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We're in an austere seminar room, tucked away from the hustle and bustle of Dusseldorf's Cyborg Fair. Jowan Österlund has spread his tools over the table. A sense of nervousness takes hold of the room.
"Everyone has to be hygienically clean and sterile," said Österlund, who normally runs a tattoo studio in Sweden. He puts on gloves and a face mask. Then Österlund disinfects Shawn Sarver's skin and shaves his arm around the area where he intends to insert the implant. He draws a line to mark the incision, then leads Sarver to another table and unfolds a surgical cloth.
While Sarver calmly waits for the procedure to begin, Österlund walks back and forth between the tables preparing his scalpels. He neatly lines up the instruments on the surgical cloth next to Sarver's hand. Österlund sits down next to Sarver. It's go time.
We're here for the premiere of the newest implant created by the Pittsburgh-based biohacking collective Grindhouse Wetware.
The light-up implant, the Northstar V1, is about the size of a two euro coin, making it considerably smaller than its predecessor, the Circadia 1.0 computer chip that Grindhouse Wetware cofounder Tim Cannon had implanted two years ago.
"This is about passion and citizen science."
Österlund makes an incision with a small scalpel and lifts Sarver's skin to make room for the implant, which is about as thick as a thumb. Sarver winces as blood flows from the opening while Österlund pushes the implant into his arm. Then Österlund stitches up the wound and tapes over the implant. It's all over in 15 minutes.
Cannon first told us about the Northstar a few months ago. At the time, he stressed that it was so well-engineered and safe that it was ready to be implanted into multiple test patients.
"Our first prototype, the Circadia, was so crazy that I could only use myself as a guinea pig in good conscience," he said. "But we produced a miniseries of the Northstar from the start to let additional team members and other people we know enjoy the chips."
Simultaneous to the operation in Dusseldorf last Saturday, three other implantations of the chip took place in Pittsburgh.
"The stitches are extremely uncomfortable, they keep getting caught up in my clothing," says Sarver after the procedure. He wants to show me what the chip can do. He places a magnet on the implant and it lights up. The magnet activates five red LEDs in the implant, and Sarver's forearm shines light. Ten seconds later the lights go out.
"We think that it will light up 10,000 times before the batteries are empty and can't be recharged," Sarver says. "So we set everything to low power mode. After lighting up for ten seconds, the implants automatically go into sleep mode."
The implant is supposed to emulate bioluminescence, the kind of light produced by animals like fireflies and some jellyfish. The LEDs shine really strongly under the skin too, something that Grindhouse Wetware previously tested on pig skin.
But why would anyone need an implant that makes their skin light up?
"You know, people from the biohacking community wanted it. They contacted us because they wanted to light up their tattoos. That's how we generate our implants, we let the community inspire us," Sarver explains. He works on Grindhouse Wetware's development team; before that he was in the US Air Force. "For this first version of the implant, we concentrated on making it as simple as possible. It's smaller, and hence it's really simple. We plan to keep the implant in for a year."
Now it's Cannon's turn. He keeps his eyes shut most of the time and never looks at what's going on. Initially the implant doesn't fit in his arm. Österlund has to widen the incision, so the round implant can slide under the skin. A few stitches and Cannon is ready to light up.
With the procedures complete, Österlund relaxes and the tension in the room subsides. He's happy that everything went well.
"We're still a minority with what we're doing here. You have to be 100 percent clean when you work. If you make even a little mistake, you endanger the entire scene," he says.
Cannon still has a scar on his left arm from the last operation.
"Everyone is excited about how small the Northstar V1 is, because the last implant I had was the size of a pack of cigarettes. But it's still way too big. We want to get it much smaller," Cannon says. "We want to transform science fiction into reality. To do so, it's imperative that we have a decade-long study. The people at Grindhouse Wetware aren't career academics. This is about passion and citizen science."
While wearable technology has made fitness bracelets and Apple Watches more and more part of our everyday lives, these biohackers are employing a DIY ethos when working on somewhat more specific designs in their small studio in Pittsburgh with the hope of advancing their vision of fusing man and machine.
The biohackers aren't holding out hope for any support from doctors or the medical research community. Because implantations like the ones that took place on this November weekend in Dusseldorf don't adhere to the Hippocratic Oath or any other modern medical ethics, it's hard to get traditional researchers on board.
Instead, these procedures are conducted by experienced piercers and body hackers like Österlund. Originally the Northstar implantations were supposed to take place in Essen at BMX.net, Europe's biggest body modification conference. But the chip casings, which are made of a stable mixture of materials, weren't back from the test lab by the beginning of September. The implant casing is one of the most sensitive components for the biohackers because direct contact between the chip and the body has to be avoided at any cost.
Grindhouse Wetware was even able to raise some capital from an investor last year and will now focus primarily on the body mod scene. There's a small market for DIY cyborg chips in the scene, which could enable the Pittsburgh collective to slowly increase their own production.
"Hopefully we'll have a lot of guinea pigs in the body modification community soon," Cannon told Motherboard last summer in Berlin.
The implant should hit the market next year. Several dozen, possibly even 100, Northstar chips will be sold through tattoo studios worldwide to inclined body modifiers.
"There are people who write me four times a day saying they want a chip in their body too after I post something from the studio on Facebook," Cannon says.
A future version of the Northstar, based on the chips implanted today, will deliver biometric data in addition to lighting up, Cannon said. That means it will take blood pressure or blood sugar levels, for example. As a transhumanist, Cannon's doesn't want to leave his fate up to his consciousness and cognition.
"I can't really rely on my brain," he says. "But I can rely on the data my body produces. Today our creations may still seem like niche products, but once we've succeeded at developing a cheap heart implant that automatically warns you before a heart attack, everyone will want our gadgets."
Grindhouse Wetware has already finished developing the second version in the Northstar chip series. Cannon wants to modify the hand into a wireless motion controller with the implant. Like a Wii controller, the Northstar chip will recognize a person's movement and will be able to command a smartphone via Bluetooth—kind of like Siri, but with gesture control that you can individually program.
"You move your hand, the implant recognizes this and sends on the data to your smartphone. You've already saved a command on your smartphone for this movement, like opening the car door for example. Then your smartphone communicates with your car and the door opens," says Cannon while outlining the functions of the Northstar 2.0, which he's developing specifically for the Internet of Things.
For Cannon and his Grinder colleagues, it's not just about developing pragmatic gadgets for everyday life. Even a beginner biohack like a magnet in your finger is still a source of new cyborg knowledge.
"Why shouldn't I expand my senses if I can?" Cannon says. "I can sense magnetic fields with a magnet I have in my finger. Now I know that electricity in Europe feels different than electricity in America. But I wouldn't have known that if I didn't have this implant."
This article was translated from Motherboard Germany.