Science fiction has a plethora of ideas about what happened in the past and what to expect from the future. Unfortunately, not all of those ideas are exactly plausible in reality. In Suspension of Disbelief, we’ll take a look at the best ideas from sci-fi movies, books, comics and videogames to see where (and if) they intersect with the real world.
Cyborgs tend to get a bad rap. The Terminator’s only organic components are a disguise so it can kill people easier and Darth Vader’s machine body is a metaphor for his fall to the Dark Side. Even if you’re a good cyborg, having electronic upgrades is typically linked to a certain detachment from humanity, like with RoboCop. The idea being that the more enhancements you have, the less human you can be. In Deus Ex, augmented humans are a subjugated minority, feared by their unaugmented brethren and quarantined in ghettos. Our science-fiction tends to reflect a natural fear of enhancing the human body through electronics and, frankly, that reaction isn’t far off from reality for a lot of modern cyborgs.
A good portion of modern cybernetics consists of microchips which can be easily placed into the body to collect data and perform simple functions. Scientists, researchers, and doctors around the world have been experimenting with implanted microchips to help people with disabilities. On the other hand, do-it-yourself cyborgs, often called biohackers or grinders, use their own bodies as laboratories to test the ways that they can enhance and advance the human body.
They may not be as technologically advanced as their fictional counterparts but the backlash that microchipped people face is often quite severe. Take a look at the comments under any YouTube video discussing biohacking and you’ll get an idea for the kind of visceral reaction some people feel when they think about putting a microchip in their bodies. Most negative reactions revolve around the fear of a malicious government or individual hacking or tracking the chip (an unfounded fear since most chips aren’t GPS enabled). Conservative Christian groups have also stood in opposition to the voluntary enhancements, referring to the chips (which are sometimes placed in the right hand) as the Mark of the Beast, mentioned in the Book of Revelation as being on the right hand.
Biohackers argue that there are more pressing issues facing microchipped and enhanced people, like protecting their right to bodily autonomy, a core tenet of transhumanism. Transhumanism is the belief that humanity can and should be improved through the use of technology. They insist that their enhancements should be treated like any other organ and that the government can’t just take them or any data that may be stored on them. They argue that there should be laws in place to protect a biohacker when someone else purposely damages their implant.
Transhumanists, biohackers, and many scientists, engineers, and inventors, including Elon Musk, believe that humanity’s future lies in its ability and willingness to merge itself with its technological creations. Lofty ideas about seeing in the dark and downloading memories are often floated by transhumanists, and they may seem far-fetched, but the future might be closer than you think.
Click through the gallery to see the wide range of applications microchips have in the human body. None of these images have any gore, but if you’re sensitive about needles, surgery, or blood, be warned: this might freak you out a little.
Hailing from upstate New York, Cameron Wade is a freelance writer interested in movies, videogames, comic books and more. You can find his work at protogeektheblog.wordpress.com.
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RFID and NFC Chips
By far the most common type of biohacking is to get an RFID chip or NFC chip implanted into a hand, usually by a body modification professional like a piercer. The chips are barely larger than a grain of rice and simple in design, but they have a large range of possible applications. With some anesthetic and the appropriate injector, they're relatively simple to implant and easy to use, making them a natural first step for fledgling grinders and the biohacker movement in general. RFID chips are the simpler of the two technologies. They don't have a battery of their own, instead they draw their power from the scanners that read them, and are usually used to unlock doors, cars, or computers. It's the same technology that's used in keycards except it eliminates the possibility of leaving your office badge at home. NFC chips are a little more complex. They have the ability to store information and then send that information to other NFC compatible devices when they're within range. NFC is used by Apple Pay or other mobile payment services, and has practically become standard in phones. Biohackers tend to use NFC chips to easily transmit contact details and to store health information, but the goal is to have the NFC chip replace wallets, acting as an all-in-one substitute for credit cards, business cards, and insurance cards. RFID and NFC chips have also been used as boarding passes at airports and as smart locks on firearms, though these uses are still just prototypes. Mark Gasson, a researcher at the University of Reading, got his own RFID chip (pictured) and experimented with how the chip could be used to spread computer virus. Gasson successfully infected his chip with a computer virus, which he then spread to other computer systems shutting off parts of the building to his colleagues.
Images via Mark Gasson/Paul Hughes
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Amal Graafstra was one of the most prominent early voices in the grinder community. A diehard transhumanist, he's the founder of the DIY biohacking company Dangerous Things and the creator of the aforementioned smart-locked gun. Another of Graafstra's inventions, also in the prototype stage, is VivoKey. VivoKey is an NFC platform designed to "cryptographically merge" your biological identity with the "collection of accounts, services, messages, transactions, and records which make up your digital identity." VivoKey is like a password that can't be lost, forgotten, or stolen because it's implanted in your forearm. Scanning it ensures that "the one true you is the only you using your devices, sending your messages, reading your email, accessing your accounts, opening your doors, driving your vehicles, and spending your money." Graafstra says that VivoKey is more secure than passwords or even two-factor authentication because it can't be intercepted or stolen. Similar to the way Graafstra's smart-locking gun is designed to only allow authorized users to fire a gun, VivoKey ensures that only you can access your digital identity. VivoKey isn't available for purchase yet, but Graafstra is currently testing one in his forearm and developing the ecosystem of apps that will integrate with it.
Images via YouTube/Motherboard, Amal Graafstra
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Circadia and North Star
In 2013, Tim Cannon, co-founder of the biohacking company Grindhouse Wetware, had an iPhone-sized chip called Circadia implanted under the skin of his forearm. The device would read his temperature at regular intervals, send that data to any Android device connected to it via Bluetooth, and even detect when he was getting a fever and alert him. For the 90 days that Cannon had the device in his arm, he said that he had panic attacks for the first 30 days. While Cannon installed an early version of the device as a proof of concept, the eventual goal with Circadia is to measure temperature, blood pressure, proteins, and blood glucose levels, look for warning signs of diseases, and contact emergency services when a lethal condition, like a heart attack, is detected. In 2015, Cannon and other Grindhouse Wetware employees got an LED device called North Star implanted into the back of their hands. North Star doesn't have any functions besides lighting up, but the team said that the experience taught them "how to make a safe implant that can survive in the body, how to work as a team, and how to work with other companies."
Image courtesy of Vice/YouTube, Photo by Ryan O'Shea
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Microchips have also been used to restore partial sight to people who had been completely blind for more than a decade. Chris James and Robin Millar were the first recipients of microchips designed to replace their retinas, which had failed due to a disease called retinitis pigmentosa. In a clinical trial conducted by the Oxford Eye Hospital and King's College Hospital in London, James and Millar underwent ten-hour operations in which a three millimeter microchip was placed on the back of their eyeballs. The chip is connected to a power supply behind their ears which can control the sensitivity of the device. Light comes into the eye and hits the chip's 1,500 sensors, which then transmit that data down along the optic nerve and into their brains. James described turning on the chip for the first time as like someone taking a photo with the flash on right in his face. The devices don't restore perfect sight though. The men can make out outlines and sense light, and only in black-and-white. Millar said that having the microchip did have one unexpected consequence: it allowed him to dream in color for the first time in 25 years.
Image via BBC
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Professor Kevin Warwick's Electrodes
Kevin Warwick is a Professor of Cybernetics at the University of Reading, England and, in 1998, he became the first person to implant an RFID chip in his body. But that wasn't the end of Warwick's experimenting. Warwick didn't just want a device that communicated with machines, he wanted to communicate with them personally. In 2002, Warwick got 100 electrodes implanted in the nerves of his wrist. Wires leading out from the electrodes could plug into a computer, essentially connecting Warwick's nervous system to the machine. Warwick was able to control a robotic arm by moving his own arm and feel the force and pressure that the robotic arm felt. He could also have ultrasonic signals sent into his nervous system through the electrodes giving him an extra sense: sonar. Warwick says he could tell that when an object moved in front of him just based off the sonar signals he received. Warwick's wife Irena volunteered to get a similar treatment allowing Warwick and her to connect their nervous systems together. When she moved her hand, his brain would feel the pulses. Warwick described it as a form of telepathy as the two were exchanging information solely through their nervous systems.
Photo courtesy of Kevin Warwick
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Ian Burkhart's Brain Microchip
Ian Burkhart's microchip isn't like the RFID and NFC chips that grinders tend to get. Burkhart isn't a grinder or a biohacker and his microchip implant isn't used to get into his office easier or unlock his phone quicker. Burkhart was paralyzed below his chest after a freak accident and lost the use of his arms and legs. In 2014, he underwent surgery to get a computer chip the size of an eraser implanted on the section of his brain that controls the hands. A cable connects the chip to a computer which can read his neural signals. Researchers at Ohio State University decoded Burkhart's neural signals and ascribed each thought pattern to the action Burkhart was trying to perform. Using this information, a set of electrodes that wrap around his right forearm, and a computer that learned from Burkhart as he practiced moving his hand, Burkhart can now think about moving and the electrodes will stimulate his muscles in order to move his arm, hand, and fingers. He's essentially bypassed the damage in his spine by connecting his brain to a computer and connecting the computer to the muscles in his arm. Though he still doesn't receive sensory information from his arm, Burkhart has demonstrated the chip's functionality by swiping a credit card, picking up a cell phone, pouring liquid into a glass, and playing Guitar Hero.
Image via Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center/ Battelle
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RFID and NFC chips are small enough to generally go unnoticed, but researchers at the University of California, Berkeley have developed something that, for all intents and purposes, would be invisible. Dubbed neural dust, the tiny chip is three millimeters long with a one millimeter sensor cube sitting on its edge. The neural dust is wireless, unlike Ian Burkhart's chip, and would be powered by ultrasound vibrations, which can pass through the body easily. So far, the dust has only been tested in the muscles and peripheral nerves of rats, but the team at UC Berkeley has high hopes for the micro devices. They could be used to treat epilepsy by stimulating nerves and muscles, trigger the immune system, suppress inflammations, and monitor muscles, organs, and the nervous system in real time. They could also be used to control prosthetics by placing them directly on the brain, though to do so would require shrinking the devices down to half the width of a human hair, something the team thinks they'll be able to do. The researches are also working to add oxygen and hormone detecting capabilities into the sensor and increasing the dust's longevity up to a decade or more without degradation.
Photo by Ryan Neely