The brave new world of biohacking
A cyberpunk underground science dungeon makes history with a biosensor device
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A cyberpunk underground science dungeon makes history with a biosensor device
PITTSBURGH — In the basement of a suburban two-story house on a quiet road just outside Pittsburgh, six mostly self-taught scientists tinker with an assortment of computer parts and electric equipment. They plan one day on becoming cyborgs — a future that may be closer than you think.
They are Grindhouse Wetware — three men and three women — and they describe themselves as a "ragtag group of programmers, engineers and enthusiasts" who build cybernetic devices. They find inspiration in both current technology and science fiction.
"I don't want to go to space in a spaceship. I want to be a spaceship," said Tim Cannon, Grindhouse's 34-year-old co-founder whose basement serves as the group's headquarters and scientific lab.
Today, at an international body-modification conference in Essen, Germany, Grindhouse will make history as the first in the DIY-science community — i.e., not affiliated with any academic institution or corporation — to develop and implant an interactive electronic device in a human being. The implantable biosensor is called Circadia and is slightly smaller than a credit card but thicker than the average paperback. Though it will cause the skin to bulge slightly, it won't obstruct any vital functions or impact skeletal function. It is designed to sit between the skin and muscles in the forearm, where it will track and aggregate weeks of data on the person's body temperature. Once synced to a smartphone, it will transmit that data to it via Bluetooth. To add to the coolness factor, the device has three red LEDs that glow through the skin that may be turned on and off remotely with the user's phone.
Cannon, following a long line of scientists who have experimented on their own bodies over the centuries, will have Circadia implanted in his forearm under a tattoo he has of a DNA double helix. Roughly 300 people are expected to attend the conference — including a world-renowned body-modification artist, who will do the implantation at a private location — but no medical personnel. A number of things could go wrong: The silicone casing could break, or the battery could leak, releasing a fatal dose of alkaline solution into Cannon's bloodstream. Even if he doesn't die, he could lose his arm.
But Cannon and his team have spent two years perfecting the biosensor and testing it using industry-standard protocols; they think the risk is worth it. By sharing Circadia's blueprint and schematics with the public, free of charge, they hope that others will customize the device, one day leading to significant advancements in medicine — for instance, the creation of an internal device for diabetics that tracks and regulates blood glucose levels, which does not yet exist. Cannon also envisions a heart monitor based on Grindhouse's work that will release small doses of aspirin to prevent heart attacks.
This may all sound like the stuff of futuristic fantasy. However, thanks to new technology and cheaper hardware as well as open-source information, it's simply the most sophisticated example in a galaxy of home-brewed science efforts that make up a growing international movement called biohacking. Biohackers conduct science experiments and perform gene sequencing in improvised labs to increase science literacy and build devices that alter the senses or maximize human health.
Last year, molecular biologist Ellen Jorgensen put the biohacker movement on the map when she gave a TED talk about Genespace, the DIY science lab she opened in Brooklyn, N.Y., in late 2010. Genespace is one of about 40 (and counting) independent citizen-science groups in the world — more than 20 of them in the United States.
Grinders are an extreme group in the biohacker movement who believe in using their own bodies for scientific experimentation. The name comes from the computer-gaming term "grinding" — playing until one is able to break the code of the game. In the 2007 science-fiction comic series "Doktor Sleepless," grinders use extreme body modification as a way to create a group identity.
"There's this saying in 'Doktor Sleepless' — 'Where's my jet pack?'" says Lucas Dimoveo, who moved from New York City to Pittsburgh after meeting Cannon and other Grindhouse members on a grinder discussion board. "It's essentially like, 'Where's the future that I was expecting?' There's no flying cars, there's no cyborg bombs or lasers, so I guess we'll have to build it ourselves."
Lydia Fazzio, a psychiatrist and the organizer of the Meetup group Biohackers NYC, sees Grindhouse as an outgrowth of the quantified-self movement, in which individuals collect data about their own bodies, like the number of steps they walk or calories they burn each day or their inherited-disease risks, derived from home genetic testing. "Technology is the catalyst each person has for maximizing their optimal performance," Fazzio says. "It's almost like we're advancing the human senses."
When the biohacker movement was starting out, grinders sought simple ways to reimagine human enhancement. One of the first was tiny magnets inserted in the fingertips with a small incision. When the trend began, it was largely a DIY kitchen operation using a razor blade or knife, rubbing alcohol and possibly an ice cube to numb the skin's surface. But over the years, the magnets have come to be offered by a small number of body-modification artists as just another type of piercing. Though there are no official statistics, Dimoveo estimates that thousands of people worldwide have magnetic implants.
Olivia Webb, another member of Grindhouse, had her magnet put in earlier this year. She can almost lift a paper clip by simply touching it with her finger. But party tricks are far from the point, she says. The magnet has allowed Webb to feel electromagnetic fields, almost as if she possesses a sixth sense.
"Microwaves, for instance, have a lot of wattage that goes through them," says Webb, who has an undergraduate degree in biology and learned electrical engineering while "on the job" at Grindhouse. "Originally, it just felt like a field, but now I know what a microwave field feels like. It has a certain tingle to it. It's hard for me to describe because (Webster's dictionary) hasn't made words yet for me to understand (it)."
As a teenager, Cannon considered himself part of the punk-rock movement; he played in a band and had "a big mohawk and pincushion face," he says, referring to his numerous piercings. Those days may be over, but he knows Grindhouse's customer. "The people we tend to serve are the kind of people with split tongues and tattoos on their face, which society traditionally deems as freaky."
Since Grindhouse formed in January 2012, the group has worked on a handful of projects, such as a hat that emits a low-voltage current to stimulate the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for memory and concentration, and a glove that picks up sonar, ultraviolet rays and Wi-Fi information, translating them into a magnetic field to create a sense of electronic echolocation. The latter device could help blind people navigate.
The unfinished basement lab where they work has concrete walls and exposed wooden beams. Rusty broken chairs sit around an old coffee table, and exposed lightbulbs provide a dim glow. A washer/dryer sits in the corner amid piles of laundry. It's an unlikely setting for the engineering of complex hardware.
The Grindhouse team has created a variety of machines from available materials to test Circadia. The one used to assess its reaction to various temperatures is fashioned out of an old cigar box.
Cannon calls the lab "half cyberpunk underground science dungeon and half electronics workshop and biological experimentation center."
Most of Grindhouse's members have come to the group with some science background, and the team is linked to a nationwide network of grinders with varying levels of expertise. But there are plenty of times when the Pittsburgh team simply turns to Professor Google. "How to build an LC tank circuit," they might ask. More often than not, Cannon says, such a query delivers an accurate answer.
Dimoveo says Grindhouse plans to open-source Circadia's schematics as a way to encourage other citizen scientists to adopt the technology as their own.
"The data doesn't belong to any external party," he says. "No one can turn it off if you haven't been making payments … That's kind of what the Grinder movement is about. We may not be making the coolest, most advanced things, but we're setting a precedent."
Science has a long history of self-experimentation. The 18th-century scientist Lazzaro Spallanzani ingested wood and cloth to learn more about the digestive system. In the 1930s, German physician Werner Forssmann performed the first clinical cardiac catheterization on himself and later won the Nobel Prize. In 1998, British cybernetics professor Kevin Warwick had a doctor implant a radio frequency identification device (RFID) in his arm, an anti-theft smart label that enabled a computer to track Warwick's every move and store codes that allowed him to unlock certain doors, computers and even smart phones. (RFID implantation has now become part of the biohacker movement, and the materials for a DIY version can be purchased online.)
And in 2009 the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency funded an experiment by scientists at the University of California at Berkeley to implant electrodes into the brains of winged flower beetles, allowing their flight to be directed via remote control.
But Cannon and his team point out that efforts like these have taken millions of dollars and many years to reach fruition, whereas the prototype for Circadia required a fraction of that time and cost approximately $100.
When the first pacemaker was implanted in a patient in 1958, it helped the medical industry realize the impact such devices could have on medicine, says Anthony Turner, Ph.D., head of the Biosensors and Bioelectronics Centre at Linkoping University in Sweden.
He says the industry isn't far off from the so-called magic bullet that could rid the body of diseases such as cancer. But such innovations are more likely to be carried out at the molecular level instead of through cybernetic infrastructure. "It's not 'Fantastic Voyage' with a minisubmarine," he says.
In recent years, some of the most promising advances in biosensors have involved the treatment of diabetes. Just last month, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the MiniMed 530G, also known as the artificial pancreas. Developed by Medtronic, the first company to manufacture the pacemaker, the artificial pancreas tracks blood glucose and accordingly adjusts levels of insulin, which it delivers through a tube inserted into the abdomen. The monitor and dispenser are worn externally, usually on a belt.
Another complex medical device, cochlear implants, earned FDA approval in the mid-1980s and have been used on more than 200,000 deaf people worldwide — including author Michael Chorost, who received cochlear implants after being diagnosed with sudden-onset deafness more than a decade ago.
While Chorost's experience would seem to make him a natural proponent of melding man and machine, he, like Turner, questions efforts by biohacker groups like Grindhouse. "I don’t think it's ever going to be anything more than a curiosity or an expansion of artistic expression unless you get government and corporations involved and people with significant resources … (It would then) no longer be an artistic, DIY thing. It would be a major operation."
He adds that there's still much about biology and physiology that scientists do not understand. "You can hack a computer, you can hack a computer chip, you can hack a cell phone," he says. "The reason you can hack all these things is because they are not complicated. But biology is an order of magnitude that we don't understand."
But members of Grindhouse predict that in the future, everyone will take measures to augment their bodies. And when it comes to Circadia, Webb insists that the precautions they've taken will pay off. It can withstand months, if not years, of stress, moisture and temperature inside the human body, Cannon says.
"It's Tim's life at stake. We're not going to mess around," says Webb.
Cannon, for his part, recognizes why most people are apprehensive about putting machines in their bodies. But, he says, "this is a brave new world. It's very scary what we're stepping into, but it's coming. And you can have it brought to you by Apple and Halliburton, or you can have it brought to you by the open-source community and by people who actually care about the freedom of governance over your own body."
UPDATE: On October 18, Tim Cannon became the first person from the DIY science community to have implanted a biosensor device, Circadia, in his forearm. The procedure took place in an undisclosed location in Essen, Germany, where Cannon was attending an annual body modification conference.
"The procedure didn't take too long, maybe about 10 minutes and there are about 10 stitches in his arm," said Danielle Greaves, a member of Grindhouse Wetware, the DIY biohacking lab in Pittsburgh that engineered Circadia. "Everything is going better than expected, (Tim) is healing really well and has an appointment to see some local implant artists to get it checked out and make sure he is still on the right track."
Cannon said of the implant, "We are still cautious and guarded about what lies in our future, but pretty excited to see where we will go from here."
The next step, say the members of Grindhouse, is to upgrade the device to reduce it in size (currently, it is about as large as a credit card but as thick as a paperback novel), make it charge more efficiently, and add "some more useful sensors" on it. The team also wants to start working on NorthStar, another device to be implanted in the hand that can help the person "feel" where north is, and what direction they should be going, like a GPS.