Biohackers Are Implanting Everything From Magnets to Sex Toys
(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Patrick Kramer sticks a needle into a customer’s hand and injects a microchip the size of a grain of rice under the skin. “You’re now a cyborg,” he says after plastering a Band-Aid on the small wound between Guilherme Geronimo’s thumb and index finger. The 34-year-old Brazilian plans to use the chip, similar to those implanted in millions of cats, dogs, and livestock, to unlock doors and store a digital business card.
Kramer is chief executive officer of Digiwell, a Hamburg startup in what aficionados call body hacking—digital technology inserted into people. Kramer says he’s implanted about 2,000 such chips in the past 18 months, and he has three in his own hands: to open his office door, store medical data, and share his contact information. Digiwell is one of a handful of companies offering similar services, and biohacking advocates estimate there are about 100,000 cyborgs worldwide. “The question isn’t ‘Do you have a microchip?’ ” Kramer says. “It’s more like, ‘How many?’ We’ve entered the mainstream.”
Research house Gartner Inc. identified do-it-yourself biohacking as one of five technology trends—others include artificial intelligence and blockchain—with the potential to disrupt businesses. The human augmentation market, which includes implants as well as bionic limbs and fledgling computer-brain connections, will grow more than tenfold, to $2.3 billion, by 2025, as industries as diverse as health care, defense, sports, and manufacturing adopt such technologies, researcher OG Analysis predicts. “We’re only at the beginning of this trend,” says Oliver Bendel, a professor at the University of Applied Sciences & Arts Northwestern Switzerland who specializes in machine ethics.
A Spanish dancer named Moon Ribas has a chip in her arm connected to seismic sensors, which is triggered when there are tremors anywhere on the planet. She uses it in a performance art piece called Waiting for Earthquakes. Neil Harbisson, a colorblind artist from Northern Ireland, has an antennalike sensor in his head that lets him “hear” colors. And Rich Lee, from St. George, Utah, has spent about $15,000 developing a cyborg sex toy he calls the Lovetron 9000, a vibrating device to be implanted in the pelvis. Lee hasn’t sold (or used) the Lovetron yet, but he’s got magnetic implants in his fingertips to pick up metal objects, two microchips in his hands that can send messages to phones, and a biothermal sensor in his forearm to measure temperature. “We’re the first movers,” Lee says. “But as the technology becomes more mainstream, there will be potential uses for pretty much everybody.”
Lee gave an address at BdyHax, a conference in Austin where people in the business can meet fellow cyborgs, discuss trends, and check out gadgets. At this year’s conclave, speakers included the developer of an artificial pancreas, a representative of a group advocating tech connections to the brain, and a researcher from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—the developer of the internet—who’s exploring biohacks to fight memory loss and improve the lives of people without limbs.
Biohacking raises a host of ethical issues, particularly about data protection and cybersecurity as virtually every tech gadget risks being hacked or manipulated. And implants can even become cyberweapons, with the potential to send malicious links to others. “You can switch off and put away an infected smartphone, but you can’t do that with an implant,” says Friedemann Ebelt, an activist with Digitalcourage, a German data privacy and internet rights group.
Those concerns haven’t stopped some businesses from embracing biohacks. Tesla Inc. founder Elon Musk, who says people must become cyborgs to stay relevant, has raised at least $27 million for Neuralink Corp., a startup developing brain-computer interfaces. Neuralink is planning an announcement that’s “better than probably anyone thinks is possible,” the ever-self-promotional Musk said in a Sept. 7 video podcast where he was seen smoking marijuana. And last year, Three Square Market, a company in Wisconsin that makes self-service kiosks for office break rooms, asked its 200 employees if they’d be interested in getting chipped. More than 90 said yes, and they now use the implants to enter the building, unlock computers, and buy snacks from the company’s vending machines.
Digiwell’s microchip implants run from $40 to $250, and Kramer charges $30 to inject them, either in his Hamburg office or while traveling (he did Geronimo’s implant in the lobby of a Berlin hotel). His clients include a lawyer who wants access to confidential files without remembering a password, a teen with no arms who uses a chip in her foot to open doors, and an elderly man with Parkinson’s disease who once collapsed in front of his house after trying for two hours to get his key into the lock. He now uses a chip in his hand to open the door.
Kramer is also a co-founder of a company called VivoKey Technologies, which is developing a more advanced implant expected to be introduced next year. The device will be able to generate passwords for online transactions, and buyers can download software to upgrade it with more functions. “Humanity can’t wait millions of years for evolution to improve their brains and bodies,” Kramer says. “That’s why we’re doing it ourselves.”
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