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The Basics of Biohacking

Hand with planned insertion point for Verichip...
Hand with planned insertion point for
Verichip device (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
By Carl Weiss

Is your body letting you down?  How much time out of your daily schedule do you relinquish for exercise?  Are you tired of moving heaven and earth to support that bag of chemicals and water we call our bodies?  Do you wish you could enhance your senses or even add new capabilities to your existing body?  While this used to be the realm of science fiction only a few years ago, current and rapidly emerging technologies allow you to repair, replace or enhance that old bag of bones here and now.  In this week's Working the Web to Win blog, I will take you into the lab to explore bio-tech that is being used to repair, replace or enhance human beings.  I will also introduce you to a new cult of devotees who are ready, willing and able to undergo painful medical procedures to take the cyborg plunge and bio-hack their way to a better life. 

Courtesy of
Now I know what you’re thinking. Only a few people are actually augmenting their bodies with these cybernetic implants and the like. Well, I disagree. The reality is humans have been augmenting our bodies for thousands of years. The way I see it - human augmentation falls into three categories. The first level wearables or attachable items. A partial list of items would include; clothing, shoes, hearing aids, eyeglasses, false teeth, binoculars, bicycles, watches, activity trackers, and environmental suits (scuba, space, exosuits etc.). The second level of augmentation includes items like implanted teeth, eye lens, joint implants, and regular prosthetics etc. … The last level includes such items as limb replacements with smart prosthetics, smart mechanical organs, biologically enhanced organs and more sophisticated, smart versions of level one and two augmentations like strength and speed enhancing exosuits.
The Pioneering of Body Modification

Courtesy of Steve Haworth
The name Steve Haworth isn’t exactly a household word.  At least not yet.  Unlike the other two Steve’s of Apple Computer fame, Steve Haworth has not yet achieved the level of rock star geek status that Jobs and Woz did.  But he could well be on his way.  That’s because he is one of the pioneers of body modification who routinely performs surgery on people looking to add enhancements to their body.  Since he is not a board certified surgeon, this means that these procedures are done without the aid of anesthetic, unless you count ice. 

Although Haworth’s family has long been associated with medical device engineering, Steve cut his teeth in the 90’s by dabbling with body piercing, 3D tattoos and something called the Metal Mohawk.  (You can’t make this stuff up folks.)  Fast forward fifteen years and Steve’s modifications are now more sci-fi than technopunk.  One of the enhancements that Steve routinely performs is the surgical implantation of rare earth magnets.  Now I know what you’re thinking, “Why would anybody pay to get turned into a refrigerator magnet?” 

Well, it’s a little more complicated than that.  While Steve and other bio-hacking enthusiasts have posted videos which show them moving metal objects with the magnetic field generated by their enhanced digits, apparently there is another side effect of the procedure.  Apparently this enhancement also provides the recipient with a virtual Spidey sense that allows them to perceive magnetic fields.  For $350 you too can experience the pulse of electric motors, junction boxes, high tension wires and any device that imparts a magnetic field. 

Cyborg DIY, Really?

Of course, there are more ways to enhance your senses than by simply implanting magnets.  Adventurous people have implanted everything from RFID chips that allows them to control nearby devices, turn on and off the lights, not to mention open their garage door without the use of a clicker.  There is another popular procedure called Southpaw that involves the implantation of a compass that in essence turns you into a homing pigeon by letting you sense kinesthetically when you are facing north.  (I should probably get one of these for my mother, since she is terrible when it comes to following directions.) 

You can also have computer chips implanted that sense your biometric data, turning you into the human equivalent of a FitBit.  Others have had led lights implanted beneath their skin, turning them into a cross between a tattoo and a casino marquis.  While most of the devices are tiny, I have seen at least one adventurous lad named Ted Cannon, who had a device the size of a smartphone implanted beneath the skin of his forearm.  You can view his video interview on his blog which also show the implanted device in his arm     (Just make sure you haven’t eaten recently.)

More telling is that Ted’s company, Grindhouse Wetware, builds devices that are designed to integrate with the human body. 

Geordi LaForge of Star Trek Fame Would be Proud,

Courtesy of
Aside from “DIYborgs”, there are also apparently “eyeborgs”, a la “Geordi LaForge” of Star Trek fame.  This was the character in the Next Generation series played by LeVar Burton.  Having been born blind, “Geordi” sported a pair of high tech spectacles that not only permitted him to see, he could see light spectra that no human eye could, including infrared, ultraviolet and radio waves.  While today’s version of Star Trek tech isn’t quite as extraordinary as that of “Geordi LaForge”, it’s getting there.  Scientists have already reverse-engineered the retina and created an app that not only reproduces its operation, but it allows a camera to be connected through the optic nerve.  In principle, this enhancement could be used to augment the tiny fraction of the light spectrum we currently are able to see.  Holy x-ray vision, Batman!  (Another group in England is conducting experiments with an implantable lens that can not only provide perfect 20/20 vision to all you who wear glasses, but they claim the lens even provides a zoom capability.)

Not so Happy - Happy Meal With DIY?

On the other side of the coin, there are people who are so unconcerned with appearances that they will risk ridicule, or even worse, to possess enhanced abilities.  One of these acolytes is Steve Mann, who has become something of a biohacking legend since he was forcibly ejected from a McDonald’s restaurant in Paris France when he walked into the establishment sporting what amounts to a DIY version of Google Glass.  The chief difference was that Steve Mann’s glasses were bolted to his head.  Referred to as the “Father of Wearable Computing,” he has been making a techno fashion statement for years. 

While much of the biohacking scene has been taking place in basements and back alleys, that doesn’t mean that the phenomenon hasn’t garnered academic attention.  One notable is Captain Cyborg, otherwise known as Kevin Warwick, professor of cybernetics at Coventry University.  Ina 2013 interview in Forbes Magazine that took place in Warwick’s office, which writer Emma Byrne described as “a cross between a toyshop and Tony Stark’s basement,” the professor was asked which project he was most proud.

Courtesy of
“No question, it would have to be when I hooked up with my wife.”  He’s not talking about dating: In 2002, he and his wife Irena installed matching implants that recorded signals from their central nervous systems.  They were able to correctly identify each other’s nerve signals around 98% of the time.

“Sam Morse, the inventor of Morse code, talked about brain-to-brain communication.  He sorted out the distance, but he still needed that physical interface, the finger on the key.  Over the years we’ve made loads of improvements in bandwidth and distance, but we still haven’t got past the interface problem.”

Like Steve Haworth’s rare earth magnets, the brain-to-brain interface Dr. Warwick shared with his wife was more akin to a sixth sense than mere communication.  (How many men reading this would love to never be asked again what they are thinking by their wives?)  More significantly, it’s this extrasensory perception that has Warwick and other researchers interested in exploring the possibilities yet further.  When asked about the possibilities as well as the perils in experimenting with the human body, Warwick replied,

“When Alexander Graham Bell made the first phone call, at first people couldn’t see the point in what he was doing.  What’s the point of the first phone?  But it didn’t stop there.  I think what I’m doing is like that.  Maybe when I’ve been dead ten years people will go, ‘Oh! That’s what that was for.’  What you do in terms of prizes and degrees and all that – that’s absolutely nothing.  It’s when you do something no one’s done before.  When you push it, that’s what’s exciting.”

While that may hold true, advances in augmentation from science and medicine like joint replacement and heart transplantation moved us forward, these new augmentations may very well become commonplace in the near future. Having seen and become aware of this trend, I can’t help thinking that somewhere the ghost of Mary Shelley is spinning in her grave saying - “It’s Alive!”

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In this article I have explored how cybernetic augmentation is no longer only in the realm of science fiction – but instead, are part of modern day fact. I have provided many specific examples of cybernetic augmentation that is taking place right now in the world. Humans have been augmenting our capabilities for thousands of years. What started out as humans adding furs to improve our survival rate has continue today with cybernetic augmentation - including new implants and smart limb replacements - a la the Borg of Star Trek Fame.
If you’d like to read similar articles about cybernetics, check out: “A Borg in Every Boardroom - Cyber Augmentation for All" and "Birth of the Bionic Man" or just type your Keywords into the search box at the top left of this blog.

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Carl Weiss is president of Working the Web to Win, an award-winning digital marketing agency based in Jacksonville, Florida.  You can listen to Carl live every Tuesday at 4 p.m. Eastern on BlogTalkRadio

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  1. Absolutely fantastic and intriguing! Put me down for a pair of the 20/20 eye lenses with magnification please, and then I can upgrade to the auto-recording of everything I see - like a permanent Go-Pro for life! The possibilities truly are endless.

  2. Seriously, what once was science fiction is now a reality. Amazing.... great article!