Immortality aside, DIY “bio-hacking” could provide solutions to everyday problems, despite the risks involved
For the last week I’ve been travelling around California and Nevada on a 40 foot, 1978 bus that’s designed to look like a massive coffin, with the words “Immortality Bus” painted down both sides.
I’m shadowing the Transhumanist Zoltan Istvan as he makes an unlikely run for president, for my next book. Broadly speaking, Transhumanists believe that technology can make us physically, intellectually, even morally, better. Like all Transhumanists, Istvan believes that death is a biological quirk of nature, something we do not need to accept as inevitable.
“Grinders are certainly smart – in a geeky way. They are pushing the boundaries of what’s possible, and by doing it all on themselves they circumnavigate some of the ethical regulations that might otherwise stop them.”
The Immortality Bus is designed to highlight what Istvan considers one of the most egregious social problems of the day: the US government doesn’t invest enough in anti-aging research. He thinks, with more funding, we could reverse the aging process fairly soon and he’s running on the “vote for me and live forever” ticket. Pledging eternal life is unusual, but it’s probably no less likely than some of the other party promises I’ve seen.
Because it’s prohibitively expensive to get on state ballots in the US, Istvan has to rely on stunts to get media coverage: hence the bus. But some of what he is up to is certainly interesting.
On day two, we went to a “bio-hacking” lab, because Istvan wanted to get a chip implanted into his body. The lab is in a small town called Tahachapi, in central California which, when we visit, is hosting “Grindfest”, a meeting of bio-hackers, or “grinders” – citizen scientists, if you will – who like to perform experimental, DIY technology on their own bodies in the interests of improving human beings.
Earlier this year, a number of grinders gained notoriety when four of them set out to explore infra-red sight. One of them had chlorin e6 insulin and saline dropped into his eyes, after having spent several months on a Vitamin A deficient diet. He had improved vision in the dark for several hours, with no noticeable long term effects.
Some scientists, of course, were worried about the way in which the experiment was conducted, saying it wasn’t scientific, and was possibly irresponsible. The grinders argue they are very careful – many of them are health professionals – and they don’t want to wait for impossibly lengthy and expensive ethics committees that stymie interesting and innovative work.
Istvan is getting what’s called a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chip. It’s tiny – smaller than an uncooked grain of rice, and usually implanted in the skin between the thumb and index finger. These chips can store small amounts of information on them that be recognised by other compatible devices as long as they’re programmed in a certain way. You might, for example, include important health or personal information on there that a reader – such as a smartphone – would instantly recognise. There are millions of these little chips in all sorts of daily devices, but putting one inside the body is far less common.
Not here though, where nearly everyone already has one. One has set up his phone so he can scan the chip in his thumb with it to unlock the screen. A 19 year-old – who also had magnets in his fingers to feel electro-magnetic fields – took me over to his car, and unlocked it with his hand. He then started it with his hand. He’d reprogrammed the car himself.
Grinders are certainly smart – in a geeky way. They read academic papers, discuss studies, formulate ideas, build stuff they’ve bought from hardware stores or the net, try it on themselves, and share the results. They are pushing the boundaries of what’s possible, and by doing it all on themselves they circumnavigate some of the ethical regulations that might otherwise stop them.
Is this sort of citizen science – risk, exploratory, home-made and quick – where the technology of the future will come from? Some of it may well become everyday technology – I saw sound-transmitting magnets implanted in ears (allowing the wearer to listen to music without anyone else knowing), and someone working on a device to insert into the top of your hand that responds to gestures: so flipping the bird at your light switch could turn it on and off.
For the bio-hackers, much of the technology is at least one part lifestyle choice: cosmetic as well as practical. But many see social and health benefits for everyone in the years ahead. One grinder I spoke to is working on something to measure your heart-rate at all times, and alert you immediately if something goes awry. The grinders worry that this sort of technological development could be captured by big tech/pharma companies and its benefits limited to those who can afford it. These bio-hackers make their work open source so anyone can use it.
Of course, that means some might use their technology for ill, but that’s always a risk. And I can understand why scientists might worry. Some of this is dangerous stuff – more than one grinder I spoke to had put magnets or chips in without proper sterilised equipment, and subsequently had to remove it.
Then again, Isaac Newton, the greatest scientist of them all, experimented on himself too. I can certainly see the benefits – and not just the big social benefits. Imagine it – a chip in my hand, and I’d never have to worry about losing my keys again. Now there’s certainly something to think about.
So when someone asks me if I’m also getting a chip, I do pause for a moment. But I already spend too much time with technology, and think I’d feel a little weird with something implanted in my hand. And I don’t like injections, especially not in people’s garages. Bio-hacking might be the future, but I’m not quite ready for it yet.
This article was written by Jamie Bartlett from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.