Transhumanism—the rapidly growing international movement that aims to use radical science and technology to significantly improve the human being—has many fascinating fields of study. One of my favorite areas is biohacking. I recently had a chance to chat with Rich Lee, a leading biohacker whose upgrades and experiments to his body are both impressive and courageous. His exploits have been featured in CNN, The Guardian, Popular Science, The Huffingon Post, and many other well-known media sites.
Q.Rich, thanks for doing this extensive interview. Let's start with the basics: What is biohacking?
A. Biohacking has a lot of different definitions depending on who you ask, and I haven’t seen a definition that I like 100%, and that includes my own. Defining what actions constitute a “biohack” is even harder in recent years because the terms hack and hacker get substituted to describe a million different activities just like the terms “Smurf” and “Smurfy” are used by people in the Smurf Village culture. Viewing these different definitions pulled from dictionaries, wikis, and community websites gives hints about biohacking history and speaks volumes about the current state of biohacking, and the transitioning attitudes people have toward it. Here are some current definitions:
1) Biohacking is the intentional manipulation of a living system to accomplish a desired result.
2) Biohacking is the practice of engaging biology with the hacker ethic
3) To use systems thinking, science, biology, and self-experimentation to take control of and upgrade your body, your mind, and your life.
4) The creation of genetically-engineered organisms in makeshift gene laboratories.
5) A biohacker is anyone who dabbles in the field of GMOs and genetic-cloning without proper authority or a real humanistic vision.
6) The activity of exploiting genetic material experimentally without regard to accepted ethical standards, or for criminal purposes.
The first three definitions come from within the biohacking community, and the last three are civilian definitions. The view from within is very different from without, and I noticed something weird and revealing about the first three definitions versus the second three. The very topmost definition was mine, but a few days after becoming irritated by a guy at a party who introduced himself as a “biohacker” when I think he should have said “vitamin cult disciple”, I realized that technically a case could be made to include his brand-specific regimen of self-righteous supplement ingestion, using my own definition. Other definitions from within biohacking also seemed vague, and some of those definitions have even been refined in the last few years, but now I notice that the newer versions (which I prefer) somehow became even less defined than previous versions! This bothered me because in my mind I thought that my idea of what biohacking was and wasn’t had become much clearer than it was five years ago, and instead of becoming more concrete, my personal definition was so nebulous that it could be interpreted to include anyone who brushes their teeth. So if your daily routine involves covering thousands of fine nylon rods in certain enzymes that you use to hack bacteria populations inside your oral cavity, then congratulations! You are one of us by my definition. Broader acceptance in the community might require you to use open source toothpaste.
My definition was constantly evolving to accommodate all of the new possibilities I was encountering in the community and in science. So my original definition went something like “enhancing or augmenting the human form with technology to overcome the genetic limitations imposed by the flesh.” I extended my definition of biohacking beyond my own body after seeing a mycologist who used fungus to create large lightweight bricks in a matter of days. My initial goals involved replacing biological components with bionic ones, but it turns out that in many cases biology offers a lot of advantages over mechanical or electrical options, so I modified the word “technology” in my definition to incorporate organic solutions. Personal genetic modification became a consideration, but genetic engineering can also be done on the bacteria that populate our microbiome, or to produce chemicals and drugs outside the body. You get the point.
Compare this to the definitions others have created. Those three definitions are based on ignorance. They get real specific about which tools a biohacker uses or what motivates them. Bioterrorism and biohacking are indistinguishable by some definitions and might include or exclude malevolent botanists and neurologists from their definition. But this is the view from outside of biohacking, and it gets used in the news, government memos, and biotech press releases.
These sentiments are changing thanks in large part to the DIY Bio movement. Communal biohacking spaces are opening in cities all over the globe, bringing together citizen scientists of all experience levels to work on projects, teach techniques, and share a passion for biology. It is a great place to learn. One day you might find yourself replicating proteins, using algae to produce your own biofuel at home, identifying the fungus that is ruining your garden, or learning how easy it is to hack common yogurt to produce a lifetime supply of some prescription drugs like Prozac. Someday the historians of the future will look back to measure the social impact of certain movements and we will honor the people who nurtured the DIY Bio movement in these early days. Thanks in large part to them, biology is no longer a mystic craft practiced exclusively by biotech scientists and academics in designated labs. Knowing about biology and owning a home lab does not make you a bioterrorist. Having a strong global biohacking community and knowledgeable population that knows how to do things for themselves also helps to hedge against the wild social upheavals that may occur when one class of citizen is denied access to vital medicines or treatments of extreme evolutionary importance. The DIY threat is going to become a major factor in keeping the price of future goods low.
The Quantified Self movement is huge too. These guys helped me refine the way I was doing things and really drove home the importance of being able to measure the things you want to change. QS has a huge amount of interesting stuff for the self-experimenting biohacker types. The Quantified Self community also encourages real life meet ups and there is probably already a group in your area you can go check out.
The subculture of biohackers I belong to have been given the nickname “Grinders.” The term was actually borrowed from modern video game culture. “Grinding” referred to the methodical act of improving one’s character within a game, trying to maximize a skill or stat. In Grinder culture we have a similar attitude toward self improvement, but we often blend this with very individualistic things like extreme body modification. We tend to work with existing tech, and none of us are holding out for the AI messiah or nanobots. We make and install our own implants.
Q.How did you get into it?
A. I grew up in a very religious family and was taught from an early age that my life was going to be short because the Lord was coming to melt everyone and take me to heaven. This had a huge impact on the way I viewed the future and my own potential. I couldn’t imagine being alive to see my next birthday, or going to college, or starting a family. I was 100% on board with the idea of dying as soon as possible. Imagining a future where that didn’t happen was almost impossible. This same derangement skewed what I thought humanity could accomplish too. An effort to fund a manned flight to Mars within twenty years might have amused me, but I would never consider donating to something like that because the time to completion was too far out. All long term planning seemed like a waste of time, and short term goals were hard to commit to because next week’s apocalypse has a way of overshadowing everything else on your calendar. I’m still paying the price for short sighted life choices I made as a teen. Anyway, the end didn’t come. Later I would discover that religious leaders had been unsuccessfully predicting the end of days throughout history and I wondered how many other kids now and throughout time dreamed of the rapture instead of rockets. I run into these kids all the time and most aren’t as extreme as I was, and there is definitely a spectrum, but no part of this spectrum is healthy. It makes me mad to think about the greater impact that this type of thinking has had on humanity.
I became an atheist in my mid-twenties and had to reconcile the fact that nobody was coming to save me. Eventually I replaced religion with futurism. I felt that science and technology offered a tangible alternative to all the things religion had promised me. Fantasies of heavenly immortality were replaced with hopes of life extension drugs, angelic wings were replaced with jetpacks and flying cars. I took comfort reading articles about the exponential advancement of technology and various breakthroughs in modern medicine.
My grandmother passed away in 2008. She left behind a tub of magazines that spanned the 1950’s through the eighties. I instinctively flipped to the science and technology sections of these magazines and was confronted with headlines about how modern medicine would cause humans to have 200 year lifespans by the year 2000, or that a family vacation to the moon would be common in the year 1995. Later I’d discover that futurists had been predicting these things for ages. Then I wondered how many people from previous eras had died waiting for that flying car, or expected to live to be 200. For me there was no difference between the blind faith I put in science and the one I had put in religion. I also noted that just because something has been discovered it doesn’t guarantee that it will be available. The jetpack has been around since the 1960’s, so why don’t you have one? I was gripped with a new kind of panic, and I decided I would have to get involved to make it happen. This led me to biohacking, and eventually to transhumanism.
Although I was philosophically aligned with transhumanists, I found most of my interactions with them infuriating because there seemed to be too much cheerleading and not enough working. When I talked about implants I had, some transhumanists would squirm and ask “why don’t you just wait for the singularity or nanobot or brain uploading?” Attitudes toward Grinders and self-experimenting biohackers have changed a lot since then though, but I still encounter these passive sentiments a lot. I just focus on tangible tech, and I don’t treat it like a hobby. I think of it as an arms race.
As far as projects go, biohackers might have certain interests and priorities that they favor over others. So the neuro/cog guys might make their own tDCS or TMS brain stimulation devices, EEGs, try different nootropic substances, things like that. Self enhancing biohackers can typically be split into two groups: maximizers & beyonders. I made up these terms. An athletic type maximizer works to maximize his/her existing hardware and might pursue TENS assisted strength training, steroids, etc. A Beyonder might make an exoskeleton or something like that, abandoning their hardware limitations in favor of a tool that lets them lift stuff well above normal human limits. Microbiome guys might study ways to alter bacteria inside their body to do something cool. One guy wanted to hack odorous microbes found in his sweat glands to smell like watermelon instead of body odor. I’d try it. There are guys into cybernetics, optogenetics, and gene therapies. Anyway, there are lots of areas of focus and they can usually be attacked from different angles and on multiple levels of the stack. I tend to have three main areas of focus: Sensory expansion, need removal, and novel functionality.
Q. What is an example of novel functionality?
A. I think it would be cool to have LED implants under my skin that could be turned on or off. My friend Tim had an implant with LEDs and it was a cool effect. I have lots of other ideas too. One of them is a device that vibrates and gets implanted where you might expect it to and will probably improve sex.
Q. How about need removal? Please explain.
A. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has been a personal hit-list of things I’d like to change for myself and humanity. To me it represents the worst aspects of being human. I’d guess that the majority of horrific acts of violence committed by humans can be traced back to some need on that chart. How pathetic is it that we crave the acceptance of other humans? That our sanity breaks down in conditions of solitary confinement? Can we imagine removing some of these needs and still feel human? What would it be like if you never had to sleep? If humans could supply themselves with fresh clean water by extracting it from the air they breathe? What if we could use biology that utilizes nitrogen in the air instead of the soil to supply all of our essential amino acid needs? It would put a major dent in hunger. What if we could use technology to destroy Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs tier by tier? Would we develop new needs? What would those be? These are questions that keep me up at night and drive many of my biohacking ambitions.
Q. Explain sensory expansion.
A. This is big in the Grinder community. Most people start off by implanting magnets in their fingertips, which gives you the ability to feel magnetic fields. Your fingertips have lots of nerve endings jammed into one area and they are really sensitive to stimuli. Magnets twitch or move in the presence of magnetic fields, and when you implant one in your finger you can really start to feel different magnetic fields around you. So it is like a sixth sense. At first you will be waving your hand around appliances, probing fields like someone looking for a light switch in the dark. After a few days or weeks you will almost forget you have the implant because your brain has fully incorporated the sense into your normal world experience. When you sleep you will notice that even your dreams have changed to include the sense. You can now perceive an otherwise invisible world.
This makes many curious about all of the other things happening around them that they can’t see and they want more. So let’s expand on the magnet thing. We can buy all kinds of different sensors to detect heat, radiation, radio signals, wifi, whatever you want. If we wrap a wire around our implanted finger and attach that wire to our new sensor, we find that the wire creates a small magnetic field to the beat of the sensor. This of course makes our magnet twitch, and now we can feel heat from a distance, feel wifi, or whatever.
Why limit ourselves to feeling these sensations? We have other senses we can induce synesthesia in. I got some media attention in June of 2013 after I implanted headphones in my tragus to do just that. I had some practical reasons for doing this in addition to my thirst for exploration. A few years earlier I suddenly became legally blind in one eye. Lenses cannot correct it and my original eye doctor informed me that the other eye was likely to follow, at which point I would be legally blind, lose my job, etc. With this inevitability in mind I decided to be proactive. Ultrasonic rangefinders are devices used to determine how far away an object is. I knew that most blind people find acoustic variations help them identify the proximity of objects, so I figured I might be able to amplify this by converting rangefinder data into audio I could send wirelessly to my headphone implants. It turned out to be much more complicated than I thought, but that is a part of Grinding that I have come to appreciate. My setbacks lead me deeper into the rabbit hole of audiology where I discovered knowledge that has unlocked a thousand more possibilities.
I’d say that 25% of the people I talk to about sensory enhancement think it’s really cool and some go get implants themselves. The other 75% will nod their head and hope the conversation ends or they laugh and ask “why would anyone want to feel magnetic fields?” I get asked that question so much, and I still find it hard to articulate. They usually point out that “you don’t need it,” to which I counter “what if you lost the ability to taste? You don’t really need it to survive.” Ask anyone with an implant how they would feel if they lost the implant, and almost all of them will tell you they would miss it. A small bit of richness would be missing from their life experience.
Visible light is but a tiny portion of the greater magnetic spectrum that we cannot see. If we modeled the entire spectrum as a road stretching from LA to New York, the amount of visible light that humans can see would equal a few nanometers. Humans, from our allegorical caves, have nonetheless managed to form and test theories about things at the edges of perception but these discoveries took thousands of years. Where would humans be now technologically if we never developed sight? How long would it take us to theorize the existence of the aurora borealis or to hypothesize about the existence of stars? This reduction of input obviously cripples the rate of input.
So is the opposite true? Would expanding our senses accelerate our advancement? My answer is yes. Some Grinder friends of mine formed a team called Science for the Masses to discover if they could biologically push human perception of visible light into the near-infrared spectrum. This is a small increase, around 6% above our current abilities. The impact is dramatic. The new light allows you to see through fog and haze, tinted windows, and some clothing. Stars can be seen during day hours. Subtle changes in blood flow can be seen under the skin, allowing anyone to detect circulation problems and find clots. Seeing blood flow takes some of the guesswork out of determining what mood your date is in and lying becomes nearly impossible. Imagine how this awareness would have altered human history, politics, art, courtship, and relationships. Does human psychology benefit in a world where sincerity and emotional context can be seen with the naked eye rather than hypothesized or conjured? The new layers of info I’ve detailed above are actually just the tip of the iceberg. The real magic of sensory expansion comes from finding deviations and surprises that don’t fit within our scientific understanding because it makes us reconcile our mental models of the world with reality.
Some will find this thought experiment amusing. The biohacking team I mentioned earlier will be publishing their findings sometime this year and, depending on the results, humans could be seeing infrared within a few months, amusement will fade into reality, and mass adoption will lead to mass adaptation. The world might change because of four young punk biohackers who struggled and sacrificed to raise the mere $4,000 they needed to do this. If one biohacker project costing $4000 has the potential to alter the course of humanity, imagine the impact of the other 200 projects I didn’t tell you about.
Sorry for the long winded response here. I always tell this story because it shows people a side of transhumanism that isn’t talked about much. Ask most people what transhumanism is and they will bring up nanobots, life extension, AI, and mind uploading. Those things are swell, and I hope someday they get the billions of dollars they need for additional R&D so they can have a world changing product tested, approved, and ready to sell to rich people in the next 20 to 30 years so that people will start to take transhumanism seriously. But if there is one thing anyone remembers after reading this I hope it is this: There exists a small group of passionate grinders and biohackers who, despite having limited resources and few evangelists, tinker, test, and collaborate on a daily basis because they see transhumanism as a noble cause and a method to uplift mankind and that they have ambitious ideas for achieving this using affordable and existing technology they believe may change the world.
Biography: Rich Lee is a Grinder, biohacker, and black hat transhumanist focusing on human augmentation technology. For more information, email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Zoltan Istvan is a futurist, philosopher, journalist, and leading transhumanist. You can find him on Twitter, Google+, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Zoltan is also the author of the award-winning, #1 Philosophical bestseller novel The Transhumanist Wager. Available in ebook or paperback, the controversial novel is a revolutionary reading experience. You can check it out here.