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Biohacking: the long road to cyborgs

Have you ever thought that you were limited by your body? That the capabilities of the human body could be increased with electronics? If so, you’re not alone. Across the world ‘Grinders’ are people who have decided that cybernetics are the answer and are implanting electronics into their bodies.

Grinders fall under the umbrella of DIY biology, a movement that has been around since the late 80s, where individuals are doing biological experiments, often in the realms of biohacking, as a hobby or for business. The individuals often have little to no formal training in biological science, introducing concerns that unethical or harmful experiments may be performed without the correct supervision.

The grinder community push the boundaries of what is safe and legal by implanting electronic devices beneath their skin. Some devices are very small, as small as a few millimetres in diameter, whilst others are bulkier, reaching the size of a pack of playing cards or a small smartphone. To prevent the device from causing issues inside the body they are surrounded in ‘bio-proofing’ materials, which adds considerable bulk to the implant. The devices are then often installed by the patients themselves and can result in heavy bruising and infections and results in an obvious lump beneath the skin.

The functionality of the devices is currently very limited. Some will be able to measure blood temperature or pulse rate, others may be RFID tags or NFC chips, enabling the user to interact with electronic locks and switches. Recently an Australian grinder took the chip from his contactless travel card and implanted it into his hand. The chip was still scannable by the station card readers and allowed him to pay for his travel with his hand, however he was fined by the New South Wales transport authority for travelling without a ticket.

This is not the only time an implant has brought legal problems to the user. The metals and batteries used in the implants may show up in airport security scanners, resulting in some very awkward conversations. They could also potentially be used by criminals to smuggle electronics in or out of restricted areas, or to facilitate crime. For example NFC chips inserted into the hand are almost undetectable by humans, but can be used to communicate with nearby phones allowing full control by a remote, unauthorised user.

There is of course the problem of longevity. Most implants have no way of generating power whilst inside the body, meaning when the battery runs out they must be removed. The batteries usually last at least several months due to the low power nature of the devices, however this greatly reduces their appeal. Batteries are also not the safest of devices, so extra care must be taken to ensure that if one does leak, that it does not harm the user.

So whilst a cyborg super person may still be decades if not centuries away, it is possible to look on and see the fiction slowly turn to reality. Maybe in a few years this will be as ubiquitous as smartphones? Until then however I cannot recommend that you try this at home, unless you know exactly what you are doing.

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