Meet the 'cyborgs' who hack their own bodies

By Abigail Abrams

Neil Harbisson has an antenna implanted in his skull. It converts colours into sound waves. Photo / Washington Post
Neil Harbisson has an antenna implanted in his skull. It converts colours into sound waves. Photo / Washington Post

Moon Ribas is a self-proclaimed cyborg, but not the kind that superhero fans will recognise from comic books. The 30-year-old Spanish choreographer has a small magnet implanted in her arm that allows her to feel earthquakes as they happen anywhere in the world.

Her implant receives data from a mobile app that collects seismic activity from geological monitors around the globe. When an earthquake happens, the implant vibrates inside her arm in real time. This "seismic sense," as she calls it, has changed the way Ribas relates to nature and inspires her dancing.

"I wanted to have a deeper perception of movement, and I knew I could do that with technology," Ribas said. The goal of her implant is to bring her mind closer to the natural movement of the planet. "Now I feel like I have two heartbeats: my own heartbeat and the Earth's heartbeat."

Ribas's longtime creative partner Neil Harbisson has a different device - an antenna, implanted in his skull, that converts colours into sound waves that he can hear.

The two consider themselves "cyborg artists" and hope to create new senses that enhance the way they experience the world around them.

Ribas and Harbisson are two prominent members of a small but growing movement often known as body hacking. While a wide variety of activities fit within this niche, body hackers are united by the goal of experimenting with technology to improve the performance of their bodies.

In February, Ribas and Harbisson attended an event called BodyHacking Con in Austin, Texas, where hundreds of people gathered to share ideas and learn about ways to "hack" the human body. It was not only the first such conference, it was also the first organised attempt to determine what would be considered body hacking.

As the scope of what counts as body hacking is being defined, those at the forefront seem to be the hackers with the most extreme or futuristic projects rather than the people trying to address practical health-care needs.


ABOUT BODY HACKING

1 When arranging the conference, organisers included a wide variety of topics, including coffee meant to improve brain energy, mindfulness and robotic prosthetic limbs
2 There were also health hackers, who seek to optimise their bodies through tweaks to their diet
3 grinders open their bodies and implant devices such as microchips, headphones, sensors and antennas
4 Other people use nootropic drugs, which are meant to enhance cognition.


Attendees sought out body hacking for vastly different reasons, which highlighted the discussion of what should be included in the body hacking community.

Ribas and Harbisson said they had a fair amount in common with grinders, but the cyborg artists hope to improve their minds while grinders find do-it-yourself ways to expand people's physical abilities. Others see body hacking as a health-care tool, giving them a distinctly different intention.

Health-focused body hackers might use skin- or clothing-mounted sensors to collect physiological data, for example, or record how much they exercise or the timing of their menstrual cycles.

Grinders, on the other hand, believe that technology can improve the body rather than just fix things that break.

Amal Graafstra is a pioneer in this community. His Seattle-based start-up Dangerous Things creates, sells and installs implantable radio-frequency ID chips. Graafstra had a doctor install an RFID chip - about the size of a grain of rice - in his hand in 2005 and still uses it to unlock the door to his house.

Since 2013, the company says, it has sold more than 10,000 chips, as well as do-it-yourself kits that help people implant the technology under their skin. (Graafstra's company recommends that those buying his implants get a medical professional, body piercer or tattoo artist to do the procedure.) RFID technology is already used in key cards that grant access to buildings, in passports and in toll-collection devices such as E-ZPasses.

I wanted to have a deeper perception of movement, and I knew I could do that with technology
Moon Ribas

"What we're talking about is an individual, fundamental experience of being augmented," Graafstra said. Of medical devices, he added, "Their goal is to restore; our goal is to augment, to go further than."

Another leader in this space is the Pittsburgh-based biohacking collective Grindhouse Wetware. The group's Northstar implant has received significant attention in recent months, particularly after the release of a video of the implantation process. Northstar Version 1 is an aesthetic device consisting of a microchip with five red LED lights that shine through skin; further versions are in development.

"We're really in a grey area here in terms of what industry this is because it isn't body modification . . . but it also isn't medicine, because medicine has a purpose, which is taking people who are arbitrarily considered unhealthy or disabled and bringing them up to an equally arbitrary definition of healthy or able-bodied," said Grindhouse Wetware's Ryan O'Shea.

The divide between hackers looking to augment their abilities and those focused on health goes beyond differences in subject matter. As in most of the technology world, the majority of BodyHacking Con attendees and speakers were men, the event manager, Trevor Goodman, said. This imbalance means that the types of technology being developed are less likely to be geared towards women, said Jenny Davis, a James Madison University sociology professor who edits the blog Cyborgology.

"When these fields are dominated by white men," Davis said, "it means they don't consider women, people of colour or that intersection very well. It takes somebody . . . to step up and say, 'Hey, I haven't been considered.' "

Valerie Aurora, a programmer based in San Francisco, echoed this idea, saying decisions about which projects get funding are often based on what men find "weird" or interesting. "A frustrating thing about tech culture in general is the focus on the thing that's intellectually flashy," said Aurora, who is a consultant advising tech companies on diversity and inclusion.

In contrast, Aurora said, "the fact that people feel deeply uncomfortable with a lot of things about women's bodies" can make it more difficult to get attention for ideas that are focused on addressing women's needs.

Ribas, the choreographer with the "seismic sense," said she is typically one of the only women at tech conferences. One woman who made a presentation at BodyHacking Con, Rita Paradiso of the Italian company Smartex, said she thinks the lack of women in the world of body hacking can skew how projects are designed and developed.

"If there would be more women in charge, most of the projects would be different; I'm sure of this," Paradiso said. "We have a different approach to priorities. I think the woman's approach is more practical."

Paradiso's company makes electronic textiles, or clothing that has sensors embedded to collect physiological data such as EKG signals, respiratory patterns and body movements.

The data can pick up patterns of stress to be analysed to help determine if a measurement suggests a larger problem. Even with these practical applications, Paradiso said that she wanted her products to look fashionable so people would actually wear them - a detail she noted, that men might not prioritise.

The idea of technology being affected by the gender of its creator is well-established.

A survey last year found that 92 per cent of software developers are male, and men vastly outnumber women in programming jobs at top tech companies, which means that even technology aimed at women is often created by men.

Apple - where just 22 per cent of technical roles are filled by women - was widely criticised when it rolled out its HealthKit app without a way to track menstruation, and large smartphones are too big for many women's hands.

Fusion, the Univision-owned news site, recently published a piece by tech journalist Rose Eveleth about how her intrauterine device is not considered true technology in the body hacker community despite its powerful ability to keep her from getting pregnant. She posited that this feeling was largely based on the attitude that "technology is a thing that men do."

Eveleth's idea seems to be particularly prevalent in areas of the body hacking world where more women exist, such as the Quantified Self community. QS is a group of people interested in tracking health-related information about their lives via period-tracking apps or Fitbits or by simply keeping journals of exercise and diet.

I think a lot of people view technology as neutral, and it's not
Maggie Delano

Maggie Delano, a PhD candidate in electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, got interested in self-tracking after she interned at Fitbit in 2012. She started the Quantified Self Boston Women's Meetup to create a space for women to discuss intimate details of how self-tracking affected their health. One of the fundamental aspects of the group, Delano said, was redefining what self-tracking meant.

"So many people were just keeping track of things in their head, or keeping track of things on a piece of paper or in journals, and they thought that that didn't 'count' because it wasn't empirical or scientific in the same way," she said.

Delano said she is intrigued by much of the experimentation going on in the body hacker community, but she wants people "to question the fundamental technologies themselves and the assumptions that go into them". When certain groups or interests are excluded, even by accident, that changes the way technology evolves, Delano said.

"I think a lot of people view technology as neutral, and it's not," she said. "It's how the technology is applied, but even just in the technology itself, it can be inherently biased."

- Washington Post

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