Biohacking: a tough grind

Patrick Hull reports on the phenomenon of biohackking and its new place in our world.

It is a question that is very difficult to give an all-encompassing answer to. From a strictly scientific point of view, human beings are classified as being part of the Hominidae family and the only surviving members of the Homo genus – a line that broke from its closest living relation the chimpanzee around five million years ago. One of the key distinctions that made the Homo genus unique was an increase in brain size. It was this gain in cranial capacity that led to many of the characteristics which make humans human – higher reasoning power, language, culture, problem solving abilities – and these characteristics in turn which led to the outward visible signs of humanity: clothing, cooking with fire and the creation of advanced technology and art.

Today, however, a growing community of innovate individuals is attempting to fundamentally alter both human biology and the essence of human nature itself. These people are known as “grinders.” It can be quite difficult to locate the origins of the “Grinder” movement. Sometimes, tongue-in-cheek, Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein is credited as being the founding father. What is for certain is that grinders are everywhere now. Perhaps the best summary of the movement’s aim can be found in the FAQ section of the site “We grinders are specifically interested in applying our knowledge to the practical, and in most cases immediate, modification of our own bodies.”

An example of one of the more popular modifications is the implanting of a rare-earth magnet under the skin of one or more fingers. A neodymium magnet is often used; made from an alloy of neodymium, iron and boron, it is a lot stronger than a typical ferrous magnet like one you would find on a fridge. The implant vibrates when it comes into contact with an electromagnetic field, stimulating nerves in the fingertips, allowing the recipient to sense live wires and spinning hard-drives, or to pick up small magnetic objects with their fingers. Some people who have had the procedure done describe how they can build up pictures of different electromagnetic fields from the nature and intensity of the vibrations, like a sixth sense.

Some other suggestions for implants listed on the forum are “a watch that glows through the skin”, “a Geiger counter” and “something to turn hearing on and off at will”. While some of these sound fanciful or even dangerous, the grinder community is all about pushing boundaries and taking risks with your body. Registered medical practitioners will not carry out finger implantation procedures and so a network of body-modification artists has sprung up, willing to do the job.

“Biohackers exist in a world where once expensive laboratory equipment has now become cheaply available, allowing almost anyone with a few thousand euro to set up their own garage-lab.”

However as they are not licensed to practise medicine, anaesthetic cannot be used; the standard pain relief offered is to numb the finger in ice before an incision is made. There are risks involved with the procedure; the most common finger operated on is the ring finger of the left hand because, in the words of body-modification pioneer Jesse Jarrell, “if you had to lose or seriously damage one of your fingers, which would it be?”

Grinders exist as a subset of the wider community of the biohacker. The ‘hacking’ in this case does not refer to the popular image of a computer hacker, exploiting security weaknesses and stealing protected information, but rather to the hacker ethic, a term coined by journalist Steven Levy, which prizes above all access, freedom of information and an improvement in quality of life.

Biohackers exist in a world where once expensive laboratory equipment has now become cheaply available, allowing almost anyone with a few thousand euro to set up their own garage-lab. An article in the scientific journal Nature published in October 2010 outlined some of the ways of outfitting such a lab, including creating a $10 microscope by reversing the lens on a simple web-cam and using eBay to source the cheapest second-hand lab equipment. The consequence of this is that people with little or no formal scientific training can begin unsupervised experimentation straight away.

It also leads to the introduction of non-traditional ways of thinking into the scientific community. Biohacking is closely associated with the cultural and intellectual movement of transhumanism which believes in the augmentation of the human condition through the introduction of advanced technologies. This is evident in the activities of grinders (adding a sixth sense, enhancing hearing etc.) but transhumanists have much grander visions for humanity’s future including boosting IQ to previously unobtainable levels and the attainment of eternal life. On the latter issue, mind-uploading is often mooted as a potential solution. LiveScience recently reported on the Global Future 2045 International Congress, where the claim was made that “by 2045, humans will achieve digital immortality by uploading their minds to computers.” Martine Rothblatt, the CEO of biotech company ‘United Therapeutics Corp.,’ made the argument that this process is not as far-fetched as it may appear. People are laying the foundations for so called ‘mindfiles’ through social media websites like Facebook.

Nick Bostrom, director of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute and noted transhumanist, also outlined in a TED talk given in May 2008 how transhumanist philosophy aims at changing not only the physical, but also the emotional. Highlighting a study performed on prairie voles, where genetic modification transformed their mating habits from polygamous to monogamous, he suggested human life could be enhanced “if you could actually choose to preserve your romantic attachments to one person over time, so that love would never have to fade if you didn’t want it to. That’s probably not all that difficult, it might just be a simple hormone that could do this.”

With more and more people directly involving themselves in this kind of research, often independently and with the will to experiment radically on their own bodies, and the rapid growth of increasingly smarter technologies, it only seems like a matter of time before some of these issues graduate from being mere thought exercises to obtainable realities. Here we will be brought to the point of confrontation with previously unimagined issues. Would a human mind stored on a computer chip have access to the same protections and human rights as a mind encased in its natural biology? Is it ethical to allow people to modify their own DNA or genetic material if it became possible to develop high levels of intelligence or super strength? And if humans could live forever, what are the implications for population and the world’s resources and how would we address the danger of a stagnating planet, culturally and intellectually?

These are issues that need to be faced with an oft-neglected trait of humanity: the ability to negotiate and reach consensus. A coherent plan for the future of bioengineering, including the DIY branch, is badly needed in this age of unfettered development. In the words of Bostrom, “we need, slowly and carefully, with ethical wisdom and constraint, to develop the means that enable us to go out in this larger space and explore it and find the great values that might hide there.”