Sally Hall: Beware, the age of biohacking has arrived and it looks scary

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I’ve seen a few party tricks in my time.

But last weekend I saw a parlour act I’d never encountered before – a bloke picking up beer bottle caps just by lifting his finger.

At first I thought there was trickery involved.

But I should have remembered where I was – a party thrown by a research scientist, attended almost entirely by physicists, engineers and biochemists.

Amongst this company of uber-geeks (a compliment as far as I’m concerned), I shouldn’t have been surprised to find a transhumanist.

Also known as H+, wikipedia defines ‘transhumanism’ as an international cultural and intellectual movement which eventually hopes to fundamentally transform the human condition through technology.

While it might have been exaggerating to call this party guest a cyborg, he’d certainly taken on a central tenet of transhumanism by modifying his body - in a rather strange way. This scientist persuaded a tattoo artist to implant a magnet in his index finger.

The silicon-coated magnet, now buried in his flesh, enabled him to ‘sense’ electromagnetic fields. He could identify a broken circuit by the change in vibrations in his skin and muscles.

This may have been a more useful skill than the ability to pick up bottle caps with just his fingertip.

(Although anyone who’s ever lost an earring under their chest of drawers would be grateful for those magnetic abilities.) Body modification - or biohacking - is a common thread in H+ philosophies.

Biohacking can take the form of genetic engineering to create a more optimal version of humanity. It can also involve adding something into the body to increase its capacities.

The party guest may have been inspired by UK professor of Engineering and Physical Science Kevin Warwick – also known as Captain Cyborg.

Professor Warwick first had a chip implanted in his arm in 1998, which he could use to control lighting, heating and door-opening mechanisms.

Since then he’s developed the complexity of this implant, and together with his colleagues has moved to the point where the implant connects with his own nervous system. More than a decade later, a similar implant has now been inserted into the arm of Professor Warwick’s wife. This enabled the first direct and purely electronic communication between the nervous systems of two humans.

I didn’t get chance to chat to ‘Magneto’ about the ethical implications of his party trick.

The talk swiftly moved on to the best way of ‘crafting a buzz’.

(Consensus was reached that the optimal level of drunkenness could be achieved by downing two alcoholic drinks in the first hour of a party, then limiting yourself to one drink an hour thereafter – a plan that was greeted with scorn by some of the more inebriated scientists present, who were then co-opted to act as a control group).

But since that night I’ve been musing on the implications of the transhumanist movement. 

Does a rise in home-grown genetic engineering risk a return to the politics of eugenics? Is the will to augment the body actually coming from a dark place of self-hatred? And what does it mean to perfect our bodies and minds: will the process ultimately create socially unmoored and objectified people; subhumans, even?

I’d never met anyone with a magnet in their body before.

Does it matter whether the electricity passes through the inanimate body of a monster, or through our own bodies?

Biohacking could be a nightmare or the beginning of something transformational for humankind.

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