Bodyhacking: 5 people making themselves more than human

Cyborgs are already among us

Google has submitted a patent for sensors implanted into human eyes. Naturally we’re speculating about future projects like Google Glass but without the glass. It sounds like an exciting, and perhaps scary, sci-fi future but cyborgs already live among us. Obviously we already use technology to help the human body in the form of artificial limbs and pacemakers but there are people out there modifying their body to make them “more than human”. Some of these people want to be superhuman, others do it for art, and some want to fix aspects of themselves that they see as broken. Here are 5 bodyhackers we find fascinating.

1. The first person to have a chip implanted in their body

Kevin Warwick is a pioneer of bodyhacking and approaches the field as an academic. Nobody knows how many people have chips implanted but estimates are around 10,000 worldwide. Warwick is thought to be the first, having chips implanted in 1998 as part of his Project Cyborg. The first chips allowed Warwick to do what most hobbyist bodyhackers do today: open doors and activate gadgets.

Warwick’s main research project was the integration of technology and the nervous system. He wanted his brain to be able to send and receive information from chips. A number of successful experiments included controlling a robotic arm over the internet and even communicating “telepathically” with his wife, who also had a chip implanted.

2. The 15-year-old who can connect to Android

Image: SWNS Group via The Telegraph

Byron Wake is thought to be the youngest cyborg. Without telling his parents, the Brit ordered a chip and tools from the US and implanted it himself. The chip can be read by his Android smartphone allowing him to control it and customise what it can do. He can do things like interact with devices connected to the phone, pair with his speakers, open doors, and share his contact details.

The kit that Wake uses is commercially available so he’s far from being the only person using it. What we find interesting about Wake’s story is that a teenager can so easily do this just by having access to the internet and some pocket money. He’s a sign that bodyhacking could go mainstream if the demand emerges.

3. The man with an antenna implanted into his skull

Image: Dan Wilton, distributed under a CC BY-2.0 license

Neil Harbisson was born totally colourblind. For those of us with colour vision, it would be like making everything grayscale. He decided to give himself a way to experience colour by having an antenna implanted into his skull. The antenna, which he calls the Eyeborg, doesn’t allow him to see colours; instead he hears them.

The camera on the end of the antenna translates wavelengths of light into different sounds. He added Bluetooth functionality to the antenna so now he can perceive colours sent from anywhere in the world. In some ways this makes him superhuman as he can detect colours that are beyond the wavelengths that humans can see.

In 2010, Harbisson co-founded the Cyborg Foundation along with the next person in our list…

4. The woman who can feel every earthquake in the world

Moon Ribas has an interesting business card: avant-garde artist and cyborg activist. At college she studied experimental dance and after graduating incorporated technology into her performances. Her early experiments included wearing glasses that gave her kaleidoscopic vision for 3 months and earrings that detected movements around her.

In 2013, Ribas had a chip implanted in her elbow that pulls seismological data from the internet. The chip vibrates at different intensities corresponding to the strength of the earthquakes. Like her other projects, she uses this “cyborg” ability to create unique art and dance performances. In Waiting for Earthquakes, she dances to earthquakes and remains still when there are none detected. Her dance is choreographed to reflect the strength of the earthquakes she feels.

5. The first victim of a “cybernetic hate crime”

Image: Steve Mann, distributed under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license

Steve Mann is a pioneering researcher involved in technologies as far ranging as HDR imaging and wearable computers. He has been described as a cyborg for decades and has experienced hate and discrimination many times.

One of Mann’s creations is the digital eye glass, a device similar to Google Glass but connected directly to the skull. In 2012, at a McDonalds in Paris, Mann was physically assaulted by customers and employees for wearing the technology. He had a doctor’s note to explain why he had the device but they tried to rip it off him anyway. The tech cannot be removed from his skull without special tools.

The device doesn’t actually take pictures or record video like Google Glass can. Instead, it uses the images for augmented reality purposes. However, the impact from being attacked meant that some images that were about to be processed for augmented reality were stored and not overwritten as they usually would be. Ironically this meant he had saved images of the attackers.

The Cyborg Foundation is concerned not only with encouraging people to take up bodyhacking, but to “protect the rights of cyborgs”. It sounds like a sci-fi plot but already there are people being abused for having technology incorporated into their bodies. This is just one of many ethical and moral aspects of bodyhacking that need to be addressed.

Bodyhacking is currently unregulated. Should there be a limit to how far people can go? Are these people at risk of being hacked by outsiders? Will this become the norm some day? These are fascinating questions and we’ll probably be able to answer some of them in the next decade or two.

Main image: Flickr/Pascal