Why I Had a Computer Chip and a Tiny Magnet Implanted Under My Skin
They told me I could be anything when I grew up, so I became a cyborg.
It's been almost two years since I technically became a cyborg. My robot parts consist of two rudimentary cybernetic implants—an NFC chip as well as a magnet—in my left hand. "NFC" stands for "Near Field Communication," and basically allows you to transfer data from one device (smartphone, tablet, human hand, etc.) to another. The magnet is, well, a magnet, and it allows me to become a low-rent Magneto. They've become such a part of me that I often casually refer to them as "my implants" in conversation with new people, prompting a lot of embarrassed backpedaling and explaining.
Despite normally being the kind of person who can fall asleep while getting tattooed, I was a shameful mess of sweat and swear words as the implant artist sutured the tip of my un-numbed ring finger just above the magnet he had freshly implanted. The wonky gray area of body-modification-licensing means that the legality of the procedure in some states is dubious as is, but using any numbing agents puts these artists straight into "practicing medicine without a license" territory, meaning my finger felt like it had been turned into one of those exploding cartoon cigars. Once the suture was in, the implanter dangled the needle over my finger, and I instinctively winced. But instead of more prodding and stabbing, I saw the needle stop swinging back and forth and start drifting toward my finger. Still delirious from the adrenaline, I didn't register what was happening until the implanter touched his modified ring finger to my own, and I felt a tug deep inside my hand toward the magnet in his.
In that moment, the pain had become more than worth what I was gaining.
It takes about a week or two for the nerves to regrow around your magnet, meaning you type awkwardly with your part-numb, part-sore finger out like a backward futuristic aristocrat. You can stick to magnetic things right away, but you can't feel electromagnetic fields until you heal up. The first time I felt it, I was typing on an old beefy laptop and started to feel a weird bubbly tingle in my messed-up finger, but only over the X, D, and S keys—where my hard drive was spinning just a few inches under it. I excitedly started trying to find every magnetic field in the apartment, the strongest coming from microwaves and speakers.
In the two years since, my "power" has just become another way that I interact with the world. Aside from trying to flirt with cute girls with jokes about being "attracted" to them or being able to easily lift those tiny, obnoxious screws that hold a laptop together, I've been trying to explore the boundaries of what the magnetic sense can do. Sometimes it's just noticing things around you that you wouldn't otherwise—like feeling subways pass under you, or being able to sense if a plug-in adapter is actually working or not. Sometimes it's incredibly useful, like when I've had to reset circuit breakers in dark basements with just enough of a magnetic field around the switches for me to detect which one isn't getting any power.
I can also use my powers for benign evil. While I've yet to ruin a credit card or accidentally wipe the hard drive on my computer, I have been able to erase all of my friends' hotel keycards on trips. I can degrade cassettes, too—a friend and I used my finger to mess up some tapes we were trying to make low-fi, crudded-up music on. You'd think there'd be complications with an implant like mine, but reports from others with similar devices indicate that people haven't had issues with getting MRIs or going through airport security. I've flown a lot since getting the magnet, and I still face the same amount of irritation and hassle at the airport.
After getting the magnetic implant in October 2013, I was hooked on this type of body modification. The only other implant I'm aware of that's at the same stage in testing, safety, and availability is a series of implantable NFC chips, so that's what I got. Created by Dangerous Things, a company that makes and sells biohacking tools, this little chip is about the size of a Tic Tac and encased in practically unbreakable glass. It uses Near Field Communication technology to do whatever I tell it to—send text messages, activate and deactivate my phone's flashlight, transmit a URL and a sound effect, etc. These tags are surprisingly durable and low-risk outside of the dangers that come with the act of implanting anything, typically infection or rejection (when the skin gets rid of something like a splinter), assuming you're smart and get the work done by a trained professional in a sterile environment. Once it's in and healed, though, there's little risk—the Dangerous Things website mentions that they've received no reports of the chips breaking.
After embedding it in my hand, I downloaded a companion app on my Android (Sorry iPhone users, Apple doesn't support any NFC except ApplePay) and have been experimenting with making it do various things, both useful and asinine. The chip initially comes blank, with 888 bytes of memory that you can write things to. The first thing I did with it was use it to distribute copies of the game Deus Ex, as an homage to my cyborg predecessors. For work functions and conferences, I program my business card into it, meaning Android users can tap their phone to my hand to instantly have all my contact information. For security tools, I make it a requirement to unlock my phone and use it as an authentication device to beef up account security. For people less interested in hacking themselves, you can also purchase premade things like doors that require your hand to unlock them and such on Dangerous Things' website. When I'm off the clock, though, I make it do more stupid things like tell dad jokes or work it into games that I've made.
As I mentioned, there aren't a ton of other implants like this out there and available yet, but the biohacking community is pushing the envelope and making new ones. And there is a beautiful sentiment behind this movement. Biohacking labs like Grindhouse and Dangerous Things are creating open-source wetware (implants and software developed completely transparently, with schematics and source code available to anyone and everyone), working with both the hacker and body modification communities to make it possible for people without tons of money to have a taste of the future themselves. The implants I've mentioned? None of them cost over $200, and the tools to interact with them are being constantly pushed forward by the open-source community. We already have so much of the dystopic parts of cyberpunk literature—we have automated flying robots that kill people on the other side of the planet and have successfully made children afraid of the sky, for fuck's sake—why not have some fun with the cooler parts of it?
This is why I'm donating my body to the cause. Soon, I'm getting Grindhouse's experimental prototype for the NorthStar implant—a device that will allow me to sense where magnetic north is, on the back of my hand. Obviously this can be a risky endeavor—Grindhouse developer Tim Cannon put the lab's other experimental implant, known as Circadia, into himself, and when he removed it a few months later he found the battery was having issues, which made for the terrifying prospect of having battery acid leaking into his blood. Similarly, a lot of people can get freaked out about larger implants (the boxy Circadia elicited a collective "ew" from most corners of the internet after Cannon implanted it into himself), but just like with phones and computers, the technology gets smaller and better with each iteration. This is why, despite the very serious risks involved, the early generation cyborgs of the biohacking community are excited to help push this work forward.
As biohacking labs like Grindhouse and Dangerous Things create new and interesting implants, other groups use this same ethos to improve the medical implants we already have. The OpenAPS project is "an open and transparent effort to make safe and effective basic Artificial Pancreas System (APS) technology widely available to more quickly improve and save as many lives as possible and reduce the burden of Type 1 Diabetes." This patient-led project seeks to bypass the red-tape nightmare that keeps data about patients' own bodies away from them and locked up in a company's proprietary software. By open-sourcing the technology, patients can more accurately get information from their insulin pumps, share their data with others, and create new tools that work with their body's specific needs. This can lead to open-source medical devices that can be rapidly improved on by any engineer who cares to lend their time to the project, resulting in lower costs, quicker development, and wider availability of life-saving technology.
It only makes sense that as our society becomes more and more integrated with technology, we'll start to see more cyborgs, grinders, biohackers—whatever you want to call us—thriving at the intersection of tech and body modification. Whether you need technology in your body for medical reasons, or just want it to augment your senses or for experimentation, there are numerous fronts that open-source advocates are working on to make implantable technology safer, cheaper, and available to everyone.
Zoe Quinn is a weird internet artist, author, hacker, and future skeleton. Follow her on Twitter.
VICE does not endorse surgically implanting weird stuff into your body. If you are thinking of getting a modification like the ones mentioned above, consult your doctor.