The transhumanists who are ‘upgrading’ their bodies


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Media captionTranshumanism: How far would you go for a body upgrade?

Winter Mraz says she loves having her keys in her hand but she does not mean holding them. She has actually had her door key implanted into her left hand in the form of a microchip.

In her right hand, she has had another microchip implant that acts as her business card but could also be used to store important medical information for use in the case of an emergency.

The 31-year-old engineer also has a magnet in one finger that allows her to sense electro-magnetic fields, which she says helps in her work.

But not all her body upgrades are practical. Her latest procedure is to have two LED implants, that turn on when a magnet is passed above them, illuminating her skin from inside.

Why? “Because they are sparkly and I’m a magpie,” she says. “I like things that light up.”

Winter is one of a growing number of people who call themselves “transhumanists”.

It is the belief that the humans can improve beyond their physical and mental limitations and “upgrade” their bodies by incorporating technology.

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Winter had her first enhancements after a bad car crash a decade ago

For Winter, her first “cyber-enhancements” were not voluntary, they were through the hospital after a serious car crash in the United States that fractured her back, both her ankles and her knees.

Her back was bolted together by surgeons and one of her kneecaps was replaced with one that was 3D-printed, on the NHS.

“If it was not for my cybernetic kneecap I would not be able to walk,” she told BBC Scotland’s The Nine.

After her accident she moved on to voluntary personal modifications such as the microchips in her hands.

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The chip is usually implanted in the back of the hand

The RFID (radio-frequency-identification) chip in her left hand works on the lock in her house door in the same way as many workplace security cards operate. This means she does not have to carry keys and keeps her hand free for her walking cane.

The NFC (near-field communication) chip in her right hand has many potential uses. It is the same type of chip that allows phones and tablets to easily share data with each other.

Winter says: “I think saying that you should not alter your body and you should not change your body is a very ableist way to go about living. People who are disabled don’t have that choice. It is made for us.”

How far would you go for a body upgrade?

Steven Ryall, a 26-year-old technical operator from Manchester, says he wants to have chips implanted to make “smart hands”.

“We have smart TVs, smart phones, everything is smart,” he says. “Why can’t I be smart?”

Steven believes that transhumanism is the logical next step in human development. He wants be able to programme the technology in his body to respond to his personal biology.

His “technological baptism” was at a private clinic in Leicester, where he had his first implant.

The microchips are usually delivered by a syringe into the back of the hand.

“I am slowly turning myself into part machine,” he says. “I don’t mind being biological but if I could be part mechanical that is so much more awesome than just my plain self.”

Steven says the chip is “essentially” like those in a contactless bank card. “I can get an RFID or NFC reader and hook it up to a chip that I programme and then get that chip to recognise the chip in my hand and do whatever I want,” he says.

Steven is an evangelist for humans “upgrading” themselves but he can understand why people might think it is an extreme thing to do. He says friends and family think it is “weird and kooky” but he believes that in the next five years they will start getting into it too.

What about the future?

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The procedure is often carried out by tattooist and body piercers

Winter says wearable tech such as the Apple watch and Fitbit and other “doctor on your wrist” health monitors have taken off in the past few years and she believes that implants are the next logical step.

She says: “I don’t think implants are inevitable but I think they are getting better, longer-lasting, cooler and have more functionality. It’s going to be one more option people have.”

Steven says he can easily see a time when companies are asking employees to have implants for security ID to access building or computer networks.

“I think that people would see it as an extreme thing because they are looking from a historical perspective, they are not looking forward,” he says.

What are the medical and ethical consequences?

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Bio-hacker Jenova Rain says she is doing about five implants a week but it is getting more popular

At the moment there are loose regulations on who can do it and most implants are done by tattoo artists and body piercers.

There are some people who are taking things into their own hands by buying the tools off websites to perform the procedure themselves.

Bio-hacker Jenova Rain, who implanted Steven’s chip at her Leicester practice, said she was doing five implants a week and the numbers were rising as interest grows.

Although regulations on bio-hacking specifically are sparse, Jenova says she is covered to do implants as a tattoo artist and piercer.

Even though she promotes the idea of upgrading yourself through her YouTube channel and website she has no chips or “upgrades” herself. She says they would be “useless” for her.

Dr Mary Neal, professor of medicine and ethics at Strathclyde University, said she was “not surprised” more people were getting involved but there needed to be better regulation.

She said the procedure was similar to other body modification such as botox but there were many ethical discussions that needed to be had around bodily autonomy and regulation.

Dr Neal also said there were safety risks with people buying the equipment from online sites and doing the procedures from home.

The Scottish government told BBC Scotland’s The Nine it intended to regulate procedures carried out by non-healthcare professionals and it was consulting on how this could be done.

A spokesman said it was looking at the “most proportionate and appropriate measures” and the government’s priority was the safety of those involved.

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