Biohacking: The Future of Shaking Hands and Opening Doors

Biohacking with Jordan Yerman - AkihabaraNews.com

So you want to inject a chip into your body. Hey, it’s the 21st Century, and barbed-wire bicep tattoos are so over. How we interact with the inorganic world is becoming more seamless, more frictionless. Our gadgets are already talking to one another, and it’s getting easier to join the conversation.

Long portrayed with spectacular imagination in manga, anime, videogames, and movies, biohacking is now quietly making its way into the actual world in which we live.

Manga at AkihabaraNews

Small Steps Toward Major Kusanagi?
In the later-Eighties, Masamune Shirow’s manga Ghost in the Shell was a transgressive and disturbing work of science fiction. Today, many aspects of that series have become an almost-boring reality: a far- and deep-reaching computer network to which we are nearly always connected; creepy and chilling government surveillance; GPS systems to help us not get lost; and on-demand communication from wherever we are.

Physically integrating our bodies into the networks we’ve created, however, is one of the last aspects to enter our everyday lives. We won't become cyborg superheroes (or supervillains) anytime soon, but here’s the consolation prize: you can unlock your door, start your car, or pay for a coffee with a wave of your hand. No more fishing for (and losing) your keys: wave at the door and your home will welcome you in. No more screwing about with username exchanges when you want to connect on Facebook or Line: connect on social media through a real-life handshake. Peer-to-peer, indeed.

Rather than existing as human brains inside fully-robotic humanoid chassis, we are in the near-term poised to become meatsacks with a few optional extras installed.

We’re not at fully-articulate robotic limbs yet (though a demonstration of that very technology is expected at the 2014 World Cup in Rio), but we can start small: embedded chips that convey simple and actionable information. The technology to read a bionic implant is already out there: NFC readers, RFID scanners, multi-factor authentication, and so forth.

Cyborg, Enhance Thyself
A spirited pioneer in the art and science of biohacking is Amal Graafstra. Able to start his motorcycle just by touching it, Graafstra runs a company called, waitforit, Dangerous Things; the name is a rather cheeky misnomer. Aside from selling RFID?NFC chip kits, Graafstra has implanted around 25 people so far. He sports two implants himself, one in each hand.

Amal Graafstra’s hands. Photo: dangerousthings.com 

Bionic implants are nothing new: you can already get a pacemaker for your heart, a cochlear implant for your lost hearing. However, writes Graafstra, “Those technologies are restorative, trying to replace lost function. Biohackers endeavor to enhance the body and its capabilities. Though simple in nature now – implanted magnets that offer a 6th sense for magnetic fields, and RFID implants that enable simple authentication and identity interactions, these are the first iterations of a very long process of man/machine integration, a road we've been on since we first picked up sticks and rocks and started using tools in the wild.”

It’s quite safe, Graafstra adds: “The most likely risks include bruising, excessive bleeding, nerve damage, and infection... basically the same risks associated with an ear piercing, only our implant doesn't protrude from an open wound for days on end like an ear piercing does.”

Also, in case you’re wondering, it apparently doesn’t hurt that much to get an RFID/NFC-readable chip inserted into your body. Graafstra describes it as “a slight, sharp pinching sensation as the needle cuts through the skin.”

Unlike the mechanical mutations seen in Tetsuo the Iron Man, Graafstra’s biohacks are quite unobtrusive.

It could be worse. 

“The body doesn't even care that it's in there,” writes Graafstra. “We use Schott 8625 bioglass to encase our implants so the body just wraps it up in some fibrous tissue to hold it in place and that's it. I've had one of my implants for close to 10 years now.” His second implant is over eight years old, and he’s lived an active –– and arguably enhanced –– life with them.

(In other news, “bioglass” is an actual thing. 未来は今ですよ.)

The process for this type of biohack is simple: 

1. Program the chip.
2. Inject the chip into your body.
3. Integrate the chip’s interactivity into your daily life.

Graafstra will demonstrate how easy biohacking can be when he visits Vancouver, British Colombia for the From Now Conference, by implanting conference organizer Nikolas Badminton live onstage. It’ll be just like tagging a dog.

The chip itself, which is 2mm x 12mm in size, will be injected via a hollow needle; a lot like a piercing you’d get at the mall. Hey, perhaps soon that’s where you’ll go to get your social-media contact info embedded in your flesh.

Writes Badminton, “From my perspective, I feel that we can be so much more than what we were born with. Smartphones are one way and implants are another. I see this as a beginning of the journey.”

Badminton (who lists Tetsuo the Iron Man as one of his favorite movies) imagines two potential uses for his first biohack, one prosaic and one lofty: “The basic thing would be to have it let me access my apartment using the RFID readers and an upgraded door lock. The next thing would be to have it linked to a virtual gallery of sorts. I’d be the human museum of modern art (HMOMA). Maybe I’ll rent out my body as a configurable art space.”

Arguably, his body is already a walking art space, since he’s been getting regularly tattooed over the past nine years.

Nikolas Badminton’s back-piece links his two arm-pieces. 

Indeed, should Badminton take to biohacks as he has taken to ink, he’ll rattle as he walks down the street on the way to the onsen, from which he’ll be immediately ejected. However, chip implants such as the ones Graafstra will inject do not set off airport security systems, not even in the USA.

As you’d imagine, not everybody is on board with biohacking. Aside from those squeamish around needles or unduly influenced by Japanese body-horror flicks like Tokyo Gore Police, opponents of the networked body fear spying or outright control by h4xx0rz, private or governmental. Writes Graafstra, “They say that I'm working for the government or the devil, or I am the devil; and that I'm trying to get everyone implanted so we can control the minds of the general population with special radio waves.”

Mention of onstage biohack on Facebook has led to a bit of online backlash, ranging from the skeptical to the critical to the knee-jerk.

Aside from the reflexive fear of that which is not understood, revelation after revelation of widespread spying is enough to put many people off of the notion of allowing external access to something inside their bodies. This extends to the dread of having one’s implanted hand chopped off to be used as a key; though if the would-be burglar has an axe, it could surely just be used on the door itself. Chips like Graafstra’s are read-only, so nobody can snoop into anything not linked to the one in your hand; never mind into the recesses of your brain. At most, they’ll be able to find your Facebook profile, and the embarrassing photos you keep forgetting to delete. Basically, you choose your own level of public readability. The potential remains largely untapped.

Superhuman? Not yet. More like extra-human. Post-human.

Or maybe just... human.

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Special Contributor Jordan Yerman is a freelance writer and photographer based in Vancouver, British Columbia where he’s the City Affairs and Entertainment Editor for the Vancouver Observer. We’re pretty sure he really likes Japan, and we're pretty sure he's one of the keenest observers of Japan's contributions to global pop-culture.

His other AkihabaraNews features include a photographic ode to the charming Streets of Osaka; a love letter to Japanese taxi cabs: Japanese Taxi Cabs: A Brief Photo Intro (GALLERY); a meditation on the roots of contemporary Japanese art and its effect on global pop culture: The Cat in the Bag: Inventing Japanese Pop Art; and, for those wanting to get hip to robots and the kindly automation that factors into everyday Japanese life, give this one a go: Conversations with my Shower and other Friendly Japanese Machines.