Series| Biohackers

I got a chip implanted in a biohacking garage

Underground “biohackers” are enhancing their bodies with tech implants. Freethink Director Chase Pipkin decided to try it out.
Watch on YouTube

In the underground movement known as biohacking, people are taking their health into their own hands. Biohacking ranges from people making simple lifestyle changes to extreme body modifications.

One popular form of biohacking focuses on nutrigenomics, where biohackers study how the foods they eat affect their genes over time. They believe they can map and track the way their diet affects genetic function. They use dietary restrictions and blood tests, while tracking their moods, energy levels, behaviors, and cognitive abilities.

Then there are grinders, a subculture of biohacking. A grinder believes there’s a hack for every part of the body. Rather than attempting to modify our existing biology, grinders seek to enhance it with implanted technology.

Grinders implant everything from magnets and RFID chip implants (like the microchips we put in our pets), to compasses, miniature harddrives, and wireless routers. Turning themselves into veritable cyborgs, grinders are at the forefront of the transhumanist movement. 

What Is Biohacking?

Biohacking is inherently do-it-yourself biology. It’s a broad term that encompasses everything from elimination diets and vitamin supplements to electronic implants and DIY gene editing. Different biohacks promise different results such as weight loss, better cognitive function, resolved medical issues, or even the ability to see at night.

Many biohackers label themselves as “transhumanists.” What is transhumanism? It’s a philosophical movement that promotes the idea that humans can transform or subvert the human condition by using new technology to biohack their bodies, enhancing physiology and cognitive power.

Moving toward a post-human form, transhumans resemble regular people for the most part, but they possess capabilities beyond those of unmodified individuals. One example is Neil Harbisson, whose antenna implant makes it possible for him to experience color, after previously only being able to see in grayscale. 

The Underground World of DIY Biologists

Some biohackers have professional medical experience and backgrounds in science. But rather than working for a commercial lab or navigating legal channels of research and development, they perform their own experiments and clinical trials on themselves and other willing individuals.

These DIY biologists are trying to develop new treatments independent from controlled environments and FDA regulations. In their own way, they’re attempting to make research and medicine open-source.

Josiah Zayner, PhD, is a former NASA research scientist who walked away from his position to do his own research, unencumbered by rules and regulations. He operates his own lab, where he studies gene editing, teaches gene editing courses, and even sells gene editing kits through his company, The ODIN.

Zayner believes this type of science shouldn’t just be available to the small segment of the population that can afford million dollar treatments. His way of making it more accessible to the public is by teaching as many people as he can.

But some extreme biohackers operate in a legal gray area and could be risking their health. Grinders work with substances that could be harmful in environments that aren’t completely sterile. Plus, they don’t always know the short or long-term side effects of biohacking.

Meet The Biohacker Surgeon

Jeffrey Tibbetts, a registered nurse and biohacker surgeon, has a “clinic” established in his garage. His knowledge of sterilization procedures and wound care undoubtedly help him keep his clients safe, but there are always risks.

For grinders like Tibbetts, the biggest risks are infection and not being able to predict how a person’s body will react to an implant. And for patients who have magnets inserted beneath their skin, MRIs are off the table for diagnostic tools available at the hospital.

Hacker surgeons avoid legal issues by calling what they do “extreme body modification,” rather than surgery. Tibbetts doesn’t promise medical treatment. He simply provides the implants and modifications that his clients want, and clients willingly undergo the procedures fully aware of the risks.

Like Zayner, who’s trying to make expensive technologies more accessible to everyone, biohacking surgeons simply offer services that people want, but can’t get at a doctor’s office.

Depending on the type of implant, grinders enjoy different benefits and enhancements, such as being able to download and stream content from their bodies. For magician Anastasia Synn, her implants are a work tool. She has dozens of magnets and microchips that she uses during her performances.

Our Director, Chase, can use his new implant to unlock his front door and turn the lights on.

After meeting Tibbetts and touring his facility, our very own Production Manager, Chase Pipkin, decided to get an implant of his own. Chase chose to get an NFC chip that can send and receive information. NFC chips are housed in biocompatible capsules and inserted with a hollow needle. (The swelling went down within a couple of days).

With his new chip, Chase can open his front door, unlock his car door, and even turn the lights on in his home. He also programmed it to Facetime his mother when he scans it with his iPhone. What does mom think? As long as being a grinder means he’ll call her more, she’s okay with it.

For more from our Biohackers series, subscribe to Freethink.

Subscribe to Freethink for more great stories