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Are Cyborgs Real?

Frieda Klotz visits the world's first cyborg fair.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Michael Bareev-Rudy never expected to have his finger implanted with a magnet. But in November 2015, the 18-year-old decided to embed a 3 mm x 1 mm magnet in his index finger at an event held in Dusseldorf, Germany. A crowd gathered to watch as a man in a smart grey suit and green surgical mask carefully sliced open the sandy-haired 18-year-old’s finger.

“After this he cuts with a scalpel on the side of my finger—yes, he cuts my finger open,” Michael recalled moments later, looking decidedly pale as he smiled nervously before the flashing cameras. After sterilizing the table and numbing Michael’s finger with a local anesthetic, “he uses—I don’t really know how to describe this tool— it was like a pen, sharp on the end with a little spoon on the top. He carved a tunnel through my finger to get the magnet inside and then he tried to put it there.” Because the magnet refused to slip easily into the young man’s finger, they had to try six times before succeeding.

Afterwards Michael’s finger was still numb, meaning that the real pain would come later. A dissolvable string remained inside, which he would need to pull out within ten days. Michael had paid €100 for the magnet and implantation. “What can I say?” he laughed, gazing at his newly transformed digit. “I was sitting there thinking for a moment, ‘Why am I doing this?’ But on the other hand, I thought it’s a great opportunity, and I think it’s kind of cool to modify your own body—and yes, of course it hurts, but this is a small price for what I get.”

Michael, who studies electrotechnics in Cologne, looks like a pretty normal guy, sporting a black T-shirt with a red alien on the front. And that’s the point: once the realm of piercers and body modifiers, tech implantation is fast becoming the territory of software developers, students and web entrepreneurs. Magnets allow users to sense magnetic or electromagnetic fields; RFID (radio-frequency identification) or NFC (near field communication, a related technology) chips, encased in biocompatible glass, can be programmed to communicate with Android phones and other compatible devices, allowing users to unlock their phones, open doors, turn lights on and off or even buy a beer with a literal wave of the hand. The connected devices of the internet of things are a gold mine for experimentation. Analysts predict that there will be 25 billion connected objects by 2020, and this swift rise gives implant technologies a wealth of new applicability and appeal. People with such implants we call cyborgs. And this event in Dusseldorf was dubbed ‘Science + Fiction: The world’s first Cyborg-fair’.

‘Cyborg’ is a loaded and attention-grabbing term, bearing associations from sci-fi novels and Hollywood, and whether it’s an entirely accurate label for these activities is up for debate. Some commentators broaden the definition to include anyone who uses artificial devices, such as computer screens or iPhones. Others prefer to narrow it. As early as 2003, in an article entitled ‘Cyborg morals, cyborg values, cyborg ethics’, Kevin Warwick, the professor who pioneered the cyborg movement in the academic sphere, described ‘cyborgs’ as being only those entities formed by a “human, machine brain/nervous system coupling”—essentially “a human whose nervous system is linked to a computer”.

Warwick himself created such a coupling with medical assistance in 2002, embedding a device in his arm which connected to a part of his nervous system so that it could send signals bidirectionally, communicating with his brain and also the internet. In a series of experiments, Warwick was able to successfully control an electric wheelchair and an artificial hand. In a later experiment, his wife, who was also hooked up with electrodes embedded in the nerves of her arm, was able to communicate with Warwick: when she closed her hand, his brain received a pulse of current, in what he describes as “a very basic telegraphic form of communication between our nervous systems”. Right now most implants do not communicate with the human body, but sit under the skin and interact with external technologies like phones and computers. That, though, may change.

Fans of cyborg subculture have sprung up as far apart as China, Malaysia and the UK, says Jowan Österlund, a muscular Swedish piercer with a small triangular beard. “I have basically always been really into the cyberpunk science-fiction exploring, so when we first got our hands on a biocompatible glass chip [ie a passive material that doesn’t interact with the body to cause infection] that you could implant, it took us a week to wait for it before we put it in and had it actually working,” he says. “Since then we’ve been developing and developing and developing. In the last six months we’ve done maybe 200 implants on people.” Österlund and his colleague Hannes Sjöblad (a co-founder of the Stockholm-based group BioNyfiken) travel the world promoting implant devices, although interest is highest, he says, in Europe right now.

Implanting an RFID chip is relatively simple: a tiny glass object about the size of a grain of rice is injected into the soft part of the hand between the thumb and forefinger—it’s as easy as drawing blood. The magnet implant process that Michael undertook at the cyborg fair is more invasive and not entirely painless. Later in the day, one enthusiast almost fainted and had to lie on the floor, feet up in the air, after his procedure.

Tim Cannon is a 36-year-old American who on Twitter dubs himself a “Grinder, Biohacker, Programmer, Lunatic, Fanatic, Boyfriend, Father, Technophile”. His YouTube videos are flooded with comments describing him simultaneously as a “nutcase” and a “pioneer” (to his credit, Cannon answers many of the critiques). A self-educated high-school dropout, he favours a uniform of black T-shirts, jeans and a black cap, and a wiry black beard juts from the bottom of his chin. Cannon is a celebrity in the world of cyborgism and speaks about it at conferences, including more corporate events like the World Business Dialogue in Germany. He is a co-founder and the Chief Technical Officer of Grindhouse Wetware, an open-source biotech company based in his hometown of Pittsburgh that pushes the boundaries of implantation, often with Cannon himself as the main experimentee.

“The peripheral nervous system is a place that we’re going to be going in probably about a year,” Cannon told the audience at Dusseldorf. “Although in about six months… we’re actually going to be hooking my peripheral nervous system up to the nervous system of a cockroach and we’re going to allow me to control a cockroach… Then we’re actually going to flip the switch the other way and we’re going to let the cockroach control me.” Positioning himself within the tradition of citizen science as a ‘grinder’—someone who hacks into the body—Cannon is willing to take rather substantial risks. “We are the people who want to see cyborgs truly as they’re depicted in science fiction,” he says. “We want to see a fully integrated world and we don’t necessarily want to wait for the technology to be something that’s pleasant and fun for everybody to play with. We say, progress at all costs. Let’s just do it and really go for it.”

There is a performative, even theatrical strain in all this that Cannon and his colleagues seem to relish. The high point of the Dusseldorf event was the launch of the Northstar V1, recently developed by Grindhouse Wetware. It’s a red LED placed under the skin just above the wrist, which lights up for 10 seconds when activated (this short time-span is intended to maximise battery life). The device is a proof of concept; later versions may record biometric data or be responsive to gestures. A previous iteration, Circadia, was much larger, about the size of a bar of soap; initially, after getting the thing implanted in his arm, Cannon complained of panic attacks, and when the battery stopped working, he had it removed.

In a procedure that made implanting magnets look like child’s play, Österlund embedded the watch-sized Northstar into the forearms of Cannon and his friend Shawn Sarver. For 15 minutes Österlund sawed away at each of the two volunteers with a gentleness that only enhanced the suggestion of the pain he was inflicting. Afterwards, Cannon walked past the group of journalists, the watch-shaped flower of red gleaming beneath his skin. It hurt, he admitted. “I’m going out to take a cigarette, and I’ll take questions then.”

Accounts, with photographs, were later posted across the internet, and this emphasis on display is crucial. Viewers can see for themselves not just how the devices work, but also that, painful though it may be, implantation is more or less bearable. The same techniques were deployed by the Greek physician Galen. When he cut the laryngeal nerve of a squealing pig before an audience of Romans, he demonstrated that the pig continued struggling but the squealing suddenly stopped. Galen practiced in an era when standardized medical qualifications did not exist, and every doctor was only as good as his ability to persuade the public of his skill.

Cyborgian implantation activities take place outside the clinic or hospital, as a sort of parallel to standardized medical experimentation. There is a keen desire to win over public support, which might explain the mob of journalists at the Dusseldorf event, who almost outnumbered the public. Österlund is clear: “We’re not going to work on sick people. That’s up to the medical industry,” he explains. “But we’re upgrading healthy people so that they can predict health issues. That’s definitely going to be the future.”

The concept of enhancement is what distinguishes cyborgism from other medical implantation, or from the ordinary fact of having to wear corrective glasses. This is not about therapeutics or repair, but about augmenting human senses beyond the norm. Despite the distinct gap between cyborg implants and clinical medicine, Cannon does think that they could fruitfully interact. “I think that a lot of time you have people in academia who are squeamish,” he accepts. “But as a result of medicine being the only people allowed to experiment, that has bound our hands and stymied research for a really long time. Well, we’re talking about being able to choose to participate in these experiments as perfectly healthy people and really investigate what’s possible. It allows us to move with an alacrity that science and medicine cannot in its current state.”

And the reality is that these endeavors do not go unnoticed by academics. Kevin Warwick—whose work and that of his students took place under the careful auspices of university ethics boards—says that he did learn from what happened beyond the institution. “I respect what they’re doing very much. It’s their call, but I think a lot of them have contributed greatly to the field and have contributed significantly to what we’ve done. We’ve been able to benefit from the experiences they’ve reported on,” he says. “There’s no point going down an alley of work where someone else has already been and reported that it didn’t work very well.”

Legally, cyborgism falls into a nebulous category, neither regulated nor forbidden by law. In the UK, because the devices have no therapeutic value, doctors who carry out implant procedures potentially open themselves to legal risks, according to one GP, Dr Zoe Norris, who says most doctors would view the procedures as being purely cosmetic and therefore landing closer to the desks of their plastic surgeon colleagues. A spokeswoman for the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons said that the organization isn’t aware of a plastic surgeon implanting any such device. Nurses and technicians, she said, would be sufficiently well-equipped to carry out these fairly simple procedures, with only larger devices possibly requiring a surgeon. It therefore falls to the hands of tattoo and body modification artists to conduct the procedures or, in one case I heard of, a veterinarian (the grey-suited man who implanted Michael’s magnet at the fair was a tattoo artist). The UK’s House of Commons has produced a document that sets out the legislation, health guidance, consumer law and training relating to tattooing and body piercing—without mentioning chip implants or magnets in particular. The guidelines note that “contrary to popular belief, there is no formal minimum qualification for tattooists and body piercers”.

But implantees speak with respect of the experts they have worked with. Ian Harrison, an implantee who also wrote a thesis on magnetic implants, refers to “a master body modification artist called Mr M McCarthy… more widely known by his artist name, Dr Evil,” who placed magnets in the middle and index fingers of Harrison’s left hand.

Nothing can stop a person from having implantation done or even doing it to themselves, although the community urges against this. There is also the not insignificant matter of painkillers. In the UK, while anaesthetic creams can be purchased over the counter, more powerful local anaesthesia is available by prescription only. Dangerous Things, a biotech company that sells body-hacking tools on the web, offers among its products a pain management kit that includes the anesthetic lidocaine, an antiseptic applicator, a hypodermic needle, a syringe and non-latex gloves. Not all these products are approved for sale in all regions.

There’s nothing experimental about putting an RFID chip in your hand, says Hannes Sjöblad. Alongside his role at BioNyfiken, he is also Chief Disruption Officer at Epicenter, a member of the Google for Entrepreneurs Tech Hub Network. Epicenter made headlines in 2015 when it was reported that those who worked there could open its doors using RFID chips in their hands.

Sjöblad points out that we have conducted this process on animals for years—it’s an RFID chip that enables electronic cat flaps to recognize kitty, for instance. Its safety is proven. He envisions benignly mundane uses for RFID implants, such as personalizing an electronic toothbrush so that one’s girlfriend might not accidentally take it. There is medical potential too: already in Japan toilets exist that assess one’s blood pressure, body mass index (BMI) values and glucose levels based on urine analysis. Should more than one person use the same toilet, long-term monitoring gets complicated, but if everyone had RFID chips in their hands, it would allow the toilet to recognize them each time they pressed the flush button and keep more accurate records.

Sjöblad speaks with schoolboy excitement, sporting a suit and tie like the other European participants at the Dusseldorf event (the US cyborgs favoured black T-shirts and jeans). He studied natural sciences and business, and worked as a management consultant and in the finance industry before becoming what he describes as a “full-time biohacker.” He feels cyborgism has received unfair press. For decades, science-fiction movies have played out narratives about out-of-control robots that try to destroy humans, he says.

“Unfortunately, Hollywood has told all these stories about The Matrix and Minority Report. So people have these visions that this is evil. But in the real world, it’s not.” Cannon calls for greater scientific literacy to facilitate a better dialogue. “Where I come from, people are still questioning climate change,” he says. “People are still questioning whether Jesus is going to come and save us from the sun. It’s a big problem, because if you do not have a scientifically literate public, you cannot have a true conversation about how to progress forward in the world.” 

You might say: so what? An iPhone can do the same as an implant chip. With a smartwatch, for instance, you can answer your phone remotely, and—perhaps the crucial thing—you can take it off if you no longer feel like wearing it.

Warwick argues that implants have a philosophical impact on the wearer and feel different from ordinary tools—that while technically the difference between using external devices and having them implanted in one’s body is slight, psychologically it is real and significant. “You can ask anybody you like: anybody who has an implant, whether it’s an artificial hip or cochlea or whatever it happens to be, regards that technology as part of themselves. It’s part of them, it’s in their body, whereas if it’s outside it’s not,” he says. “When you’ve got an implant and the building, or whatever it is, is doing something for you, it’s doing it for you and not because you happen to have a card that you’re waving.”

For many cyborgs, it is about convenience: the idea that you can live a seamless life, waving the palm of your hand to enter your house rather than searching for your keys, or buying a cup of coffee with a gesture instead of having to get change from your purse. Once internal, these tools can never be lost and are relatively frictionless (though not immune to bugs). “Computers are currently clunky external devices that sit on tables or in our pockets,” Hannes Sjöblad explains over email. “What would it be like if they could be as intuitive and as integral to our systems to use as our kidneys are? This is completely possible, as we can witness in the ongoing miniaturization of technology.”

Compare the experience of having a pair of working kidneys with having to undergo dialysis” (italics Sjöblad’s). His curiously biological metaphor inverts the standard vision of the body. Technology is a natural, even desirable component of it rather than a foreign object with a temporarily therapeutic role. These ventures mark a new frontier in Sjöblad’s view, “a most exciting journey of discovery”.

For Jack Halberstam, a professor of American studies, ethnicity and gender at the University of Southern California, who spoke at a 2015 conference in Berlin about cyborgs and transhumanism, these sorts of implanted devices represent “a fetishization around embedding technology that has a kind of Star Trek quality to it and doesn’t really exceed the utility of a prosthetic”. Halberstam contends there is little really new about implanting technologies in the arm or hand, and says more interesting work is taking place in the area of tissue engineering. “People already have things implanted in their bodies. People have rods in their knees, people have artificial ligaments, people have pacemakers, people have chips and things in their brains, people are so surgically patched up that we’re a Frankenstein race. And if you haven’t had things implanted you’re implanting it yourself, taking pills and medications and uppers and downers.” He cites the feminist and social commentator Donna Haraway, who in an influential essay entitled ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ back in 1985 made the broader case that as technologies infiltrate and become entwined with our daily lives, “we are all… fabricated hybrids of machine and organism. In short, we are cyborgs.”

One influence on cyborg subculture is transhumanism, a movement that believes technological advances will allow us to transcend ourselves, enhancing our capabilities and possibly extending life. Not all cyborgs would necessarily embrace this idea. But Cannon describes himself as a practical transhumanist (the modifier is important)—keen to push the boundaries of human experience with the goal of extending human life indefinitely as humans become entirely non-biological. Cyborgs are a transitional phase in this picture.

Cannon’s view of human enhancement is upbeat, part of a mission to upgrade the human brain and body. Ultimately, he proposes, this would make us more ethical by removing animal impulses, such as a lust for food or sex, from our needs, and create a more sustainable, easily shared world. Fewer battles would occur over food and other resources (because we would not need them) and inequalities would evaporate. Their more advanced brains would make cyborgs more empathetic towards others, not less.

This has its detractors. Halberstam worries that, like other scientific and medical advances that are available only to a wealthy few, cyborgism spotlights the world’s inequalities and raises questions about resource allocation. “It’s like, ‘Ooh, how do we enhance human embodiment, make it stronger, make it better, extend longevity, give it more durability?’ and so on,” he says, “without asking other questions about overpopulation: Whose body gets extended? Who gets this prosthetic help? Who doesn’t? Who then is consigned to the flesh and blood rather than the cyborg? How do all of these questions still fall into a eugenic framework, where some people deserve to have their life extended and their bodies extended, and other people don’t?”

Warwick talks of a future in which cyborgs—with chips in their minds giving them superior data-processing capabilities, for example—will view ordinary human beings as lower beings, just as we now look on chimpanzees or cows. “Humans could become a subspecies,” he suggests in a YouTube video. “Cyborgs—part human and partly enhanced humans—will clearly be intellectually superior in many, many ways.” Cannon too observes: “I think there would probably some issues in terms of people who choose not to get enhanced having to cope with their irrelevance. I think that that would be very difficult.”

There is also plenty to argue with in the premise that our sophisticated human bodies are inadequate, poorly designed entities liable to trick and deceive us, their owners, as Cannon contends. “A lot of times our bodies, our brains, are lying to us,” he told the Dusseldorf audience. Our brains are not informing us that we’re stressed out. So we go home from a stressful day at work, we pick a fight with our significant other, we bite their head off and we have no idea where any of this came from, because your brain doesn’t always give you the full story. “But data doesn’t lie.”

If data is the gold of the 21st century, it’s hard to see how corporations will be kept from getting their hands on it. The more personal the data we create, particularly if devices within our bodies send health information to phones and the internet, the more valuable it will be to advertisers and other businesses. Patrick Kramer, who works at IBM by day and in his spare time runs Digiwell, a company that supplies connected and wearable devices to Europe, says insurance companies could give favorable rates to customers who exercise or abstain from alcohol, using uniquely intimate findings from intelligent toilets programmed to send alerts about bad behavior (there are rumors that some insurers in Japan may already be doing this). “Data is lucrative,” says Kramer. With an estimated 4–6 million CCTV cameras in the UK, we are already well-surveilled. “To think that data is safe is just an illusion, if you ask me.”

And that’s what disturbs me. If I’m to permanently insert a foreign body within my own, it needs to bring something more than novelty or convenience; the argument that I could get more quickly onto a subway isn’t really enough. It must do something useful, such as tracking and logging my biological data and sending it to my doctor. And I need to trust the data is secure and out of the reach of the government, hackers and corporations—not an extension of their already significant powers to track my every daily move.

Much of the optimism about the future of biohacking and cyborgism is underpinned by ideals. “We are not paid by big companies, we are not sponsored by the government,” Sjöblad points out. “We really want to be an independent force.” The projects are open source, and the tools work on the Android operating system. At Dusseldorf, Sjöblad urged the audience to reclaim their data. “We as citizens and users, our physical persons should reclaim our digital persons, so that advertisers and other companies don’t know all these things about us.”

I ask Sjöblad what would bring the devices to the mainstream. He has two concepts for me: relevance and usability. “I think riding public transportation with the use of a chip implant will be such a feature, making this technology attractive to large groups of people,” he suggests. He adds, though, that the biggest commercial opportunity posed is in healthcare because the technologies may enable people to measure and monitor their bodily data. “A generation from now, people will wonder how we even survived without such a technology,” he tells me via email.

Less expensive medical technologies are enabling advances similar to those that occurred during the computer revolution in the 1970s, Sjöblad says. He places implanted technologies on the same trajectory as mobile phones. During the 1980s they existed but were huge and clunky, used only by business people or those doing work in remote places. “If you asked someone in 1985, ‘Do you need a mobile phone?’, they would say, ‘No, I have a phone at home, and there are phone booths everywhere.’ But over time, as technology became cheaper and more useful, it was something for everyone.”

Still, I hesitate. At the cyborg fair I had plenty of opportunities to get an RFID chip implanted in my hand. But although I believe it would be relatively painless, I was not once tempted. I’m not fully convinced of the device’s usefulness in my day-to-day life. Advances in cyborg technology are driven by members of the community itself, many of whom, as programmers, enjoy customizing their devices. For non-techies like me, the risks, small though they may be, don’t (yet) seem to validate the rewards.

This article first appeared on Mosaic and is republished here under a Creative Commons licence.