We humans weren’t meant to live in the modern-day world. We are living fossils with an outdated design and limited senses. With technology evolving and moving forward fast, we and our bodies are falling behind. The SHIFT 2018 track Amplified Humans considered the digital evolution of the human body – perhaps not into all-out cyborgs, but in more accessible ways, at first.
Hannes Sjöblad, Chief Disruption Officer at Epicenter Stockholm, a digital innovation hub in the Swedish capital, and co-founder of BioNyfiken (Swedish for BioCurious), a Swedish biohackers’ organization, is working towards democratizing access to biotechnologies. He is also a member of the Digital Biology faculty at Singularity University, a global learning and innovation community and the place where Sjöblad first encountered biohacking in 2010.
Biohacking is a diverse worldwide phenomenon. In the broadest sense of the term, everyone using technology to gain more information about their body and using that data to make decisions about their body’s needs and requirements could be considered a biohacker. The more extreme biohackers make use of existing technology and turn it into small form factor wearable or implantable gadgets, or modify existing devices significantly, even allowing the user to have new senses. Think about modifying your hearing aid to be able to hear WIFI signals, or wearing a vibrating chip on your chest that allows you to feel the magnetic north pole.
One of the most well-known and popular hacks is an implanted NFC (near-field communication) or RFID (radio frequency identification) chip. These embedded microchips are not very different from those we use to tag animals. Most dog owners probably have had their dog chipped, and humans can get chipped just the same. These safe and laboratory tested, rice grain sized glass chips are implanted into the user’s hand with a large needle in a mostly painless procedure. The chips generally work like all other NFC readable things, like contactless entry cards and badges. They do not have a battery and are powered by the NFC reader’s magnetic field instead.
These implanted chips can be used to replace multiple items that we carry with us every day, like membership cards, lock badges or business cards. The data can be copied or written directly to the chip’s programmable memory. The only requirement is that the chip is of a type compliant with the reader, since there is no standard frequency. Using a phone with an NFC reader, it is also easy to add and remove data from the memory or even develop something of your own.
This is the first generation of implantable chips: replacing the items in our pockets with digital, implanted replicas. The second generation is currently under development and could allow the wearer to complete even secure payments with the wave of a hand. You could have your credit card literally in the palm of your hand at all times.
Security is always a question, but in the case of these chips, usually not an issue. Some chips can be secured using a pin code that is required to access and edit the chip’s memory. The chips cannot track you remotely since they do not have GPS, nor can they actually send any data anywhere unless the wearer is within range of a reader. And since the range is short, most of the time the wearer actually has to touch a reader for the chip to send data, so the most obvious hacking attempts are evaded simply by remembering you have a chip and not putting it too close to anything suspicious.
Sjöblad believes digital biology is the new IT. Programming and software development are the skills of today, but going forward, we should learn to program DNA. Technologies like CRISPR-Cas already allow genome editing. These are the tools for future human development, allowing us to live longer, more healthily and disease-free.
In 10 years, everyone could be wearing a chip. Imagine how easy it would be to have a chip that logs all activity, body temperature, pulse, blood sugar, medical records or any other imaginable information. This data could be used to adjust diet and to make conscious decisions about our bodies and health. With the very same chip, you could also enter buildings, make payments or even provide proof of identity.
For now, the closest we can get to that without implanting huge card deck sized computers under our skin is a chip that can replace cards and keys. Chip parties are organized by different groups around the world on a weekly basis, and at the first such in Finland, at SHIFT 2018, 14 people got chipped. With more and more people entering the biohacking community, more innovations are made every day. As the industry evolves, it creates potential for the human species to evolve and keep pace with our technology.