Biohacking or Wetware Hacking is the practice of engaging biology with the hacker ethic. Biohacking encompasses a wide spectrum of practices and movements ranging from “grinders” who design and install do-it-yourself body-enhancements such as magnetic implants to do-it-yourself biologists who conduct at-home gene sequencing. Biohacking emerged in a growing trend of non-institutional science and technology development. Biohacking is a crazy-sounding name for something not crazy at all—the desire to be the absolute best version of ourselves. The main thing that separates a biohacker from the rest of the self-improvement world is a systems-thinking approach to our own biology.
AN INTRODUCTION TO TRANSHUMANISM: TRANSCENDING THE HUMAN BODY’S LIMITS
WHAT EXACTLY IS BIOHACKING?
Biohacking is a crazy-sounding name for something not crazy at all—the desire to be the absolute best version of ourselves. The main thing that separates a biohacker from the rest of the self-improvement world is a systems-thinking approach to our own biology. You know how coffee feels like a shot of energy to your brain? Within minutes you can feel a big change in energy while the only difference is the coffee in your stomach. What you put into your body has an ENORMOUS impact on how you feel. We all know this. What we eat and drink is one way we alter our state. Music is another. If you put on smooth jazz, you’ll feel different than if you blast techno. The things we put in our stomach and ears are inputs into our biology.
As humans, we are complex systems. Our input determines our output. Our behaviors, our health, and our performance in all areas of life are outputs. If we want better outputs, for example to have more energy and focus, to be free of disease, to have a better memory, to perform optimally in business and athletics by tweaking the things we put into our body and mind to stack the deck in our favor. Biohackers use the tools of the Quantified Self to measure these inputs and outputs, and to experimentally test the effect of different tweaks. As we mentioned before, biohacking is about getting your hands dirty and learning from experience.
HUMANITY+ AND TRANSHUMANISM
Humanity+ is an international, nonprofit organization dedicated to mainstreaming what many basement biohackers are trying to do—improve humanity with the help of technology. The organization operates under the mission statement of using technology for ethical reasons, as well as focusing on the expansion of human capabilities to create the next step in human evolution. That includes extending the human life span and cracking through barriers when it comes to things like smart prosthetics, cryonics, and regenerative medicine.
They’re also adopting the philosophical school of trans-humanism. At its core, trans-humanism is the idea that the human race as we know it now is little more than a sort of early prototype. With help from technology, implants, and genetic engineering, we’re going to evolve to something beyond human, which trans-humanists also call “post-human.” Along with the actual physical process of undergoing these changes, they’re also interested in some of the ethical questions and moral responsibilities that come with advancement, such as what we’re going to end up doing with these technological superpowers.
Humanity+ states that this is absolutely not a new idea, even though it’s only in the past few decades that we’ve really been able to explore trans-humanism on a large scale. They argue that the history of the movement goes way back and that its roots can be seen in the Greek idea of using ambrosia on the skin to prevent aging and decay and the alchemical attempts to create an elixir of life.
THE POTENTIAL DANGERS OF BIOHACKING
Wahle has demonstrated how the chip can be equipped with a Near Field Communications (NFC) antenna that sends a signal out to any nearby Android phone. It prompts the user to open a file, and once they click on the link, they’re giving full control of their phone to a remote computer. The whole thing is still in its infancy, but the principle is sound. The amount of programming needed to make the link appear legitimate is certainly not extensive. Currently, the remote computer is disconnected when the phone is turned off, but that’s also an easy enough problem to solve by downloading a program on the hijacked phone that starts when it’s turned on.
Perhaps the most terrifying thing is how undetectable it is. Wahle was in the military when he had the chip implanted, and they never knew it was there. He says that he went through military scanners on a daily basis, along with going through airport security and checkpoints. No one ever discovered he was implanted with a device that could give him control of any Android phone.
Done with the help of a security consulting firm, the implants and the programming show just how easy it is to not just implant a device that’s activated simply by coming in contact with its target but that’s completely undetectable by all our military and airport security systems. Wahle and his colleagues suggest that this is just the beginning of the biohacking threat and point out that it can be done with materials anyone can get their hands on.
EXTRA: 6 EASY SUPERHUMAN HACKS YOU CAN TRY ON YOURSELF
1. Butter for breakfast. We’re not talking about butter on toast or a bagel either. We’re talking about, wait for it… putting butter in a cup of coffee. This isn’t any ordinary butter either; it’s organic, grass-fed butter. And, that’s not all. Mix in a tablespoon of coconut oil, or its more concentrated cousin, MCT (medium chain triglyceride), which biohackers claim pays off in hours of hunger-free energy and focus. That’s because MCT is broken down into ketones, which some research suggests, can be a good source of fuel for the brain. Richardson says that his frothy, buttered coffee is “the best part of his morning,” helping him “hone in on important tasks.”
2. Fat first, and second. In what he touts as an upgraded paleo diet, Asprey has been known to consume 30 to 50 percent of his daily caloric intake from fat sources. After eliminating processed foods like sugar, gluten, grains and alcohol, Asprey suggests eating grass-fed meat and healthy fats alongside organic fruits and vegetables for a more potent punch of nutrients — without all the additives and empty calories.
3, Eat, stop, eat. We’ve been told that grazing throughout the day helps keep our metabolism humming. However, there’s not exactly a ton of evidence to support that fact. Asprey suggests eating when hunger strikes, even if that means skipping a meal. This approach, known as intermittent fasting, favors long periods with no food. Richardson says that this approach is “less of a diet, and more of a pattern” wherein food is consumed during a feeding window. Richardson follows a routine that has him eating his meals between 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. each day. Although the techniques differ, the goal is usually the same: accelerated fat loss, improved insulin sensitivity and protein synthesis.
4. Good vibrations. Biohackers like Asprey say that one of the best ways to shake up a lousy workout routine is to actually shake up our bodies using Whole Body Vibration training (WBV). Although researchers are still on the fence, a number of pro athletes and Olympians are sold. They’re using WBV training as part of their workout routine to help speed up weight loss, improve strength and stability, and increase the hormonal response to exercise.
5. Just breathe. Meditation and yoga can help reduce stress, promote productivity, and encourage creativity. The next evolution of these practices is heart rate variability training. This technique extends beyond simply monitoring the heart rate. As Richardson puts it, he is using his “brain and breathing pattern to control his heart rate.” With the help of a biofeedback device like his emWave2 from HeartMath, Richardson sets out to “gain awareness of and alter this physiological function.” Over time, he says he’s been able to “alleviate stress and slip into ‘the zone’ at will.”
6. Shut it down. When it comes to sleep, it’s all about quality. Researchers at the University of British Columbia reported that poor sleep quality can be disastrous for our mental, physical and emotional health. That’s why biohackers like Richardson and Asprey are making an effort to improve their sleep habits. Richardson avoids caffeine after 2 p.m. and usually reads in the evening instead of watching television or surfing the web. Asprey takes the process one step further by using the sleep tracking app Sleep Cycle to monitor the quality of his sleep and detect disruptions.
EXTRA: THE HUMAN CYBORG
The true scope of the potential of biohacking really got its start at the University of Reading, with a professor named Kevin Warwick. Warwick and his colleagues in the Cybernetics Division wanted to know if they could build a computer that would interface with the biological systems of a person.
Dubbed “Project Cyborg,” Warwick implanted the first chip in his arm in 1998. The chip sent out a signal that allowed a computer to track Warwick, opening doors for him and turning on lights and computers as he moved through the department. That experiment was soon followed by another, in which Warwick implanted one chip in his wife and a similar one in himself. The matching chips allowed him to feel what she was doing, and Warwick claimed it was a sort ofelectronic telepathy.
Not surprisingly, Warwick is a pretty controversial character in the scientific community. More recent experiments have brought him steps closer to combining the electronic and the technical with the biological. In 2011, he progressed to using robots to transmit information through sensors into brain cells grown in culture, in order to get those cells to process information and begin to interact with outside stimuli.
According to Warwick, it’s difficult work, because the cells don’t always seem to do what he wants and are developing a moody mind of their own. Right now, Warwick is just using rat cells, but he’s hoping that within a few years he’ll have progressed to human brain cells, being able to create a human brain in a dish that can interact with everything in the lab. Warwick, who also claimed to have created the computer that beat the Turing test (a feat which is still up for debate), is undoubtedly breaking down some serious boundaries between the biological and the technological.