Body implants are a staple of science fiction. They turn members of futuristic societies into super-humans, making them stronger, smarter and more capable than an average person.
Implants helped Johnny Mnemonic increase his memory capacity; they fuel Iron Man’s suit and keep him alive; and they do much, much more.
As amazing as body implants sound, though, how close are we normal humans to getting one of those? In other words, are contemporary science, medicine and technology advanced enough to allow us to seamlessly meld with the technology and actually improve our lives? Keep reading to find out.
We’ll start by introducing Northstar, a subdermal LED sensor that lights up when it’s in the vicinity of a magnet. It can be used to detect the magnetic north and act as a compass. Implanting such a basic device may sound like a silly and needlessly dangerous procedure to go through, but these biohackers did it anyway.
Before dismissing it for being an “LED tattoo,” note that the device, dubbed Northstar V1, is still in its first iteration. The next version due to be released sometime this year will allow users to control the device via hand gestures. Grindhouse Wetware, the company behind the product, acknowledges that Northstar may seem like a simple gadget, but its purpose is to be much more than just subdermal bling — it exists to “prove the possibility of implanting technology in the human body, and will pave the way for more advanced and functional augmentations.”
If you think having LEDs in your forearm is silly, you may like this better: an antenna implanted in the skull. In 2004, Neil Harbisson had the device implanted in his cranium in an effort to fight color blindness. A camera at the far end of the device records whatever he is seeing and converts the image color data into a series of sound waves, which he has memorized. Instead of seeing various hues, he “hears” them with the help of a camera he calls Eyeborg.
Speaking of senses, here’s one implant that gave Rich Lee, a biohacker, one sense that humans usually don’t have: the power of echolocation.
Can you spot it? The implant is in his earlobe! To be more specific, within the tragus, the fleshy protrusion in front of the ear opening. On both of his ears are tiny magnets that Lee uses to listen to music without earbuds (here’s how) and sense objects in his vicinity. He achieved echolocation by converting data from an ultrasonic range finder (a device used to determine how far away an object is) into audio, which he then sends wirelessly to his headphone implants.
If you had trouble seeing magnets in Lee’s ear, I reckon this one will be much easier to spot. That huge lump under this biohacker’s skin is actually a bulky biometric computer that’s capable of transmitting body temperature and pulse data wirelessly. While using a simple thermometer seems like a much better idea than having an electronic device inserted under your skin (without local anesthesia), the company behind it (yet another Grindhouse Wetware project) says that the device (Circadia) is merely in the early stages of development. Many more features are coming soon — hopefully a more compact size will be one of them.
John Rogers, University of Illinois
If these implants seem too much, here’s something a bit lighter — and in my opinion, much closer to mass adoption: flexible, wireless tattoos that can be used to track vital body stats. Data about sweat (which can be used to assess the metabolic health of the wearer), heart rate and more are captured by the tattoo and then sent wirelessly to a device, such as a mobile phone or a computer. Although these tattoos aren’t exactly implants (they are non-invasive and can be easily removed), they still prove that the integration between the human body and technology isn’t something that’s easily dismissed.
If you’re like me, many of these implants will make you cringe. They seem crude, basic and impractical. Biohackers may seem like people who don’t care much about their health or safety. Experiments they’re currently conducting seem to show just undeveloped biohacking is and how little it can do for us — for the time being.
However, there’s a different side to this story. If history has taught us anything, it’s that even the greatest inventions had humble beginnings. Seeing the recordings of the first planes trying to take off invokes exactly the same thoughts about the pioneers of flight. Were they brave or foolish? Were their machines laughable or simply in “early development”? If it weren’t for them, we wouldn’t have planes today.
Does the same apply to biohacking? Only time will tell. Until then, we’ll keep a close eye on the biohacking community and perhaps one day become a part of it. What do you think about these implants and biohacking in general?
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