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“Sorry about the mess,” says Steve Haworth, as we walk down the stairs to the surgical theater in his basement. My friend Ted is visibly pale and sweating – for good reason. He’s about to get a sixth sense the hard way: by way of a scalpel, a needle and thread, and a tiny, gold-plated rare-earth magnet. Haworth is a body modification expert with a particular interest in what’s called “biohacking” – the practice of merging consumer technology and the human body to produce uniquely functional body modifications.

Haworth pioneered the procedure that Ted is about to undergo – the implantation of a rare earth magnet into the flesh of his ring finger. Haworth has several already installed in his own body, which he shows us as he moves his hand through the air next to his running can opener. Sure enough, you can feel the magnet twitch and jump in response to the electromagnetic field generated by the motor. It’s startling, and shows off exactly what you’re getting for your three hundred and fifty dollars: the ability to feel the shape and strength of electromagnetic fields in the world around you. Our host describes someone who had the procedure done, and was startled, when walking through New York City, to discover the powerful electromagnetic field produced by an electrical junction under the sidewalk.

It’s not just magnets, either. You can get a compass implant (called “SouthPaw“) that moves to alert you when you’re facing north. You can implant magnets in your ears and use a magnetic necklace to listen to music through your built-in speakers. Less ambitiously, you can get an RFID implant that unlocks your door, your phone, and your computer. Amal Graafstra, an implant enthusiast, uses his to open his safe, among other things:

We’re the first to put near field communication (NFC) compliant implants on the market like this.  […] There are 880 bytes of space, relative to 97 in the previous generation, so before you could keep a name and phone number, but now it has far greater capacity.

For the squeamish, Motorola is developing an RFID pill that does the same thing. Not all of the experiments go well: Haworth related the story of a friend of his who had a neodymium magnet implanted in his wrist to hold his wristwatch on. Unfortunately, the pressure of the two magnets forced all of the blood out of his skin, and nearly killed the tissue. If this all sounds weird and crazy to you, remember: these are just the normal people.

On the crazy, transhumanist side of the equation, you’ve got people like Steve Mann and Kevin Warwick. Steve Mann is an inventor who works with augmented reality, and has been called “the father of wearable computing.” He’s been wearing various passthrough augmented reality devices for years. One of his later headsets looked like this:

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His latest model isn’t just fancy Google Glass – it’s physically attached to his skull by several screws. It entirely captures the visual input to one eye, runs it through a computer to attach additional information, and then displays it on a small near-eye screen. Mann was the victim of what is arguably the first hate crime against a cyborg back in 2012, when McDonalds’ employees attacked him while he was on vacation in France.

Warwick, another biohacking pioneer, is a professor of cybernetics at Coventry University. As part of “Project Cyborg,” a medical and technological initiative launched and directed by Warwick, Warwick has undergone several surgical procedures to implant electronic devices into his body, including a 100-electrode sensor grid into the nerves in his elbow that feed his hand and arm. By capturing electrical signals flowing down his arm, Warwick was able to control a robotic wheelchair, and remote-control a robotic hand over the Internet. Later, his wife had a similar electrode grid implanted, allowing them to communicate with direct nerve impulses via the Internet. Warwick wants to push the forefront of human experience, and that means pushing the limits of the human form. In an interview with Forbes, he described what direct nerve-to-nerve communication with his wife feels like,

“It didn’t feel like pain or heat or seeing. It was like an entirely new sense. And that was part of the experiment: to see if the brain can adapt and take on new types of input and learn to understand. The brain is very clever like that—I just want to see how far we can push it.”

These “DIYBorgs” are, in many ways, just following in the footsteps of the experimental medicine community, which has been trying to address disabilities with cybernetic implants for years. Most forms of total deafness are curable these days, via the use of a cochlear implant — a chip implanted in the nerves of the ear that uses several electrodes to translate sounds from a worn microphone into electrical signals to the brain. The audio quality is not as good as in a normal ear, but electrode densities are improving, and modern cochlear implants are good enough to understand speech without lip reading in a quiet room, and even to appreciate music (though audiophiles will probably complain about the bitrate). This is what it sounds like to listen to speech using existing cochlear implants:

Even more ambitiously, scientists have reverse-engineered the retina, and created a computer program that reproduces its operation. This allows you  to connect cameras to the optic nerve as though they were living eyes, and have the cameras speak to the brain on its own terms, providing a much more natural approximation of normal vision than has otherwise be possible. In principle, these cameras could eventually exceed human vision – implementing optical zoom, active night vision, and the ability to see the non-visible portions of the spectrum.

Back in the basement surgical studio, Haworth discusses his sterilization procedure while he gathers gloves, disinfectant, and surgical tools, and lines them up on a shiny metal tray. To his credit, he’s meticulous about disinfecting things, and changes gloves several times during the procedure.  He asks me not to record the process on my phone, to prevent people from aping the procedure based on what they watch on the Internet and hurting themselves.

The actual implantation is quick but not painless. The soft zipper sound a scalpel makes moving through flesh is not something I’m likely to forget, and squeezing the implant through the incision takes a surprising amount of force — but then it’s over, and my Ted is giggling and picking up the needle with the end of his still-bleeding finger.  He in the midst what I’m choosing to call the transhuman high — the aftermath of pain and expense, when it really sinks in that you can do something that no unmodified human can do.

Ted is a child of a unique period in history — a time when, all at once, the unstoppable freight train of technological progress is blowing past the old milestones of science fiction. Private companies are exploring space. Virtual reality is about to hit the mainstream Why Virtual Reality Technology Will Blow Your Mind in 5 Years Why Virtual Reality Technology Will Blow Your Mind in 5 Years The future of virtual reality includes head, eye and expression tracking, simulated touch, and much more. These amazing technologies will be available to you in 5 years or less. Read More .  Robot cars are on the horizon Here's How We'll Get to a World Filled With Driverless Cars Here's How We'll Get to a World Filled With Driverless Cars Driving is a tedious, dangerous, and demanding task. Could it one day be automated by Google's driverless car technology? Read More .  3D printers are becoming household items 5 Amazing 3D Printing Applications You Have to See to Believe 5 Amazing 3D Printing Applications You Have to See to Believe What would you do with a 3D printer? If the people developing these applications have anything to say about it, you might be surprised. Read More HAL 9000 won on Jeopardy Here's Why Scientists Think You Should be Worried about Artificial Intelligence Here's Why Scientists Think You Should be Worried about Artificial Intelligence Do you think artificial intelligence is dangerous? Does AI may pose a serious risk to the human race. These are some reasons why you may want to be concerned. Read More .

The future is here – and, while it’s often rough around the edges, anyone with two cents worth of vision to rub together can see that near future is going to be tumultuous and wonderful and strange beyond measure. That’s the philosophy that drives biohacking – fulfilling the promises of science fiction a little at a time, as the future slowly becomes more evenly distributed. Right now, it’s expensive, painful, and sketchy enough that it’s pretty much reserved for enthusiasts, DIYers and other people who are not entirely sane. The tech is getting better, though, and sooner or later it’s going to move into the mainstream in the same way that tattoos and piercings have.  Your grandmother may someday be showing off the implants that remind her where she is and monitor her health to call for help if something goes wrong. Your aunt might have robotic eyes that can see things that human eyes never could.  When you’re old, maybe you’ll opt for enhanced legs and a porcine heart Researchers Create a Pig Heart That Can Survive in Primates Researchers Create a Pig Heart That Can Survive in Primates Last week, researchers announced that they'd implanted the heart of a transgenic pig into a baboon, and kept it alive for a year. Here's why you should care. Read More . At this point in time, it’s a question of ‘when’, and not ‘if.’

I caught up with Ted recently and asked him, a few months on, how he felt about his implant. Here’s what he said:

A few months later I still find myself thinking “Holy shit, I can sense magnetism. I’m like magneto-lite. This is so cool!” I went into it well researched, and I’ve only had one experience that I haven’t read about elsewhere, and that’s probably only because I study geology. [The experience] happened while I was doing research in Tanzania. I was able to tell (roughly) the Fe content of the soil by running my hand through it and seeing how much Fe stuck to my finger. With this, I was able to tell that there was a lot more Fe in the stream bed sediment than the windblown sediment up on the plains. […]

The closest analog I have to it is sense of smell. It’s always there, available for use, but you’re not always conscious of it. If I’m running my hand along a guard rail, I have to pay attention to know whether or not it’s magnetic, similar to how you have to stop and smell flowers to see if they smell or not.

Are these implants for everyone? No. That said, they do offer a tantalizing glimpse at the future, and may be appealing to some of you. So what do you think? Are you interested in getting an implant? Looking forward to technology that isn’t ready yet? Think the whole thing is creepy? Let us know in the comments!

Image credits: Superhero Via Shutterstock, “Mann Glass Eye“, via WikiMedia

  1. Patricia C
    September 27, 2014 at 7:00 am

    Biohacking sounds pretty cool...and dangerous. I wouldnt mind having certain types of mods, to fix my eye, for example. Just as long as it is organic and can go undetected through airport sensors.

    • Leopardmask
      October 14, 2014 at 10:12 pm

      Maybe if this kind of thing becomes common they'll rethink airport sensors to accomodate.

      Or not.

    • Thomas
      February 19, 2015 at 1:59 pm

      But organic will be harder to do than mechanic. Also the implanted tec we use now is so small it goes undetected through airports. I'm sure when it goes mainstream airpots will adapt but right now they don't care at all.

  2. Theo E
    September 27, 2014 at 1:19 am

    I work with people with multiple disabilities, including aphagia, quadriplegia, deafness and blindness. This technology offers hope to people who are currently unable to communicate or independently complete activities of daily life. I can't wait for the future!

    • Dmitry T
      September 30, 2014 at 6:40 pm

      Sadly people looking for thrills/advantage etc will be ones getting that technology long before it become _universally_ available as cure.
      More frightening is idea that these 'mods will become mandatory for many jobs.
      And finally - magnets in fingertips and similar 'offline' 'mods are nothing - actually they make more sense than cosmetic piercing/scarring. But augmented reality and other things that _process_ information and/or can be controlled/manipulated/programmed or are sending data...future is looking dark indeed.

  3. CityguyUSA
    September 26, 2014 at 7:43 pm

    Sorry I wasn't very clear. In the news in recent days there has been talk about cars being hacked and forced to crash or act in a way that wouldn't be desirable for the "riders".

    We constantly see hackers breaking into various corporate databases to steal information to use for nefarious purposes.

    So what will keep these "hackers" from perhaps causing heart attacks and other invasions through the implanted technology that one wouldn't want.

    • Leopardmask
      October 14, 2014 at 10:11 pm

      Mostly these things seem pretty self-contained. I don't know much about hacking stuff, but don't you need a network, or at least something that can connect to the device you're trying to hack? I don't think that would be the case. Anyway, most of this stuff would be fairly harmless even if it does go wrong. We aren't getting cyberhearts or anything to control thoughts any time soon; just magnets, enhanced vision, and replacing lost limbs. Just my thoughts - so far it seems fairly safe, at least with regard to hackers.

  4. CityguyUSA
    September 26, 2014 at 6:20 pm

    And what exactly keeps hackers from hacking you? Potentially having you commit crimes on their behalf, etc?

    • François
      September 26, 2014 at 7:28 pm

      Social engineering is often referred to as hacking the human.

  5. Joel Cole
    September 26, 2014 at 3:24 pm

    This is downright disgusting. Aren't facial piercings and some of the other body mods enough to please these people?

  6. isse
    September 26, 2014 at 3:15 pm

    I'm curious to know what happens when such people attempt to get through airport security.

    • Thomas
      February 19, 2015 at 1:53 pm

      Nothing. The implanted magnets are too small to trigger the detector.

  7. Mark
    September 26, 2014 at 3:11 pm

    That should have been, "The Age of Spiritual Machines".

  8. Mark
    September 26, 2014 at 3:08 pm

    Sounds like something Ray Kurzweil imagined in 1990 when he wrote "The Age of Intelligent Machines".

  9. Pabriel G
    September 25, 2014 at 9:46 pm

    I think this whole thing is very innovating in terms of the evolution of the human race as a whole. However, there are people out there who are smart enough to avoid accepting this ( ie for ethical reasons). In general, I think this whole Biohacking phenomenon may accelerate the technology and humanity to the point that they are joined as "one" (i.e. a singularity). Some may say that this might as well become a sci-fi nightmare turned into reality (compared to movies like The Terminator trilogy, Star Trek, or possibly even Star Wars), wit good reason. I for one, do not want to criticize to the extreme the benefits and cons of innovative tech for the future. Overall a very good and informative article for the technophile.

    • John Worley
      September 27, 2014 at 9:54 am

      I am 65 years old and love all things to do with hi tech I am still learning, after all these years. I would love to be able to use this new tech, it would help me get about see much better and do away with these hearing aids, I am falling apart a good canditate for replacement.

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