Human beings aren’t simply content with using technology. For some, technology has a strong role to play in helping humans evolve and escape our biological limitations. If you can find a way to merge flesh and bone with metal and wire, you put yourself in a position to change the world by refining and enhancing your perception of it.
This goal holds true not just for weirdos sitting around in their basements and tinkering with devices and home-brewed implants. It also goes for scientists at the top of their field. And sometimes, those people are the same people.
Kara Platoni, a science and technology reporter based in Oakland, spent the last few years traveling the country and observing strange and exciting biohacking projects springing up these days. In her new book, “We Have The Technology,” she describes the hardware upgrade that could change humanity for the better or, baring that, weirder. Inverse spoke with Platoni about what she saw in all those garages.
Just to start, tell me about the two or three most exciting people you met on your biohacking odyssey.
So the book opens and closes with Grindhouse Wetware, which is a biohack collective based out of Pittsburgh. When I met them in the fall of 2013, they had just implanted this device called the Circadia into the arms of Tim Cannon, which is one of the group’s founders. It was like a deck of playing cards on the interior plane of his arm. It was essentially a temperature sensor. It would read his body temperature and report that information to his cell phone. The idea was an early test case to see if they could build something in their basement, implant it, and not have him die. That was the main thing! And they wanted to know a lot of the big questions about implants, like how do you power them over a long period of time? So how would you support the information out to your phone through your body? Would it be painful to wear? One of the considerations they had was couldn’t be implanted too deeply — they were worried about it to rubbing on his skin and making it hard to wear?
So that was a first step device towards their next project, called Northstar. The idea of the Northstar is they implant a magnetic compass in the back of your hand and have it light up to indicate when you’re facing north. That would give you sensory capability that other animals have. The ability to find true north, which was an interesting idea. Just three or four weeks ago they came out with the first version for the Northstar. The first iteration of the Northstar that they implant does not have the compass yet. They just made it have the ability to light up. They created a star-shaped design for it. So if that’s successful they’ll try adding a magnet.
A group that I don’t think they would think of themselves as hackers, but are fascinating nonetheless, was this group I went to see in Paris which was helping people who have Alzheimer’s. A lot of people don’t know this, and I was surprised to learn this myself, but the first clinically observable symptom of Alzheimer’s is loss of smell. Not the total loss of the ability to smell, like when you have a bad cold, but the inability to distinguish between different scents. Basically things start smelling more and more alike because it’s harder for you to identify which is which. The reason for this is because in the brain the olfactory center is one of the first parts of the brain that’s affected by the neurodegeneration that’s affiliated with Alzheimer’s. Neurons become less able to talk to their neighbors. They can’t pass information as well as they used to be able to do. That’s a big problem for all brain functions, but particularly smell. Lots of olfactory receptors have to work together to identify something. If half of those receptors aren’t functional, basically you can’t read the pattern, you don’t get the right information, and you can’t identify the scent.
So there’s a cool group in Paris called the Cosmetic Executive of Women. They’re women who work in the cosmetics industry. They have come up with this idea of taking smells into hospitals, mostly to give patients a moment of relief from terrible hospital food and the monotony of having to lie in bed all day. They soon realized that this was especially meaningful for people who had dementia relating to aging, or who had had head injuries or other traumas that are affecting their abilities to smell. They came up with the idea of developing a library of scents that people could smell and you give them to people so they can start conversations. A lot of people who have Alzheimers are very withdrawn, they’re uncommunicative, it’s hard for them to remember who people are, names, what objects are, to talk to other people, so they withdraw. It’s painful not only for the patient, but for their families. So the women thought what if we created this thing called olfactotherapy.
What they do is they gather a group of people and then they have all of these scents that they’ve developed that are in these little glass jars, then they bring in paper blotters like the kind they use in perfume counters, and they dip them in and wave them onto the person’s nose and they ask them to recall a memory. They say what are you smelling. When I went to observe it, it was an amazing experience. There were some people who had been very uncommunicative who became alert and involved with other people when they were smelling things. There is a second group in Singapore that’s doing a project called Smell Memory, that’s very similar, and in their pilot program, they had said it doesn’t matter if the person can’t identify the scent. Even if they bring up the wrong scent, it can bring up a memory for them and let them talk to other people.
One of the examples they gave me was an elderly man from India. They gave him the scent of jasmine because they associate it with flower garlands, it’s a beloved scent. The man said it’s roses, and it wasn’t, but from that one word he said “girlfriend.” As they continued to draw it out, he shared this memory with them of being a teenager and how he and his friends would save up money to buy roses for the girls who went to the convent schools across the street from the boys school. So it helped him recall this memory, experience these emotions, even though he got it wrong. That’s the cool thing, the magic of using olfactory therapy. It has happen around neurodegenerative damage.
One of the most interesting parts of the book is your emphasis on soft biohacking. The idea that you’re kind of changing your mental capabilities to perceive new things. I was wondering if you could maybe give me a more all-encompassing definition of what it is and how it’s distinct from conventional self-improvement.
Technology doesn’t necessarily mean gadgets and electronics and implant devices. Technology to me is anything a human made as a tool. In the book I talk about a lot of things that people don’t necessarily think are technology but they are. For example, the chapter on smell was just about people who are using scent as a way to help people with Alzheimer’s recover memories. Well that’s technology — it’s chemistry technology. Then the chapter on taste, which is about the search for a fixed taste, something beyond sweet, sour, salty, or umami. The technology there is language. You perceive something if you don’t have a word for it, if you don’t have a mental construct. Which turns out to be germane to the search for a fixed taste because it’s very hard to describe something if you don’t already have a concept for it, if your culture doesn’t already have a word for it.
So the technical problem created a linguistics problem that maybe engendered a thinking problem that made the technical problem harder to overcome….
Your own personal experiences teach you what is meaningful or salient to pay attention to. The world is full of huge amounts of information that’s bombarding us. Your brain can’t take it all in. Your brain has to make a coherent linear timeline for you. It collects, it selects the things we pay attention to. The language you speak, the place you grew up, things that have happened before, all of these things are important to shaping your perception.
So that was kind of what brought me to this idea of what I’m calling soft biohacking. The idea that people influence one-another and we influence each other’s thinking. We influence the way we understand each others’ worlds. I thought about this and I’m certainly not the only person who has landed on these ideas. A lot of what we do as social animals influences the way we think and the way we understand the world. This idea of biohacking — changing our perception or using technology to alter perception — isn’t new. It’s not a 21st century thing. I think you could argue that storytelling is a technology that we’ve had for thousands of years that alters perception. You can transport yourself to imaginary worlds and experience things that you never experience with your physical body. Certainly long before the admin of virtual reality and augmented reality, we had other media technology that alters perception, alters consciousness. Books, the written word, certainly does that. Movies, radio, gets an image in your head of a fantasy world. I think you can also make a great argument that drug use is one of the huge ways that we affect perception, allowing you to have these experiences you otherwise could not have.
It sounds like you’re trying to blur the lines a bit to point out that intentionally altering our biology or perception isn’t just the latest trend
Some of the people I talked to said this idea of biohacking is nothing new, it’s just more so nowadays. It’s more powerful. It’s more subtle as we get to the age in which we have devices that can alter perception that we were constantly or we wear over the eye or on the wrist or even eventually in the case of implants inside the body, they’re influencing you all the time and you forget they’re there. That’s very powerful and it’s different than going to a movie, which ends after 90 minutes. It’s different than taking a drug trip that eventually ends.
To what extent does soft biohacking lay the groundwork for hard biohacking? Or are those two worlds more or less separated?
We’re dealing with a giant population so it’s hard to know exactly who’s been influencing other people. My sense from biohackers is that in general they operate pretty far outside the industry and the academic world because they’re doing things that the industry and academia can’t. So biohackers experiment on themselves, and in certain ways that gives them a lot of freedom. You don’t have to go through the permissions process for human clinical trial to do it. You don’t have to get permission from a university’s ethics department to do it. You don’t have to develop a mouse model before trying it on a person. You don’t have to write to somebody to get a grant. You just do it!
So they have all these freedoms that other researchers don’t, but then again they have all these risks that others don’t. You’re putting all kinds of things in your body, you take on all kinds of medical risks, including the risk of massive infection. So the feeling that I got when I would go talk to the biohackers versus talking to the more conventional scientists, they weren’t necessarily in communication with one another but they were interested in one another. In some ways I felt like the middleman; I was carrying information from one group to another. I would go hang out in the biohacker basement and then I would go to the universities and say, ‘Check out what these guys are doing!’ And the scientists would say, ‘Wow, that is amazing!’ And then I would ask the scientists, what do you think it means from a neuroscience point of view? What do you think is happening in the brain when people do this? Then I would go back to the biohackers and say, here’s what the scientists said, what do you think? I don’t think they are as well connected as they might be. Although I think they’re all interested in the same questions and looking at the same big ideas from different points of view.
For a lot of these projects, a big purpose is wanting to find a way to alter the physiology of perception for problems. But in a lot of cases, it seems like there are already technology that might allow you to do something like this, that doesn’t require actually manipulating our physiology. For instance maybe you alter your eyesight to see in infrared or ultraviolet. What would be the impetus of wanting to directly alter eyesight perception, the actual biology of the human body?
When I talk to biohackers, they would say, ‘We’re so frustrated because there’s so much information in the universe that humans can’t perceive. But other animals can perceive it.’ We know biological apparatuses exist. For example, sharks can sense electricity. Lots of animals can sense magnetic fields. Butterflies, fish, sea turtles, even bacteria, lots of animals that migrate have to gain a sense of where they are in space. So the biohackers were saying why can’t we do that? Why can’t we see infrared? There’s so much out there and we’re blind to it and it’s frustrating.
But on the other end of the spectrum, most of the implants that have been developed so far by medical researchers are for people with very severe medical needs. They usually develop, for example the retinal implant is developed for people who are blind. People who work in the medical field have this moral code that you can do no harm. So all of these products are developed for people who really have nothing to lose in trying a new procedure. For example, in the vision chapter, I write about one of the first people in the world who has relearned how to see. A man who was born with normal vision lost it due to a genetic condition called retinitis pigmentosa. He volunteered for the clinical trial and became one of the first people in the world to be able to regain some of his vision through this implant. Now what he perceives now as vision is very different than what he perceived as a young man before he lost his sight. It’s very different than what you and I consider as sight. He doesn’t see three dimensional objects, he sees basically flashes of light that kind of indicate high contrast areas between light and dark for him. But it’s enough that he can use it to navigate when he walks around, to find objects in his home, to interact with other people, to know when they’re close to him when they’re looking at him — all of it helps him get around in the world.
But if you had normal vision, this retinal implant wouldn’t help you. In fact getting the surgery would be costly, there’s risk associated with it, it wouldn’t be worth it. Things like prosthetic limbs are being developed to help people that have either lost a limb or can’t move because they’re paralyzed for some reason. A lot of work is going into essentially developing limbs for them that are controlled by an implant in the brain. So they just think and the arm or leg moves, which is pretty amazing technology accomplishment. The next generation of these devices will be able to add touch feedback, so you can actually feel with the robotic limb. Once again, those things don’t work any better than your own arm or leg might if you have an arm or leg that you can use. It’s not going to be much better. So the biohackers could say, “why can’t I have five arms or ten arms or a robot to shoot out, that would be cool.” People in the medical industry would say, “you don’t need it.”
I wanted to know if you encountered any situation where at any point there arose any question of to what extent it might be irresponsible to jeopardize one’s safety when altering their physiology? Did ethical questions or conflicts ever come up?
I didn’t have too many people talk about the safety question, although I’m sure there are lots of people who would never allow this to be done at their university or business. But I had some fascinating conversations about what it means to alter this human body and the expectation of what a normal body is and what one should be able to do, like with Gregor Wolbring, an abilities and disabilities scholar at the University of Calgary. One of the things he pointed out to me was when you create a new technology, you create a lot of social pressure for everybody to be able to adapt to it, for people to use it and to buy it. Then when we start to think about wearable technologies and implant, you have to think about our expectations for who’s going to have to use them. Think about the telephone or the computer. There was a generation where nobody knew how to use these things. Now everybody has to. If you want to complete an education and get a middle class job, you need to be able to use these technologies.
So what if that happens with something like an augmented reality spectacle? What if you’re expected to be able to buy one of these and wear one of these to perform your job? I talked to some people who are developing these technologies about the idea of this space race for human capabilities. It raises the idea that we are actually evolving ourselves, and somebody who has better technology is going to outcompete you. You have to buy and wear or maybe even implant better technology. They said, yeah it’s happening, but this is no different than the pointed stick or fire. Humans have always built technologies that gave them a survival advantage — it’s just what we do. We are a maker species. That’s a really interesting ethical question.
Any other thoughts you have on your book or this field of science and technology?
As a species, we’re aware of our smallness in the universe. We know that there’s a lot we don’t know. We know that there’s a lot we can’t do. We’re on the cusp of this technological era in which we can really truly influence what happens in our bodies and in our brains. Right now a lot of these technologies are novel and only for people who have special circumstances. But there’s a day coming and it’s not long off when we have to make decisions about the mainstream application of these technologies. We really have to think about, what’s in this device? What can it do? What should it be capable of? Several of the people who founded cautionary notes told me we really should think about these things while they’re in development, before they get to the commercial state where the only choice for the commercialist is do I buy it or not? Do I buy it in pink or silver? So on the one hand I feel like we have this amazing impulse to explore and to build and to want to be able to do more and experience more. On the other hand these technologies are really powerful and I think we should think about them while they are still developing.