Chapter 1. Implanting Evolution

Technology for Human Enhancement

Mitch "Rez" Muenster

“So what is that in your hand?” I get asked at a local meeting for hackers, programmers, and other likeminded geniuses. “My phone?" I ask the observer. “No, your hand, that weird lump by your thumb,” he replies. “Oh, that’s my implant. It’s an NFC tag.” I get a confused look back. You know those white tags you see or the new tap-to-pay cards, they all use NFC. I currently use it to unlock my phone, but I’m working on getting it to do more. “Why would you put tech in yourself?”

I get questions like this rather frequently. The concept of humans implanted with technology is not a new concept, but it is really found only in sci-fi. There are those who currently implant themselves with technology; they are called grinders and are part of a subculture of biohacking. Grinders believe that the next step in human evolution will come from technology; however, we are not willing to wait for the slow, drawn-out process of the corporate machine to invent this implantable tech. Even if a medical or giant tech corporation comes out with implantable tech, it will most likely be designed to turn a profit rather than with the idea of human advancement in mind. It is likely to be limited rather than achieving its full potential and will probably not be shared with the world to allow for enhancements and code improvements.

These reasons and many others set grinders and their implantable tech apart from the medical corporations that put pacemakers, artificial bones, and splints into people’s bodies. While insulin pumps and pacemakers are implanted tech, these are cases where the implanted technology means life or death, rather than enhancing the body or providing convenience. In the case of my NFC (and RFID) implant, it can be used in many ways; the more common uses would be tasks like unlocking and starting your car or motorcycle, unlocking your phone, turning off the lights in a room, booting up your computer, and being the decryption key for an external hard drive or secure messages. You can even use it to carry your access to bitcoins with you as you would carry a credit card.

There is another distinct advantage to using RFID and NFC implants versus some of the other technology used in the market today. RFID and NFC do not need to store power in a battery, and therefore it is much safer to implant because there is no risk of battery acid getting into the body and bloodstream. The implant can be made so that it is not discoverable when walking through a metal detector, and since it is a passive tech, there is no inherent security danger to having an implant on you while you are on a plane or in an area where security is a top priority. Also, unlike your cellphone, which gives away your location via cell towers and GPS, NFC and RFID have a readable range of 5 to 10 mm. So unless you are standing right next to an NFC or RFD implant, you can’t obtain its location.

All the technical talk aside, having an implant has greatly changed the way I go about my day. Its most common noticeable use is with my mobile phone and an app called TapUnlock. I use it to unlock my phone via NFC. You scan the tag you want to use, and it stores the UID. That tag is now registered to unlock your phone. There is no longer any need for me to use a PIN, pattern, or swipe to unlock. At the same time, I can change out what is actually coded on the tag. For instance, when visiting user groups or conventions, I have my tag programmed to be a vCard so that I may share my contact info with those I meet and carry around fewer business cards. While at home, I have the tag set to turn the lights on and off in my room via Philips Hue connected bulbs. My RFID implant is currently being used to unlock the doors at work, unlock my computer, and there are future plans for it to unlock and lock my car door (in theory, one could also start and turn off the car, though to do so is a bit more complex than locking a car door). There are also various other situations for which one can program the NFC or RFID tags—the options are limited only by the developer.

There are many other implant and grinder projects in development by grinders and DIY experts around the world. Experts include Kevin Warwick, who has nerve implants allowing him to remotely control a robotic hand; and Neil Harbisson, a color-blind artist who developed an implant that allows him to perceive color via sounds and vibrations. But while these modifications and the tech being developed by those at grind houses have untold scientific and medical advancement potential, grinders are faced with overcoming the notions in the scientific and medical communities that the way nature built us is the way we are intended to be and that the desire to improve is not being appreciative of what we already have. Beyond the obstacles created by personal opinions, more complex tech is also limited by the ability to supply power. Implants requiring a constant power source (such as Bluetooth low energy [BLE] or wireless) mean you have to store energy in the body. While the medical community has come up with ways to do so, safety is not guaranteed and for the DIY enthusiast, very cost prohibitive. The potential for conventional power storage methods to rupture or corrode due to the body’s natural acidity causes safety issues, outweighing the benefits of the implant. Still, there are some ideas and concepts floating around, such as a publication from the Korean Instutute by Sun Jin Kim, Ju Hyung Wea, and Byung Jin Cho, "A wearable thermoelectric generator fabricated on a glass fabric" (doi: 10.1039/C4EE00242C).

The concept of bringing man and machine together is not just science fiction. It is now, and it is happening all around us.