Biohackers And DIY Cyborgs Clone Silicon Valley Innovation

A new breed of hobbyists, scientists, and entrepreneurs are working on echolocation implants, brain-controlled software programs, and even cybernetic rats. Their experiments will change the future of tech.

In basements, garages, startup spaces, and university laboratories, DIY researchers, scientists, programmers, and neurologists are collaborating on brain interfaces that can control video games with human thoughts. They’re growing flesh that’s augmented with transistors and implanting Bluetooth sensors under their own living skin to send vital signs to mobile phones. They’re growing in vitro edible "steaks" and leather without using living beings. They’re even helping severely disabled individuals "speak" using only their brainwaves. And most of them still consider this a hobby.

The grinders (DIY cybernetics enthusiasts) and their comrades in arms—biohackers working on improving human source code, quantified self enthusiasts who arm themselves with constant bodily data feeds, and independent DIY biotechnology enthusiasts—are moonlighting for now in basements, shared spaces, and makeshift labs. But they’re ultimately aiming to change the world. Think of how bionic legs like those belonging to Oscar Pistorius and cochlear implants that let the deaf hear have changed everyday life for so many people. Then multiply that by a million. A million people. And millions of dollars.

Not only has the new wave of do-it-yourself (DIY) cybernetics moved well beyond science fiction, it’s going to cause a business boom in the not-too-distant future.

West Coast biohackers and grinders were the pioneers of this tech-driven, California brand of utopianism. They’ve taken a big-tent approach to their goal of hacking humanity: Paleo diets and meditation are just as likely to figure into things as cybernetic finger implants or controlling computer apps with brainwaves. For biohackers everywhere, augmentation of humanity itself—whether through technology or more traditional methods—is the primary goal. Common conversation points include DIY cyborgs, the quantified self, and diet- and meditation-based improvement movements like Dave Asprey's Bulletproof Executive or crowdsourced health projects like CureTogether.

But a growing community on the East Coast—in greater New York, Boston, and Pittsburgh—is synthesizing Silicon Valley's entrepreneurial DNA for its unique innovation model. Experimentation and science here is not only an exercise in advancing humanity through tech but is often is applied toward creating viable cybernetic products for the market.

In New York City, biohackers are united by the extremely active Biohackers NYC Meetup group and several startups, incubators, and workspaces scattered across the outer boroughs.

When the Biohackers NYC group was founded in early 2012, "It was because most biohacker movements started on West Coast, and the East Coast was lagging behind. I lamented the lack of this on the East Coast," group founder and psychiatrist Lydia Fazzio tells Fast Company. "Our intent was to cover the spectrum of biohacking from manipulating non-human genomes to also the body and the mind. It's a holistic approach to the meaning of biohacking, whether technology or nutrition. However you get there, we all have the innate potential to be an optimal functioning human in society. Our question is: How do we get there?"

In Brooklyn, a small "community biolab" called Genspace is home to approximately a dozen DIY biology experimenters whose work often involves the fusion of the living and the electronic. Classes are offered to the public in synthetic biology, which engineers living organisms as if they were biological machines.

A workshop recently held at Genspace, Crude Control, showed how in-vitro meat and leather could be created via tissue engineering, and it explored the possibility of creating semi-living "products" from them. Although the Genspace workshop was for educational purposes, similar technologies are already being monetized elsewhere—Peter Thiel recently sank six figures into a startup that will make 3-D printed in vitro meat commercially available.
The teacher at the Crude Control workshop, Oron Catts, walked participants through "basic tissue culture and tissue engineering protocols, including developing some DIY tools and isolating cells from a bone we got from a local butcher." Some of Catts' previous projects include bioengineering a steak from pre-natal sheep cells (in his words, "steak grown from an animal that was not yet born") and victimless leather grown from cell lines.

Just a few hours up I-95 at Harvard University, researchers have created the world's first "cyborg flesh." The university's Lieber Research Group, led by Charles Lieber, has successfully created rat flesh that is seamlessly melded with a network of wires and transistors that monitor the individual behavior of each cell.

Lieber's groundbreaking research integrated electrically active scaffolds into rat cardiomyocytes, or heart muscle cells. Incredibly small wires and transistors were embedded in scaffolding made with collagen and wires; using the cybernetic tissue, researchers could keep track of the minute behavior of cells during drug reactions. Harvard's experiment is far more than just the weird science of creating cybernetic rats, though. In the future, projects built on this technology could be used to do away with animal or human testing for drugs, and to create cybernetic implants to repair damaged hearts.

Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh, Grindhouse Wetwares is an Internet-based collective of programmers, engineers, and scientists dedicated to "augmenting humanity using safe, affordable, open-source technology." Many of Grindhouse's members are currently based in Pittsburgh, which has become an impromptu nexus for DIY cybernetics enthusiasts. The organization's current project is a literal —a cap with attached electrodes that stimulates the brain with electricity. Users are zapped with direct current via the electrodes, which allegedly engage certain brain states depending on placement.

Grindhouse has a business model that recalls that of early Silicon Valley companies like the original Apple of Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs. The collective intentionally makes project plans available via Creative Commons licenses; customers can either pay Grindhouse to build their devices or they can make it at home for free.

Other projects from Grindhouse take the merger of human and machine even further. The Bottlenose is a device which transforms sonar, UV, Wi-Fi, or thermal information into a magnetic field that the user can then feel. End users can either receive an impromptu cybernetic implant in their finger or wear a haptic version of the device. Both the implanted version and the worn-on-body version physically stimulate the user when they walk past, say, a microwave or a wireless router. Much like the Thinking Cap, a Bottlenose can be constructed at home using the organization’s free schematics, or
implants/wearable field detectors can be purchased online.

Another project, the Heleed, is a cybernetic medical tracking device. Users implant the Bic lighter-sized device in their body, which then automatically sends biomedical information to the Internet via a Bluetooth interface. The strictly experimental Heleed can also be programmed to display health warnings—sent to the recipient via an Android app—on the user's skin with LED lights.

Heleed is expected to be released to the public in time for the holiday season. Grindhouse's Lucas Dimoveo told Fast Company that the device currently records body temperature, heart rate, and time. Future versions will have additional sensors added; "the goal is to have your implant text your phone with health factoids like ‘Did you know that when you are on Jamaica Avenue between Van Wyck and Francis Lewis your blood pressure increases ___ mmHg?’" This end goal is not very dissimilar from several non-cybernetic products now making it to market, such as GPS-integrated asthma inhalers.

These implants have substantial real-life effects. Dimoveo described a few:
"In the lab one of our older laptops stopped working—sometimes it would recharge and other times it wouldn't. It took [Grindhouse experimenters] Tim Cannon and Shawn Sarver all of five seconds to figure out what was going on just by running their hands from the extension cord up the power brick to the computer itself. The wire was giving off a field, but not the battery (which sadly meant I needed to get a new computer). There is no way I would have figured out the problem that fast.

"Our artist, Mike Seeler, has larger than average magnet implants in both hands. Traveling through New York City is a very different experience for the both of us. He is constantly discovering magnetic fields pouring out of the street, the subway, the bus, and buildings. He has even had a few dreams including his magnetic sense."

"The only drawback to the magnet implant is that interacting with mundane machinery can cause people to recoil in shock at how much power is running through a wire or machine. I've seen a few people on the team walk by a live soldering station and recoil in surprise. An audible response to the effect of 'whoa' is usually uttered, along with a concerned look. Real emotional responses can be triggered by this implant."

Biohackers first came into the public consciousness thanks to an August 2012 article on tech website The Verge, where author Ben Popper had one of Grindhouse's cybernetic magnetic implants surgically placed in his thumb. The implant, made from the rare earth metal neodymium, allowed Popper to feel magnetic fields.
DIY cybernetics and the informal merger of human with machine attracts both professionals and dedicated hobbyists with unrelated day jobs. Two popular message boards, and DIYbio (which deals with the larger field of DIY biotechnology labs), serve as meeting points for researchers in the field. At BioArt Laboratories, a Dutch organization featured on DIYbio, art and music are made using cell cultures and biological materials. Meanwhile, users on biohack.me are contemplating the possibilities of subdermal bone conduction headphones and echolocation implants.

One of the biggest boom areas for the DIY cybernetics community is controlling software and applications with brain waves. Crucially, it is the one technology for which we currently have robust development tools and a price point which allows hobbyists to easily experiment. Brain-computer interfaces are increasingly commonplace; in their most common commercial incarnation, users control computer software—most frequently games or simple applications—with brainwave-reading electrodes.

Upstate New York is home to one of the best known brain-computer interface systems out there. BCI2000 was developed at the Wadsworth Center of the New York State Department of Health in Albany in order to create a framework for computer software to understand input from human brainwaves. Using BCI2000, developers have been able to create projects such as a blink-input computer typing system for the disabled and even brainwave-controlled robots. At the Wadsworth Center itself, research efforts on BCI are primarily focused on creating new communication methods for the severely disabled.

There is an undeniable science fiction factor to the idea of DIY cybernetics such as Ekso’s robotic exoskeleton for paraplegics. However, one important thing has to be remembered: Man and machine have been merging for a long time. Cochlear implants and bionic legs are just the latest in a long list of human augmentation that ranges from pacemakers to eyeglasses.

These technologies aren’t just for the future either; they’re being monetized and put to market on a mass scale today. Austrian firm g.tec released a product for patients with motor disabilities that lets them spell words using their brainwaves. Using the product, users who have severe difficulty communicating otherwise can attain a spelling rate of 5 to 10 letters per minute.

Two new consumer products also let ordinary folks—that is, ordinary folks with some money to burn—turn themselves into temporary cyborgs. Neurosky's MindWave Mobile is a $130 brainwave-reading device for Android and iOS platforms. With the headset-like Bluetooth device, users can play simple proprietary games via their brainwaves—with no hand or gesture input required. Eight apps are included, such as shooters and "Choose Your Own Adventure"-style interactive movies. Rival firm Emotiv markets a brainwave-reading headset compatible with both proprietary games and standard PC games that retails for $299.

Crucially, both Emotiv and Neurosky make software development kits (SDKs) and APIs available to outside content producers. Both firms make the possibility of creating brain-controlled software more or less as simple as building an Android app. In other words, 20 or 30 years from now, we’ll likely look back on the biohacker and grinder communities like we currently look back on Silicon Valley of the early to mid 1970s or Stanford or Harvard in the '90s, places and times when dedicated hobbyists and small businesspeople built homebrewed computers and software in garages and dorm rooms—and founded companies such as Apple, Google, and Facebook.

For more stories like this, follow @fastcompany on Twitter. Find Neal Ungerleider, the author of this article, on Twitter and Google+.

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4 Comments

  • Nmz787

    Author misspelled Pittsburgh (they wrote Pittsburg) more than 3 times... where was the editor?

    Also, this statement is a lie/major-mistake:
    "Biohackers first came into the public consciousness thanks to an August 2012 article on tech website The Verge, where author Ben Popper had one of Grindhouse's cybernetic magnetic implants surgically placed in his thumb. "see:
    http://diyhpl.us/wiki/diybio/f...

  • marykparker

    This is amazing! I can see real benefits for people who have locked-in syndrome (think The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) and minimally conscious (permanent vegetative state). I wonder about the magnets---some alternative healing therapies (reiki, therapeutic touch) might be able to demonstrate physical benefit. 

  • Neal Ungerleider

    Agreed re: locked-in syndrome, permanent vegetative state, and other neurological issues. My take, as author of this article, is that they will be the first to significantly benefit from these implants which are currently being developed. Let's hope it's sooner rather than later.

    -Neal