Humanity just made a large, DIY step towards a time when everyone can upgrade themselves towards being a cyborg. Of all places, it happened somewhere in the post-industrial tristesse of the German town of Essen.
It's there that I met up with biohacker Tim Cannon, and followed along as he got what is likely the first-ever computer chip implant that can record and transmit his biometrical data. Combined in a sealed box with a battery that can be wirelessly charged, it's not a small package. And as we saw, Cannon had it implanted directly under his skin by a fellow biohacking enthusiast, not a doctor, and without anesthesia.
Called the Circadia 1.0, the implant can record data from Cannon's body and transfer it to any Android-powered mobile device. Unlike wearable computers and biometric-recording devices like Fitbit, the subcutaneous device is open-source, and allows the user full control over how data is collected and used.
The Circadia device before being implanted in Cannon's arm.
Because a regular surgeon wouldn't be allowed to implant a device unapproved by medical authorities, Tim relied on the expertise of body modification enthusiasts, who had all met in Essen for the BMXnet conference. The procedure itself was so delicate that not only were we not allowed to film the thing, but we were not even able to share where exactly it took place.
One of the pioneers in body modification is Steve Haworth, who conducted the surgery. Despite a family background in medical device engineering, Haworth turned to the more experimental side of altering the human body in the early 90s, first with piercing and tattoo studios in Phoenix and later by developing modifications like 3D tattoos and the metal mohawk. Haworth used his own tools for the surgery, and as he's not a board-certified surgeon, was not able to use anesthetics. He did assure me that "there are pretty amazing things we can do with ice." It sounded convincing at the time.
Circadia 1.0 was built by Tim and colleagues from his company, Grindhouse Wetware. This team of hackers and artists—self-taught and trained in the traditional sense—has become well-known for converting garages and basements in Pittsburgh into their laboratory for developing the man-machine future.
In its first version, the chip can record Cannon's body temperature and transfer it in real time via Bluetooth. Three LEDs built into the package serve as status lights, and can be controlled to light up the tattoo in Cannon's forearm.
It's a humble beginning, but updates are on the way. Grindehouse Wetware have already completed the development of a pulse monitoring device, and he's also been able to shrink the size of the Circadia system, which will make the procedure quite a bit more user-friendly. He's also working to automate communication between the chip and the internet of things.
"I think that our environment should listen more accurately und more intuitively to what's happening in our body," Cannon explained. "So if, for example, I've had a stressful day, the Circadia will communicate that to my house and will prepare a nice relaxing atmosphere for when I get home: dim the lights, let in a hot bath."
So Cannon is essentially trying to integrate the body into the growing quantified and connected universe. But unlike the life-loggers and step-counter-users, biohackers take the concept of self-improvement to the next level. Why would one literally hack his body?
According to Cannon, the developments are not about simply trying to insert gadgets into one's body for a performance enhancement. The end goal is to transcend the boundaries of biology, and try to hack evolution itself.
As hacking, both for good and bad, has become pervasive in society, and as the appropriation of communication networks has become a common battleground, biohackers like Cannon are trying to take the fight for self-determination into the realm to the technologized body.
It's as if there a new dimension has been added to Michel Foucault's terms biopolitics and biopower, which he developed in the 1970s. Through biopower, Foucault described the emergence of a new form of power and politics as an extension to traditional state power in the 20th century, which takes the body as an object of quantification and the reproduction of society's power structures. His point seems valid today, as the political fights of our time not only take place in legal discourses, but are also being staged over what's legal to do with one's own body.
In the future, hackers' and activists' disputes with restrictive governments may not only be about communication, information, and digital infrastructure, but may also shift into debates about our own technologically-improved physical beings. In the face of companies and governmental agencies developing implants that are protected by patents and secret test procedures, the question of how to remain in control of our bodies may turn out to be a very real pressing social issue, something Cannon is preemptively trying to push against.
Cannon does hold the human body as imperfect and failing in many ways, and refuses to obey the "established medical industry's artificial ideas about what 100 percent is." He has also decided to pause theoretical and academic discussions on immortality, and is focusing instead on what he terms practical transhumanism. In essence, he aims to use open-source and networked research approaches to define the capabilities of his body and to find out how far he can upgrade himself.
The security risks are real, as we've learned with Dick Cheney's heart. At the same time, complex medical products tend to be mostly restricted to those who can afford them. Even though the former vice president may dislike the thought, a bunch of biohackers aim to prove that a well-connected and enthusiastic underground culture of self-taught garage tinkerers may be able to increase the safety and accessibility of medical devices. The Linux community stands as proof enough for Cannon that open source implant can be developed safely and securely.
Building on the much cheaper development costs of an open coding-network, Tim wants to realize his goal of offering cheap organs for everyone in a near future. "We have been working on the Circadia Chip for 18 months, needing only a fraction of the costs that big companies would use for this," he said. "The same will go for our next projects and an artificial heart is a goal for us for the next decade."
Tim Cannon demonstrates the prototype of the Circadia and the control commands on his tablet device.
In a few months, the first production series of the Circadia chip should be ready. With an expected price of around $500, the chip should be relatively accessible for just about any enthusiast, and will mainly be distributed through the networks of the body modification community. That means that if you find the right local establishment, you could have your own chip installed. Haworth told me that he would charge roughly $200 for the procedure itself.
The question of whether or not we'll blur the line between man and machine, of whether or not we'll enhance the human body, has long been answered in the affirmative. Now it's a question of who will break new ground, and when. As to whether or not the roboticiziation of humans is found in better hands with DIY enthusiasts or the medical establishment, and who will make farther strides, only time will tell.
In the meantime, there are just slight battery difficulties to be resolved: