Imagine for a moment that you could choose any superpower you wanted. If you’re the demonstrative sort, you might be tempted by something dramatic, such as Hulk-like strength or the ability to fly. Or perhaps you’d prefer something a little more discreet, like a self-healing body or the power to read minds.
But if you’re a certain type of pragmatist, you’ll dismiss all of the above as a mere parlor game. Why waste time dreaming about things that are impossible (for now, at least) when you can have a more modest superpower today, at a reasonable price?
That’s the premise behind a small but growing subculture of DIY biohackers, body hackers, grinders, and self-made cyborgs, who are taking advantage of widely available technologies such as tracking chips, LEDs, magnets, and motion sensors to imbue themselves with a sixth sense of sorts. They range from professionals such as Kevin Warwick, the publicity-friendly Reading University professor behind Project Cyborg, to spiky-haired cyberpunks such as Lepht Anonym, whose taste in surgical tools runs to vegetable peelers. Call them “practical transhumanists”—people who would rather become cyborgs right now than pontificate about the hypothetical far-off future.
So what kind of sixth sense could you acquire today if you were in the market? Anything from infrared vision to an internal compass to a sort of “spidey sense” that alerts you when something is approaching from behind. And the cost can run from the tens of thousands of dollars to as little as a few bucks, as long as you have a scalpel and a hearty tolerance for risk and pain.
The concept of implanting bionic devices is by no means radical or new in the medical field—just ask anyone with a pacemaker or an insulin pump. But the notion of healthy people sticking gadgets in their bodies for fun, profit, or sensory augmentation is a more recent phenomenon. It’s an offshoot of the transhumanist movement, which took root in California in the 1980s among a set of philosophers, dreamers, and technophiles who believed that emerging technologies could reshape humanity for the better. But while the transhumanists held conferences, wrote books, formed think tanks, and sparred with bioethicists, a few who shared their vision began to wonder where the action was.
In 1998, Warwick, a professor of cybernetics, had a doctor surgically implant a simple radio-frequency identification transmitter in his upper left arm, in an experiment that he called Project Cyborg. The chip didn’t do a whole lot—it mainly just tracked him around the halls of the university and turned on the lights to his lab when he walked in. But Warwick was thrilled and the media were enchanted, declaring him the world’s first cyborg. (Others bestow the title on Steve Mann of the University of Toronto, who has been wearing computers and cameras on his head for decades.) He later followed up with more complex implants, including a 100-electrode chip that transmitted signals from his wrist to a computer.
Warwick’s initial RFID implant was a turning point in the history of transhumanism not because it represented a great technological leap, but because it required no technological leap at all. What he did, anyone could do. To some, that made him a charlatan. To others, it makes him a hero.
What it undeniably did was pave the way for people with far fewer resources to experiment with enhancements of their own—often without the aid of medical professionals. One of the most extreme examples is Anonym, a tattooed young woman from Scotland who describes herself as a “scrapheap transhumanist.” In a memorable appearance at a conference in Berlin in December 2010, Anonym described her first foray into grinding thusly: “I sat down in my kitchen with a vegetable peeler, I shit you not, and I decided to put things in my hands. … The first time I ever sat down, it went horribly, horribly wrong. The whole thing went septic, and I put myself in the hospital for two weeks.” For most people, that would be ample motivation to swear off grinding for good. But Anonym learned lessons and kept at it, successfully implanting an RFID chip before moving on to other implants like a temperature sensor and a neodymium magnet that would vibrate in response to alternating current. Her exploits, in turn, inspired others.