I realized that my sixth sense was failing when I stopped noticing the magnetic fields of my laptop.
In fall 2012, I implanted a rare earth magnet in my right ring finger. Magnets were one of the most accessible forms of DIY biohacking, a niche subculture riding the start of a massive mainstream publicity wave. My colleague Ben Popper got one while writing a biohacking feature, and it sounded like magic.
When I first got it, I wasn’t disappointed. Nestled just beneath my skin, the magnet tugged and tickled when it got close to hard drives and speakers; around microwaves, it outright buzzed. I could attract screws and other small metal objects to my finger, like a real-life version of Looper’s telekinetic party tricks. Even its downsides (like wiping hotel keycards) felt cool. They were problems, yes, but problems of the future.
But I always knew that my tiny superpowers had an expiration date. Magnets weaken over time, and mine was no exception. I would have, it turns out, about four years of peak performance. Around a year ago, a distinctive “bump” of magnetic repellant on my MacBook keyboard started shrinking, until it was little more than a weak vibration. Bottle caps refused to leave the ground, and finally, stopped responding altogether. Today, magnetic sensation has gone from a basic feeling to something I’m surprised to feel on rare occasions, when I run my hands over another magnet.
I mourned the loss to some extent, but it didn’t really sink in until Ben sent me a Slack message one morning. “It finally happened,” he told me. He’d gone to get an MRI because of a pinched nerve, and they’d turned him away because of the magnet embedded in his finger. My earlier Internet research suggested you could secure it with tape during a scan, but this confidence was apparently misplaced. Ben got his magnet removed at home by a friend in the surgical profession: they slit open his finger, pulled it to the surface with a bigger magnet, and plucked it out with tweezers. He’d lost feeling from it years ago.
Ben called his surgery the end of an era, and it felt like one for me, too. I could get a new magnet, but the knot of scar tissue in my ring finger would force me to put it somewhere else, and I’ll only open so many digits for a temporary sixth sense. Meanwhile, the massive wave of press that magnet implants got in the early ‘10s has ebbed. Today, they’re still exotic for most people, but have been covered from almost every news angle. The body modification artist who installed my magnet told me he’s “definitely” seen a slowdown in people asking for them, although he says that could be either because demand is down or because there are more places offering them.
Either way, it no longer feels like we’re in a boom period for human augmentation. I injected an NFC chip into my hand in 2014, and it’s still a fun (if minor) addition. But since then, everything has seemed too purely cosmetic or too uncomfortable — like Grindhouse Wetware’s Northstar, a large glowing disk you can implant on the back of your hand. I’ll happily ensconce random electronics in my flesh, but they have to feel at least a little useful.
Earlier this year, I thought I’d struck gold with the North Sense compass: an inch-wide removable sensor anchored to your skin, which sends vibrations through those metal piercings when you turn due north. In the cyborg version of a midlife crisis, I convinced my remarkably supportive husband and editors to endorse wiring a $400 nanocomputer to my chest, only to have two experts warn me off it. The first, who installed my chip and magnet, said the anchors it used were usually temporary, and having the sensor hanging off them would only shorten their life span. A former colleague, biohacker Dann Berg, added that he’d bet “a fairly large sum of money” that almost every North Sense user’s body would reject the anchors within a year.
Cyborg Nest, which makes the North Sense, disputes this risk; co-founder Liviu Babitz told me last month that they’d shipped around 250 units since the device’s February launch, and weren’t expecting complications. Still, it was enough to make me hold off. And it raised a question I’d been mulling over for years: for the would-be upgraded human, what’s next?
North Sense implantable compass.
I asked Ryan O’Shea of Grindhouse Wetware, which has helped drive body hacking forward since its formation in 2012. For now, Grindhouse Wetware is focusing on two projects: a second-generation Northstar that incorporates gesture controls, and a slimmer version of the Circadia biomedical tracker, which debuted as a large and somewhat terrifying experimental prototype a few years ago.
O’Shea named two hypothetical advances that would let Grindhouse Wetware and other biohackers go farther. The first would be a safe, long-lasting implantable battery that’s strong enough to power electronics, like a fully internal version of the North Sense, which currently recharges via USB. The second would be a class of professionals who are trained for more complicated surgery than body mod artists, but don’t operate inside the medical establishment. “We’re ultimately getting to the point — and this is a good thing — that we’re going to start working with the organs of the human body, with the nervous system, ultimately with the brain itself,” O’Shea says.
In the long term, O’Shea dreams of a future where installing new tech feels like swapping out a computer part. “You could talk about replacing limbs wholesale, like perhaps removing a biological arm or leg,” he says. “When you have something like that, you don’t need to worry about, necessarily, another medical procedure to upgrade that limb. You just add new technology.”
But there’s no sign that this procedure will make sense anytime soon, and plenty of reasons why it would never happen. Ironically, I learned this at a 2016 conference for Deus Ex — one of my favorite video game series, set in a world where characters casually replace limbs and organs with mechanical parts. The quasi-academic (and publisher-sponsored) event was supposed to examine the ethics of Deus Ex-style “human augmentation,” but it quickly became obvious that almost nobody believed there was a real dilemma.
Radical body modification makes sense if patients wouldn’t be losing anything in the process — an operation to restore a lost limb, for example, or a brain implant that could help a blind person see. But if you’re replacing a perfectly functional body part, the risks and possible complications outweigh the rewards. During the Deus Ex conference, one futurist gushed over a visually striking prosthetic arm, musing that it might be worth amputating for the “upgrade.” Another panelist shut them down immediately: doctors and scientists aren’t even close to solving the phantom pain and limited mobility that most amputees face, let alone building something uniformly better than a human limb.
The Deus Ex Human x Design conference.
When I asked other panelists about augmenting healthy body parts over lunch that day, most seemed a little exasperated. At one point, I mentioned that I had a finger magnet to Michael Chorost, who got a groundbreaking cochlear implant to restore his hearing. “Don’t get a magnet,” he sighed, apparently not realizing that I wasn’t speaking hypothetically.
The better wearable devices get, the less sense it makes to permanently modify your body. Things like exoskeletons, smart glasses, and external brain-computer interfaces are safer and much easier to upgrade than their implanted counterparts. Plus, you can take them off in inappropriate situations: you won’t get stuck trying to swim with a metal limb, for example, or wearing a permanent version of Google Glass to a laid-back dive bar.
For me, though, the metaphorical value is the point. The magnet was a little piece of the future, and its slow loss coincides with a period of pessimism that’s much bigger than me. To get a sense of how popular biohacking hardware still was, I emailed Dangerous Things, which produced my NFC implant and sells a variety of other chips and magnets. Founder Amal Graafstra told me that sales had been going up, until the 2016 presidential election — when no one bought anything for a full week.
Shaken, Graafstra sat down and thought about who was buying his products. “Really it just comes down to people that are excited about the future in a very basic sense,” he says now. “I think one way or another, people lost faith in humanity, and in a sense lost faith in the future. And had much more pressing current concerns than, ‘What am I going to do with this cool implant?’”
Graafstra is pessimistic about the future of biohacking in the US. Sales have been slowly recovering, but Dangerous Things is shifting its focus to Europe, where businesses and citizens are more open to the idea of chip implants. In Sweden, you can work in an office that offers NFC chips in lieu of keycards, or pay for train tickets with one. “We’re the old man on the porch, and the young kids across the pond are doing the cool stuff now,” says Graafstra.
The next decade’s most exciting forms of human enhancement will probably be wearable ones, and even if highly speculative projects like Elon Musk’s consumer Neuralink implants work out — which is far from certain — they won’t be compatible with the garage-hacker ethos of DIY biohacking. Part of the movement’s appeal is the idea that there are no gatekeepers or overseers, whether that’s an insurance company or a big tech conglomerate. (This ethos is also what makes Biohack.me’s forums so compelling, even when it leads to horror stories like one user’s ordeal of removing their magnet with an X-Acto knife and hairband tourniquet.) The approach lends itself to clever ideas with limited commercial application — like finger magnets. It’s not a recipe for cutting-edge consumer-grade tech.
Still, accessible biohacking is hardly dead. Dangerous Things is building a cryptographic key implant called VivoKey, and O’Shea is working on an artificial intelligence program called Behaivior, which could help organize the massive amounts of health information collected by a more advanced Circadia. Even now that feeling the rod under my skin is a little bittersweet, I’d wholeheartedly recommend an NFC chip or magnet to anyone who wanted one. If you go to a reputable professional, the worst probable outcome is that you’ll get it removed someday. (I do not recommend the X-Acto method.) And until that point, it’s a lot of fun.
If nothing else, my magnet is a useful memento mori: a reminder that the future is farther than it looks, and that progress can always slip away. Besides, I’ve still got the chip in my hand, which lets me send people to my Twitter profile instead of handing them a business card. It hasn’t quite worked out. Strangers tend to get impatient when I slide my hand around their phone looking for the NFC reader. But it’s still strangely satisfying every time. I’m the world’s most useless cyborg, and after five years, I’ve learned to live with it.