Fumbling for the glasses that transform the world from fuzzed-out buildings and obscure shapes to clean lines and legible text, I opened an email from Liviu Babitz. As I slipped the glasses behind my ears and over the bridge of my nose, his words came into crisp focus. “One of the most important parts of us humans,” Babitz began, “[is] curiosity. Without this … we would still be in caves.” That interest has long been linked to innovation and improvement to our biology.
Whether by putting on a pair of glasses or obsessively tracking our biometrics with devices that never leave our side or with prosthetics, hearing aids and pacemakers—human beings have long been tinkering with the interface between technology and our bodies, erasing limitations and redefining what’s possible. Babitz himself is in the business of enhancing human biology, and by extension, the human experience (at least that’s the hope). His experimentation is rooted in his technologically-altered experience of the world. Babitz, in fact, is a cyborg.
While both science fiction and science alike have long defined cyborgism as extended physical abilities achieved through mechanical additions to the human body, Babitz sees cyborgism differently. Scientists have long been experimenting with equipping the human body with technology for medical purposes, but the cyborgism of Babitz and others like him is something different. He isn’t trying to remedy a physical shortcoming, but instead, seeks to expand his senses through technology. Along with cyborg artists Neil Harbisson and Moon Ribas, as well as tech guru Scott Cohen, Babitz established futuristic outfitter Cyborg Nest in 2015 to bring sense-expanding technologies to the public as a whole.
Harbisson, the first individual to be recognized as a cyborg by a government, was born with a rare form of colorblindness and has an antenna implanted in his skull that allows him to “hear” color through aural vibrations. Ribas, best known for her “seismic sense,” has a device in her arm that vibrates in sync with earthquakes as they happen anywhere on the planet. Rejecting the prevailing notion that cyborgism is a malignant union of humanity and technology, each of the founders of Cyborg Nest defines what a cyborg is more softly, merely as a human being who has integrated technology with their biology, expanding their experience of life.
“We want to know more, experience more,” Babitz, who also serves as the start-up’s CEO, continued in his email, which was sent from his home base in London. “At this stage in our evolution, we’ve got the chance to experience … more than nature allows us.” Cyborg Nest’s first piece of reality-augmenting hardware is called the North Sense—a silicon envelope containing a powerful compass, attached to the skin with thin titanium rods. The waterproof, rechargeable device vibrates each time its wearer faces magnetic north. Babitz, along with Cohen, were the initial testers of the North Sense, each fixing the small device to the center of their chests, and then, beginning to identify and experience the world as cyborgs.
Whether for a mariner directing the bow of his ship toward the North Star, a practitioner of feng shui ornamenting her house just so, or the weary long-haul trucker on a homeward stretch of highway—a sense of direction has been important, if not essential, to human beings for millennia. However, while some animals, like homing pigeons, have an instinctive sense of north, for people, vital comprehension of direction has always been acquired knowledge. Cyborg Nest anticipates that, as North Star technology integrates with the human wearer’s everyday experience, new pathways in the brain will be formed. These new pathways will ultimately make us more complete, more firmly tethered “to the planet, the directions, space and the continuous flow of the Earth’s magnetic field,” as their website posits.
“We believe that by sensing more, we will understand more,” Babitz said, “and so, we will finally respect more the world we were given.”
Babitz and company aren’t the only innovators out there tinkering with the potential of the human body. Tucked away in the mid-size industrial city of Pittsburgh, a ragtag collective of programmers, engineers, and transhuman enthusiasts have established Grindhouse Wetware, a biotechnology enterprise currently offering four sense-expanding technologies. While Cyborg Nest’s North Sense is an exosense (that is, worn outside of the body), Grindhouse Wetware largely deals in implanted technologies. Sharing Cyborg Nest’s objective of improving and expanding the experience of being human, Grindhouse Wetware’s designs are all open source—meaning that you can build your cyborg technology based on their downloadable schematics, and any hardware purchased from them is entirely customizable at the code level. Their practice of freely sharing the technology they’ve developed sets Grindhouse Wetware apart from most tech start-ups, emphasizing accessibility over profits.
That’s not to say the bar for entry isn’t high—tech know-how and a relationship with a skilled body modification expert are essential to becoming a cyborg with the business’s devices. Cyborgism still exists largely outside of the sphere of the medical community. Instead, cyborgs usually employ the assistance of those in the body modification industry to implant their technology. As Grindhouse spokesman Ryan O’Shea was quick to point out, however, “’unregulated’ is not synonymous with ‘unsafe.’”
Grindhouse Wetware offers a device similar to Cyborg Nest’s North Sense, called the North Star. Implanted under the skin, the LED lights of the device mimic bioluminescence, and illuminate and vibrate when the wearer faces north. In one of the more unique manifestations of modern cyborgism, the business has also developed what’s called Circadia, a device that, once implanted under the skin, reads personal biometric information and then transmits it wirelessly via Bluetooth to any Android-powered device. Circadia reads body temperature, blood glucose levels, blood oxygen, blood pressure and heart rate, creating a broad-based picture of health as long as the device is in use. As opposed to wearable biometric devices like Fitbit, the Circadia is not only more comprehensive, but because it is open-source technology, the wearer has total control over how the data is collected and used.
Grindhouse Wetware also created the haptic Bottlenose, a device that can be either implanted or worn externally, which translates UV, WiFi, and thermal data into sensory information in the fingertips through the nerves. Grindhouse’s collection also includes the Thinking Cap, which directly stimulates different parts of the brain, “potentially raising or lowering the energy state of stimulated neurons, which will allow them to fire more or less easily,” as their website suggests. If this all sounds a bit cryptic, it’s because the technology is ever-evolving and is in the process of being refined. Cyborgism—while long speculated about in science fiction—is still in its infancy in the real world. Founders of both of these start-ups see cyborgism as a natural extension of humanity’s inborn curiosity and modern obsession with technology. Both see only growth for their industry as they look to the future.
“When we can track, log, and analyze our biological information with a procedure as invasive as a piercing, or have two-way communication with our environment through implanted technology that enhances human capabilities, it may become illogical to not be augmented,” O’Shea posited. With our various commonplace body enhancements, like glasses and hearing aids, many of us are already well on our way to adopting technologies similar to those developed by Grindhouse Wetware and Cyborg Nest.
As Babitz summed it up quite handily before he signed off his email, “It’s not a question of if, but how fast. … We will all be cyborgs, including you and all the great people who will read this article.”