The Bleeding Edge of Technology: ‘Biohackers’ Embed Computer Chips in their Bodies

Editor’s Note: Apparently getting a computer chip embedded in you is all the rage now. Is this the government trying to make this sound cool, so other people will voluntarily “hack” themselves? Or are these people that daft?

In tattoo parlors and basements around the world, people are turning themselves into cyborgs by embedding magnets and computer chips directly into their bodies.

They call themselves biohackers, cyborgs and grinders. With each piece of technology they put beneath their skin, they are exploring the boundaries — and the implications — of fusing man and machine.

Welcome to the world of biohacking.

It’s a niche community at the literal bleeding edge of body modification, and it attracts fervent fans from a variety of schools of thought. Some simply enjoy experimenting with new tech. Others use the magnets and chips for utilitarian purposes. A few, paradoxically, see it as a path to get back to nature.

For cyborg Zoe Quinn, a well-known developer in the independent video game world, the magnet and chip in her hand have become inseparable from her body and her identity.

“Being a cyborg is just who I am now,” Quinn told NBC News. “To get [the magnet or chip] removed would be like losing a sense at this point, losing part of me.”

Gaining a magnetic or electronic “sixth sense” isn’t easy. Doctors won’t perform the implantation, so would-be biohackers generally turn to body modification shops, which are usually part of tattoo parlors and can’t legally offer anesthesia. Others perform the amateur operation on themselves.

Many cyborgs get the technology embedded in their fingers or hands, where the skin is thin enough for the devices to interact with external objects. Those with magnets can sense magnetic fields around them; a contractor, for example, can find studs in a wall. Stick a computer chip under the skin and it can do a lot of things: send data to smartphones and other devices, open specially outfitted doors, act as permanent headphones embedded in a person’s ears and do anything else the chips’ creators may dream up. Even the U.S. government is working on a device that would be implanted in the brain to restore memory.

It’s an experimental world that Quinn entered in October 2013, when she and a roommate traveled from Boston to New York City to get magnets in their fingers. Quinn’s roommate went white and sweaty when the technician used his scalpel to cut about a centimeter into the top of her finger and insert the magnet.

“It was like my finger had exploded,” Quinn said. “The whole thing takes just a minute, but it was the longest minute of my life.”

But the payoff for her pain was immediate: “As soon as [the technician] was finished, he touched his magnet to mine. It was totally worth it to feel that tug, that pull,” Quinn said.

The real joy for Quinn — a 26-year-old who grew up in a small Adirondacks town and became enamored of video games when her father bought a console at a garage sale — came when the wound healed about two weeks later. She felt something strange one night when she was working on a game on her computer.

“It felt like I’d put my hand against a can of something really carbonated,” she said. “I realized, oh my God, I’m feeling my hard drive. I can feel this whole new dimension of the tools I use to make my art. It was beautiful.”

Precursors to today’s cyborg date back to the 19th century with tales like “Frankenstein,” and modern sci-fi pop culture has been consumed with characters like RoboCop, the Bionic Woman and the Terminator. The jump from the bolts in Frankenstein’s monster’s neck to real-life biohacking started with early pioneers like Kevin Warwick, a cybernetics professor at the University of Reading, who in 1998 had a silicon chip surgically implanted in his forearm.

Biohacking became a small but strong movement thanks mainly to body modification artists like Steve Haworth who were already skilled in piercing and scarification — and they were aided by our changing relationship with technology. Is it really so extreme, they ask, to wed technology and tissue in a time when we can’t go a single day without our smartphones? We clutch our devices like talismans, wear Google Glass on our faces and have developed doors that unlock by tracking our heartbeats.

But the leap from Google Glass to sub-dermal technology is a big one, and real-life cyborgs are far from mainstream.

“You get this visceral reaction, this recoil, from people who make a snap judgment and don’t know what it’s about,” said Amal Graafstra, a cyborg who creates and sells biohacking devices — including a chip that Zoe Quinn implanted in her own hand in May — through his company Dangerous Things.

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