always had an artistic base -- to explore movement in the deepest way,“ she says. “I knew that, by uniting myself with technology, I could do that.”

Her durational piece can last minutes or hours. “Earth is the choreographer,” Ribas says. “I'm just updating the data.”

HOW’S THIS BEING PERCEIVED?

As you might imagine, with great power comes great misconceptions. Biohackers, and particularly those who have highly visible body modifications, often experience recoil from the mainstream public.

“People think that we're uneducated, or that we're just randomly cutting open our bodies and sticking things in without any thought of the consequences,” says Justin Worst, head of business operations for Pittsburg-based implant supplier Grindhouse Wetware. “But most people spend a lot of time thinking about the procedures that they want to attempt, and we plan before we do anything to make sure we're being as safe as possible.”
 
Biohackers encounter other common fears: That implants are also tracking devices (untrue; they’re passive devices with no power outlet) or that they’re experimental and expensive (sometimes untrue; Harbisson notes that many hacks use reliable chips that cost mere cents). Beyond ick-factors and misunderstandings, a lot of folks just don’t get why anyone needs to be doing this stuff.
 
“People think it's not necessary to add new senses, and that by merging with technology you become closer to machines and robots,” Harbisson says. “But we believe that we actually can become closer to nature and to other species with technology. All of our knowledge comes through our senses. The more senses we have, the more chances we have to gain knowledge. This is one of the essential things of being alive -- to discover the planet, to discover where we are.”

Amal Graafstra

SOUNDS LIKE THIS BIOHACKING THING HAS SOME LEGS

If opening car doors and bank accounts with your hand and feeling seismic activity within your feet sounds bold, hold on to your hats: The future -- and one not-so-distant -- could be far wilder.

Imagine an implant that could internally track all the biometrics that your Apple Watch or Fitbit does (Justin Worst’s team is working on it now). Or a device that makes it possible to feel seismic activity on the moon (Ribas, naturally, is developing this technology; she says achieving it would make her a “sense-tronaut”). Harbisson, meanwhile, is focused on a circular implant for his head that would create optical illusions for the passage of time; he could make situations feel shorter or longer -- even like he’s lived hundreds of years.

As for Amal Graafstra, his Holy Hacking Grail is one that is awesome and unsettling not because it is niche, but because you know the masses will want it: Creating a synthetic synapse that wirelessly merges computers with the brain. This would allow a kind of pay-for-play neural net, giving you the ability to instantly gain more brain power whenever you wanted.

“It would completely, fundamentally change humanity. It just... you will become a god, essentially,” he says. “Everyone will be a god, and it'll be amazing.”

To make it a reality, we only need someone to design that teeny tiny synthetic synapse. (Elon Musk is on the case.) “That could literally be two or three years away,” Graafstra says. “We don't know.”

If all of this sounds fantastical, like some Netflix sci-fi series, well, think back a decade or two ago. Could you ever have imagined you’d have the ability to communicate, to purchase, to work, to be entertained, all through a device in the palm of your hand?

The future’s only difference may be that those abilities are actually in the palm of your hand. And the biohacking community -- those seemingly bizarre people with the implants in their hands, antennas in their heads, on a quest to push the limits of human capabilities -- will be who you have to thank.