This story appeared in the February Issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.
Two years ago, Liviu Babitz went by the name Carlos. Living undercover as the chief operating officer of Videre Est Credere, he designed and organized the distribution of custom-made hidden cameras with which citizens could film human rights violations. The organization's name, in Latin, translates as "to see is to believe."
Today, Babitz designs artificial senses for Cyborg Nest, the company he helped co-found in 2015. It is the first to make biohacking—a DIY body-modifying movement—commercial. Through their inventions, he hopes other invisible phenomena, like magnetic fields and inaudible sounds, will be detectable by the human body.
In December 2016, Babitz had the North Sense, one of the company's first artificial senses, attached to two piercings on his chest. It acts as a digital compass that vibrates every time he faces Earth's magnetic pole. Hundreds of people have ordered the $350 USB-chargeable, waterproof device online and will have them installed in the coming months. Babitz is convinced that someday, in the not-too-distant future, we'll all be cyborgs.
VICE: I have a compass on my phone. Why would I want one attached to my body?
Liviu Babitz: Till now, a compass was a tool: When you want to use it, you use it. When you don't need it, you don't. The North Sense is something that is a constant part of you. You don't decide to leave your eyes at home, or your ears at home. They are always there; they are always giving input to your brain; it's a constant flow of information. This is where the difference happens. You remember things by what you see or what you smell; you will also start remembering things by your orientation with Earth's magnetic field. The brain will start embedding this information into your perception of reality.
"The technology here is not the main thing. The way technology is used, that's the radical change."
Apart from memory, are there other ways it could influence perception?
Some people will have a more physical understanding of their environment—where they live, spaces, distances. Other people, it might affect the way that they dream. This is the first time where there will be many people with a new type of sense, so time will tell. The technology here is not the main thing. The way technology is used, that's the radical change.
But with our eyes or ears we can pick up a whole range of information, whereas the North Sense, it's binary.
That was a part of the reason why we went with the North Sense as the first: It's a relatively simple type of input. When you attach a bionic arm, your brain will be extremely unhappy with it in the beginning. Same with senses. It's not, OK, I connected to the North Sense, and by tomorrow, I'll know all the maps of London by heart. It's a process that your brain needs to get used to. If you take it on and off, on and off, then the brain goes back to point zero.
You're marketing this device as a kind of "sixth sense," an evolutionary technology that could bring humans closer to nature, rather than driving us away from it. Is that where you see tech heading?
One question that people ask me all the time is, "So, you guys want to replace humans with robots?" The answer is: No. I love the human body, the human existence, and, especially, the human brain. The idea is to enhance, to explore.
Do you think people are afraid of technology?
We are still part of the generation that thinks of technology as something that is going to destroy humanity. But we are starting to understand that it might actually, save, help, enhance. Some technologies, we overuse them, but this is how you learn stuff.
I think, with time, people will stop looking at biohackers as weird creatures doing stuff in their garages and will realize, Oh, these are actually people doing important experiments. This is where humanity is going.
A few months ago, the World Economic Forum published an article saying that antennas implanted in people's skulls would be commonplace by 2020. Most of these things are really easy to do—it's not about inventing the impossible, it's not a dream. The things exist. It's just about us deciding how to use them, or taking things that we already have and diverting them.
At Videre Est Credere, you used surveillance to hold the powerful accountable, but it can also be used against us. Could cyborgism go wrong?
A computer or a phone has a camera, a GPS, a microphone, a speaker—it can track everything you're doing. The North Sense doesn't have a memory; it's not connected to any network. I can't take responsibility for what will happen in the industry. I can take responsibility for our values. Every step that we take, we should remember that it's an option that things will be taken to a bad place. It's the last of our goals to create any kind of monster that could help governments; I just finished fighting them.