A transhuman biohacker implanted over 50 chips and magnets in her body
On her blog, Lepht Anonym describes herself as "a faceless, genderless British biohacker. It lacks both gods and money and likes people, science, and practical transhumanism." Anonym practices, sometimes referred to as grinding - a subculture of biohacking - DIY surgery to insert electronic hardware under the skin.
[Though Anonym has described herself as genderless, she prefers the pronouns she or they.]
At the Grinderfest in 2019, Anonym inserted a little "pirate box" device in her upper right arm.
The "Grindfest", according to cyborg Rich Lee, “is the kind of event where you can really put things in perspective.” As per Anonym, the event involves watching interesting films, putting together biohacking experiments, and discussing their results.
The "pirate box" was a file-sharing device - a hard drive and WiFi router that creates a local wireless network.
It comprised a facility for USB storage and a WiFi antenna - users could connect to it via their phone or PC, wherein they could download and upload files. "...It was immediately clear this might make an interesting subdermal device," Anonym wrote on her blog.
Over the next few days, the experimental device was readied to be inserted under human skin - extraneous components were taken out, the battery was replaced with a wireless charging coil, the USB storage was soldered down, and the box was coated with many layers of resin-type stuff to bio proof the device.
According to the blog, after a horizontal incision was carved in her arm, retractors held it open while a 'pocket big enough to hold the device' was made. The operation was a success, having used "shitloads of lidocaine".
Eight months later, in 2020, Anonym revealed that the experiment had failed. She had accidentally whacked her arm on the door of a taxi, which in turn disrupted the area and irritated her skin - Lehpt was admitted to the hospital, where doctors insisted the device be removed.
Despite some lingering nerve damage, the incident did not lower her morale. Her blog cites that she learned a few lessons that included - it was possible to share WiFi from inside yourself, it could be a great way to smuggle data, and its function as a cool way to transfer data has led various people to upload and download content, induction coils can work through the skin to power a device, and that miniaturization is extremely important.
"The coolest implant I've had on would be the pirate box," a self-assured Anonym tells IE.
In all, Anonym has more than 50 chips, magnets, and antennae implanted in her body, bestowing her with powers beyond the usual limit of a human.
Surely, her relationship with technology must be so robust to a point that she chose to alter her reality with gizmos?
"It's not really about my personal relationship with technology. It's more like the relationship with technology that I've seen, for other humans. I grew up around the time when technology was becoming more present in our lives...and it had a lot of potentials to help people's lives. That's what transhumanism is - the use of technology to improve the quality of life. And I've tried to do that in some small way and spread knowledge on the same," she says.
Hacking into bodies, defying 'rules'
Firstly, what is transhumanism?
It’s a philosophical movement that promotes the idea that humans can transform the human condition by using science and new technology to biohack their bodies, enhancing physiology and cognitive power.
Now, the human desire to acquire new capabilities and experience altered realities is elemental and as old as our species. For instance, the desire for immortality, which some transhumanists are working towards, is ancient. For example, it was expressed as far back as an epic poem from ancient Mesopotamia, the Epic of Gilgamesh (approx. 1700 B.C.). It narrates the story of a king who sets out to gain immortality, which lies in retrieving a herb that grows at the bottom of the sea. Though he gets hold of the plant, a snake steals it from him before he can eat it.
Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom's A History of Transhumanist Thought explains the philosophy behind the desire for immortality rather well. He writes that humans have always sought to expand the boundaries of their existence, geographically and mentally.
Though evolutionary biologist Julian Huxley (1887–1975) is usually identified as the first to popularize the term 'transhumanism', distinguished historian Peter Harrison and his student Joseph Wolniak suggest in their paper History of Transhumanism, originally published in 2005 in the Journal of Evolution and Technology, that Huxley was not the first to use the term. They point out that the word trasumanar, meaning "to transcend human nature, to pass beyond human nature" can be dated to Dante's Divine Comedy and ultimately to the Pauline Epistles.
English philosopher Francis Bacon's Novum Organum proposed a scientific methodology based on empirical investigation. He delved into the usage of science to improve the living condition of human beings.
Today, "Transhumanism" includes the idea that humans could use nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and cognitive science (NBIC) to overcome their limitations and embrace self-directed human evolution. According to Alexander Thomas, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of East London, transhumanism is "the revision of humankind's nature to better serve its fantasies".
There are some who believe that implanted tech could help humans enjoy certain freedoms that couldn't be perceived until now.
In 1998, Professor of Cybernetics Kevin Warwick had a chip implanted in his body to open electronic doors and turn on lights as he passed. Performance artist Stelios Arcadiou (known as Stelarc) has undergone several surgeries to create a third ear and have it surgically attached to his left arm. In 2009, Finnish computer engineer Jerry Jalava turned his prosthetic finger into a USB drive. Cyborg artists Neil Harbisson and Moon Ribas, who also call themselves "cyborg artists", implant technology as experiments and part of their artistic pursuits, which they claim will help them connect with the unknown more deeply.
While Harbisson, who was born completely color blind, has an antenna implanted in his skull that sends audible vibrations through his skull to report information to him, allowing him to perceive colors.
Ribas had seismic sensors implanted in her feet that vibrated when an earthquake occurred. She then transforms that data into dance.
Some "cyborgs" also suggest that new forms could be taken on through genetic engineering, prosthetics, or advancements in cognitive capacities. Neural interfaces could link us to advanced artificial intelligence.
DIY - if you can stand the pain
David Pearce, a proponent of the transhumanism movement and one of the co-founders of the World Transhumanist Association, had said, "If we want to live in paradise, we will have to engineer it ourselves. If we want eternal life, then we’ll need to rewrite our bug-ridden genetic code and become god-like … only hi-tech solutions can ever eradicate suffering from the world. Compassion alone is not enough."
And for transhumanists, this translates into humans being in charge of their evolution. While several of these ideas might solely remain on paper, Anonym's vision is exercised in real life. They slant toward being more realistic, armed with homemade cybernetics, medical first aid, and a heightened sense of curiosity.
As aforementioned, Anonym takes care of her "evolution" through a branch of transhumanism called biohacking, which is also called grinding.
Biohacking refers to a wide range of activities including performing science and tech experiments on oneself tracking one's diet and sleep, Vipassana meditation, and intermittent fasting.
Grinding propagates the idea that the body can be hacked with an implantable device - achieving a state of being posthuman.
And so, grinders implant everything from magnets and RFID chip implants to miniature hard drives, compasses, and wireless routers. They're said to be at the forefront of the transhumanist movement,
Here, Anonym follows a "grand tradition of self-experimenters in science". "Or that it was because practical transhumanism is more than a philosophy to me (it's my life), but at least partly, I did it for kicks. Ia just wanted more senses; still do," she writes on her blog.
"I spent a long time looking up anatomical details, researching sterile techniques, and trying to figure out the best method to do this in the safest way possible. I badly wanted to do it that I spent some six to eight months learning first aid skills and taking a course on sterile techniques. Admittedly, yes, I was fascinated enough that I sort of kind of threw caution to the wind a little bit," Anonym tells me.
Her experiments with biohacking - inserting a tiny sensor - began when she was 19.
"And very, very stupid," she adds.
"I did not know what I was doing. So I cut a hole in my finger with a scalpel, which is silly. You're not supposed to use a scalpel; you're supposed to use a needle. The scalpel I used hurt incredibly; it was excruciatingly painful. And then I had to hold the wound open - which I did with a sterilized potato peeler - to insert the magnet. That should have been an absolute septic disaster, but for some reason, it turned out to be fine," says Anonym.
She started her journey with RFID sensors, considered a transdermal temperature sensor (which was a disaster), began experimenting with homebred sensors, and now has a temperature sensor, which she says is the latest addition to her body.
Anonym is trying to work on North Paw, an anklet made by the biohacking group Sensebridge that gives wearers the ability to navigate their surroundings. The anklet holds eight cellphone vibrator motors around your ankle.
A control unit in the haptic compass senses magnetic north and turns on and off the motors. A few years ago, she detailed plans to have the first South Paw created and implanted in her left leg. "I had a prototype in my ankle for a while, but not anymore. And that had to come out because I was concerned about corrosion," says Anonym.
Is this illegal?
The biggest questions raised would revolve around ethics and safety measures when it comes to implanting devices oneself.
DIY biohacking falls in a grey zone. With grinders moving into unforeseen territories, regulators are yet to keep up the pace. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration had issued a warning that biohacking procedures involving gene-editing products for self-administration were illegal.
In the United Kingdom, there are no regulations around self-implanted microchips as they do not fall under the purview of medical devices, as per the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency.
However, Professor Tom Joyce, a biomedical engineer at Newcastle University, told Medical Device Network that biohacking raises questions about liability and responsibility in situations that go wrong.
“For example, while a user might be held responsible for modifying an implant counter to the manufacturer’s instructions, the possibility of hacking the implant might be attributed to a security vulnerability for which the manufacturer might be liable,” she says.
As for safety, researchers have noted that modern body modifications can lead to complications that shouldn't be underestimated.
To Anonym, the ethics of biohacking lie in "a principle called bodily autonomy, wherein, in my opinion, everyone should have the right to alter their own body as they see fit, as long as that doesn't involve anyone else. And what I would find very unethical would be to alter anyone else's body, or to tell anyone else that you can or can't have this done," she says.
A whole new perspective with sensory data
With most things DIY, biohacking is not necessarily that expensive. "One of the things that I worry considerably about is the idea that implants and sort of alterations become only available to rich people. I'm not rich myself, and I would very much hate to be priced out of a better life. So part of the reason that I adore biohacking so much would be because anyone can do it. We share a lot of our materials and techniques. And yes, this doesn't involve surgeons generally. So there are a lot of risks. But on the other hand, it's also accessible to everybody," she says.
Anonym says that those who indulge in the same still consist of a very small subculture.
"The number increases every year, which is rather gratifying. Some people do far more impressive things than I have. And it's nice to see other people saying that I sort of helped them start - which is what I've wanted. To spread more knowledge on what I do so that people would be able to experiment on themselves," she says.
Would Anonym call themselves a believer of posthumanism - a transhuman ideology that intends to develop and make available technology that could enable immortality or eliminate aging?
"To me, posthuman is a very strong word...I wouldn't even call myself a transhuman. I'm just a slightly altered human - I've got an extra little sense that I don't need in life, which is used for a bit of interesting sensory data," she says.
"I won't stop with this stuff until I'm dead," she adds.
Editor’s Note: This is a part of our special INTERESTING ENGINEERS ISSUE, where IE explores the greatest minds using ideas on the small scale to reshape the world on the big scale.