Human Augmentation 101: Four fascinating (and slightly insane) things we learned at Silicon Valley’s “Body Hacking” conference

Cyborgs, chip implants and many forms of futurism were on display at a recent showcase in Atherton

(Image via the Bdyhax Facebook page)

Atherton’s Menlo College played host this past weekend to “Human Augmentation 101,” a full-day conference put on by BDY HAX, which also runs an Austin-based two-day convention by that name.

“Body Hacking,” for the uninitiated (like me), means different things to different people, explains the BDY HAX website: “For one person, bodyhacking looks like piercings, tattoos, and meditation. For another, it looks like the newest prosthetic limb. It could include specialized biometric tracking devices, or cognitive enhancers.” At its core, though, the site explains, it is characterized by a “DIY ethos.”

The first West Coast iteration of the event brought together academics and students, techies and physicians to showcase new innovations in body hacking and discuss complex questions like: What is the human body capable of on its own, and with technical assistance? When innovations are made that boost human capacity, what is the most fair and just way to provide access to such tools? Also, why is it that some such tools and practices are seen as fringe-y sci-fi, yet others — like microchipping one’s pet, or getting an IUD birth control implant — are more commonplace and accepted?

So after a full day of different demos and talks by world-class experts, here are four things we learned while listening. Take a look….

1—Body hackers can be classified into three groups: cyborgs, biohackers and grinders.

Polish journalist Magda Gacyk gave us a quick primer on these three different classifications. Cyborgs, she explained, are body hackers who are most interested in fusing man and machine. A good example of a cyborg is Neil Harbisson, who, according to National Geographic, was color-blind, but, due to an antenna-like implant that boosts his perception of light, is now able to sense visible and invisible waves of light. Another is Spanish avant-garde artist Moon Ribas, who has implanted a seismic sensor in her elbow that allows her to feel earthquakes through vibrations, according to Quartz. (Both individuals are featured in the video below.)

One growing “cyborg” trend is to install magnets in one’s fingertips, enabling one to sense magnetic fields.

Biohackers, on the other hand, are more into using science and engineering to tinker with genes and boost human capacity internally, whether through activities like yoga and meditation, or drugs.

According to the BDY HAX website, “Biohacking includes aspects of bodyhacking such as nootropics (drugs that improve cognitive function), diet and exercise, but also refers to hacking the biology of plants, bacteria, viruses, and other organic material.”

Third, there are “grinders,” a term that, according to Wired, “started in 1998, when Reading University cybernetics professor Kevin Warwick implanted an RFID tag in his arm so he could turn on lights with a finger snap.” Grinders are considered the most “hard-core” about implants and body modifications, Gacyk told me. The New York Times earlier this year characterized the movement as “medical punk.”

Doug Copeland injects a chip implant into a woman’s hand. (Photo by Adam Pardee.)

2—Chip implants are becoming increasingly popular around the world.

Doug Copeland, of the Dangerous Minds podcast, performed chip implants at the conference, while explaining some of the different implants that are available and how people use them.

People can use chip implants for a range of uses, Copeland explained. They can carry electronic keys and be an extra-safe way to protect passwords, or can simply keep one’s wallet light. (He said he uses his as a key to his motorcycle.) Most commonly, these implants are RFID or NFC implants. According to Ars Tecnhica, which in January reported that there are an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 people who have implants, “RFID chips are identified using radio waves, and near-field communication (NFC) chips are a branch of high-frequency radio waves.”

One attendee commented that he was considering programming an implant that could be read by a Clipper Card reader.

From left: Doug Copeland describes the pros and cons of different kinds of implants; Copeland has displayed a “North Sense” implant, which vibrates in its host whenever one is pointing north, enabling users to be human compasses, of sorts. (Photos by Adam Pardee.)

Implants can also be used for aesthetic purposes, Copeland explained, like the “Firefly” implant, a radioactive capsule that gives its hosts a faint glow in the dark. (He was wary of this one, given that it’s, you know, radioactive, and carries at least some small chance of the capsule breaking and releasing tritium into the bloodstream.) There are other implants that contain LED lights that have been used to illuminate tattoos.

Another implant Copeland described is called “North Sense” and is inserted into the chest. It vibrates when the person whose body it inhabits points north.

“Does getting an implant hurt?” I asked. Copeland said it doesn’t really, and that the body will typically encase the product with tissue over time.

“How else could implants be used?” I asked. He responded: “The sky’s the limit.”

Dr. Paul Abramson talks about the brain activity that’s generated under the influences of different psychedelic drugs. (Photo by Adam Pardee.)

3 — The pros and cons of ketamine.

Dr. Paul Abramson, a member of the clinical faculty at UCSF, says he uses ketamine in treating some patients, but that it can be extremely dangerous if users become psychologically addicted to it.

He noted it is widely used recreationally, especially in the Bay Area, and in particular by 20- to 40-year-old high-functioning men, he said.

Ketamine — which, unlike other psychedelic drugs, is not considered a Schedule I drug by the Drug Enforcement Administration — has strong dissociative power, meaning it makes people feel like they’re leaving their bodies. That means people can have died by exposure to the cold or by drowning under its influence.

The drug does have some positive benefits, Abramson explained. It has been shown to increase neuroplasticity after its use, tends to remove suicidal thoughts for days at a time and is a powerful anesthetic.

But overuse can lead to delusional psychosis and paranoia. “It’s tragic and it’s often permanent,” he said.

Scott Novich, Ph.D., gives a presentation about how he and colleagues went about developing a vest that creates new sensory experiences. (Photo by Adam Pardee.)

4—There are some pretty fascinating innovations emerging from the body hacking movement.

Scott Novich, Ph.D., co-founder of NeoSensory, gave a presentation about a vest he developed with colleagues that creates new sensory experiences.

In a demonstration video, he practiced saying different, simple words aloud to a deaf person wearing the vest, which generated different vibratory patterns in response to spoken words. Eventually, the person wearing the vest was able to identify the words by the pattern the sound made on the vest.

Novich explained that human sensation is far more complex than can be explained by the five senses.

A spectrum of different receptors throughout the body are able to feel many different kinds of sensations and interpret them to tell the body about the external world. For example, proprioceptors figure out where one’s limb is positioned. Baroreceptors measure pressure and keep one’s blood flowing properly. Pacinian receptors respond to pressure and vibrations. These senses shape one’s perception at any point in time.

There’s a lot of complexity in how these receptors convey information to the brain and how the brain interprets them, he explained. “The reality is far messier.”

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Kate Bradshaw

Kate Bradshaw

Kate Bradshaw reports food news and feature stories all over the Peninsula, from south of San Francisco to north of San José. Since she began working with Embarcadero Media in 2015, she's reported on everything from Menlo Park's City Hall politics to Mountain View's education system. She has won awards from the California News Publishers Association for her coverage of local government, elections and land use reporting.

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