As much as ‘biohacking’ sounds like some weird futuristic term, we’ve actually been biohacking for years and it already affects vast areas of our lives.
- Genetically modified food (e.g. disease and virus resistant crops, pesticide releasing vegetables, delayed ripening fruit for longer shelf life, increased nutrient values)
- Medication, organ transplants, prosthetics, gene therapy (replacing missing or defective genes with new DNA), cloning
- Simple modifications to ourselves – diet, physical/mental exercises, supplements, sleep patterns – anything that we can attempt to take control of and alter for the purpose of upgrading our lifestyle
- Selective breeding (breeding organisms with desired traits/genes whilst not breeding those lacking the trait) can be classed as biohacking and we started doing that over 12,000 years ago!
We’ve biohacked pets, plants, food, medicine and ourselves. So what’s next? Let’s consider one of the sub-genres of biohacking, called grinder biohacking.
Grinder biohackers (or grinders) are people that alter their own bodies by implanting technological/cybernetic devices or introducing chemicals to enhance or change their body’s functionality.
One of my favourite grinder biohackers (and where my interest in this subject started) is Neil Harbisson. Harbisson was born with an extreme form of colour blindness that resulted in him only being able to see in shades of gray. In 2004, Harbisson had his cyborg antenna permanently implanted – a device which allows him to ‘hear’ colours as sound frequencies.
Inside Harbisson’s head, each colour has a different sound. Harbisson will be the most flamboyant person at a funeral – dressed in turquoise, purple and orange he might not look the part but he certainly sounds the part, wearing B minor. Harbisson has also spent time transcribing famous speeches into their equivalent colours and creating sound portraits – a sound file based on the different colour tones of someone’s face.
Another example of a grinder biohacker is Moon Ribas – a cyborg dancer who has implants which allow her to feel earthquakes as they’re occurring. The implant, which was first implanted in her elbow and is now in each foot is an online seismic sensor which has been named the Seismic Sense. The Seismic Sense creates vibrations whenever an earthquake occurs anywhere in the planet and Ribas transposes these vibrations on stage, using either sound or dance.
Sound – Seismic Percussion
Dance – Waiting For Earthquakes
In 2010, Neil Harbisson and Moon Ribas founded the Cyborg Foundation – an international organisation that aims to help humans become cyborgs, defend cyborg rights and promote cyborg art.
Whilst Harbisson and Ribas are probably two of the most well-known and well-documented grinder biohackers, there are many more examples. The community of grinders is small but growing; however biohacking technology is in its infancy and many of the devices used are still crude.
Further examples of grinder biohacks include:
- Microchip implants – Devices which generally store and transmit data over a magnetic field. These can be used to replace the need for electronic access devices, payment cards, work/travel/gym passes etc. According to estimates from the biohacking company Dangerous Things, between 50,000 and 100,000 individuals have microchips implanted.
- The North Sense – A device which vibrates gently when the wearer is facing magnetic north
- Blood Test Implant – A device which monitors substances in the body and transmits this data via bluetooth
- Neuro-surgical implants – Technological/cybernetic devices that are linked to the body’s nervous system
- Biomagnets – Implanted magnets that allow users alternative ways to interact with and sense their environment (such as sensing electromagnetic fields)
- Eyeborg Project – An eyecam and transmitter that gives a literal point-of-view experience
- Circadia Implant – A device which measures body temperature (the idea being that eventually this information will be relayed to smart appliances so your home/office environments react to your internal body temperature)
- Bioluminescence – Implanted LEDs
There are a wide variety of reasons that grinders biohack their bodies – convenience, medical advancements, security, art, just because…
Grinder biohacking has the potential to develop into a huge culture with different sub-genres for different types of upgrades. In a way, it already has – technically something as ‘every day’ as a vaccination could be classified as a ‘grinder biohack’ as it involves introducing chemicals into the body to enhance or change the bodies’ functionality.
However, I think the terminology will remain a relatively niche word, generally associated with individuals performing biological experiments on themselves.
In my opinion, there are a few factors which could hold back the advancement of grinder biohacking:
Grinder biohacking is a self-funded DIY biology which means that the majority of grinders are working from homemade laboratories in their kitchens and garages. Most grinders don’t have access to the most high tech equipment or the funding to create technology specifically for implantation
Grinder biohacks are invasive – if you’re implanting a foreign object into your body, there’s always the risk of infection or rejection and if you’re introducing new chemicals into the body then it can be very difficult to predict what the results might be.
- Digital (Microchips)
We often see reports of companies that have been hacked – confidential digital information being accessed without authorisation. The greater the amount of digital information there is stored in one place, the greater the risk is of the device being hacked or potentially physically removed by force.
- Legality/Ethical Issues
Regulations around self-experimentation are somewhat vague and seemingly non-existent with regards to providing body modification services to other people (as mentioned a little later on). Although I don’t believe that any legal implications would make much difference to most grinders that are considering biohacking themselves, I think the current laws and lack of clarity around them will have (or may already be having) a massive impact on the growth of grinder biohacking as an industry. With regards to medical biohacks, the results from self-experimentation can be rejected if they lack any oversight from an institutional research board which is likely to be a huge obstacle for the majority of grinders
- Medical Development Process
In additional to ethical issues, it takes an average of 12 years and a huge amount of testing, cost-effective analysis and paperwork for one medicine to become available on the market. Some of the work that grinders are doing could have a huge impact on the advancement of science in medicine but it will be a long time before we see any of it available to the general public
In its current state, grinder biohacking has minimal moral implications for the general public. However, microchipping (which probably involves the biggest moral complications) is becoming increasingly popular. Potential moral issues involving microchips/implants could include;
- Employers changing their security systems and insisting that you need a microchip to get into work (some states in America are already proposing bills/have laws in place that would prevent employers and state governments from making microchips mandatory)
- Companies offering incentives/advantages to those with microchips so those without feel pressured to get them
- Not being able to get medical insurance unless you have an implant fitted that monitors and records your physiological data (blood pressure, heart rate, blood glucose and oxygenation levels etc), the results of which could affect your premiums. By way of comparison to a similar (though less invasive) technology, some insurers already offer a discount to customers who agree to wear and report the data from a fitness tracker. The interesting question ethically is ‘when does this perceived bonus discount come to be seen instead as a penalty for NOT wearing a device?’
- Whether parents should be allowed the option to tag children with GPS implants (tracking devices) in case they ever go missing
- What security measures/laws are in place to guarantee that our digital information is only used in ways that we’ve given our consent for
I think we’ll see grinder biohacks for non-medical purposes (such a microchips and ‘biological upgrades’) becoming much more widely available in the relatively near future. Body modification is a service that can already be found in some tattoo parlours and piercing establishments and includes modifications such as tongue splitting, ear reshaping and corneal (eye lens) tattooing. The legality of body modification however, is not at all clear because there are no laws or licenses which regulate body modification (tattooists and piercers are licensed and regulated by their local authorities). Body modifier, Brendan McCarthy, was recently charged with several counts of grievous bodily harm even though his clients consented to the procedures, which were carried out on a licensed premises.
Regardless of the legal implications, we’re already starting to see ‘implant parties’ and work events where employees can get microchips implanted in their hands. In Sweden, 3,000 people now have NFC (Near-Field Communication) implants. These implants are “passive” which means that they hold data that can be read by other nearby devices (within 4cm/1.6inches) but cannot read information themselves. Like an electronic pocket/handbag, these chips are starting to replace the need for keys, office passes, printer tokens, even gym cards and train tickets (conductors scan your hand – and I was just getting comfortable with e-tickets!)
Overview & Speculation
It feels like grinder biohacking should be the next step of human evolution but we don’t seem to be entirely sure where to go with it. Microchips are a novelty but I think there are too many privacy, morality and security issues to see them go mainstream at the moment. In addition to these issues, unless employers/companies decide to finance additional security/access/payment systems for microchip wearers, then you’re very limited on where you can use them.
I could see us progressing to a system eventually where we would all be using similar microchip and scanning/receiver technology but users would have the option of either having the chip implanted or having some method of carrying it externally. However, the security and privacy issues surrounding digital data and transmitters would need to be seriously addressed before this comes anywhere close to being a reality.
On a small scale though, I think microchips could be really useful – I’m all for the idea of being able to transfer £20 to an account that’s linked to my chip and being able to use it at gigs/festivals – places where wallets are more likely to get lost or stolen. I think with microchips (as with a lot of digital data issues) it all comes down to personal values and the risks that you’re willing to take for the sake of convenience.
For the grinders that biohack as a method of creating art, it’s certainly an interesting new form of expression and implanting LED’s ‘so you look like Iron Man’ is briefly entertaining but personally, I think with the level of technology that’s required and the risks associated with it, it makes more sense for grinder biohacking to have more practical applications. I think the greatest implications of the grinder biohacking community are going to be in the fields of medical/healthcare technology – especially with work from people like Kevin Warwick who is experimenting with linking nervous systems to computers which could be beneficial for people with damage to their nervous system or creating prosthetics that people can ‘feel’ (neural prosthetics are currently in development).
Another healthcare related area of grinder biohacking that we haven’t really touched on is gene therapy. We haven’t seen any success stories yet but some grinders have injected themselves with untested gene therapies (In 2017, Tristan Roberts injected himself with an experimental therapy to treat HIV). This is an area that could cause a huge amount of problems (medically and legally) if it’s not regulated carefully and grinders start selling ‘cures’ or ‘genetic upgrades’ online.
It’s still early days but there’s a huge amount of potential in what grinders are doing. What do you think? Would you upgrade? Let me know your thoughts at @GemmaNCrawford