What do the piercing and tattoo community, the borg, and a few nerds in basements and Universities have in common? I know that two out of the three read the Biomimicron, but until I start publishing on Wolf-359 the borg will be missing out.
Bio-modification is the process of artificially changing your body in ways that evolution and genetics have not yet or cannot achieve. The most obvious expression of that in our society is piercing and tattoo art. We don’t naturally grow lumps of pretty metal or have images appear on our skin, but through the course of human history we have developed an art form out of physically changing ourselves.
The Borg take the alternative view though: Modification for practical purpose, supplementing their base physiological traits with technology in order to better trawl the galaxy for other species genetic and technological distinctiveness. Cyborgs utilising feedback cycles to make more cyborgs cyborgier. I can’t think of anything that epitomises the concept of cybernetics more.
The nerds in this case encompass serious funded academic researchers through to people who literally cut themselves open on the kitchen table to tinker with their insides. Biohackers are looking to artificially expand the limits of the human body, and more importantly are demonstrating that human augmentation is something you can do, if you have the will.
Kevin Warwick is a researcher at the University of Reading, and has filled his arm with a series of complex electronic sensors, which he uses to interact with a range of other devices, external to his own body. Kevin was previously involved in the ‘Seven Dwarves’ robot project, and the first part of his ‘Captain Cyborg’ experiments involved using an RFID chip to control objects in his office. Once this pilot test was successful, a more developed suite of electronics was inserted into his arm. The second set has allowed him to directly interface with robotic arms, manipulating them in the real world directly through his own movements. Further, his wife now shares his augmentation, which enables them to share the feelings of what the other is doing, a form a “cybernetic telepathy, or empathy”. The real world science fiction stories don’t end there though.
Steve Mann is a Canadian researcher, who has been wearing reality augmentation devices for decades. In 2012 he went to a McDonald’s in France and was assaulted by staff trying to remove a camera he has surgically attached to his skull. The must be the first instance of a cybernetic hate crime, though probably not the last. Already a bar is refusing to allow entry to Google Glass wearers.
Of course, the most evident practical use for this area of technology is to apply to prosthetics, and Neil Harbisson is exploring just that. Neil was born without the ability to see colour, and as an artist that’s something of a frustration for him. As a result he has had a camera surgically attached to his skull. However, the capacity to interpret colour and stimulate the brain to see false colour is beyond technology at this point. So instead, Neil hears colour. HEARS colour. That’s an ENTIERLY NEW SENSE. Further, he identifies so closely to this new sense and his surgical attachment to the physical camera he has fought to have the device included in his UK passport photo, becoming one of the first ‘legally recognised’ cyborgs.
Human augmentation has some significant backing now with established, professional organisations establishing experiments with experienced academics and surgeons. However, there’s a whole other group of biohackers working in a very different way. Check out the next article for details on grinders and wetware DIY. Fair warning, the next part gets real messy…