Biohackers work toward building $6M man on do-it-yourself budget
By Andrew Conte
Published: Saturday, Dec. 21, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Tim Cannon says he would cut off his arm if he could replace it with a stronger, more adroit mechanical upgrade.
For now, he must be content with a homemade digital device implanted under his skin that records his body temperature, interacts by Bluetooth and has LED lights.
About the size of a stack of business cards, it bulges from his left forearm, still tender and swollen with fluids his body secreted to expel the foreign object. A body-piercing specialist implanted the device beneath a tattoo of a mechanical gear holding a DNA double helix.
Called Circadia, it turned out cruder and larger than Cannon hoped, but the device represents to him a step toward humanity's union with machines.
“We did exactly what we set out to do, which was to inspire — to say, ‘You can do this,' ” said Cannon, 34, of North Fayette. “Other groups of people on hacker budgets, with do-it-yourself sensibilities and passion, can go and create things that typically we are being told are well beyond our scope.”
Cannon is not affiliated with a research lab or university. He belongs to a group of so-called “grinders” who call themselves Grindhouse Wetware. These biohackers build technological devices that seek to extend or improve human abilities.
It's no different, they say, from wearing futuristic glasses such as Google Glass — only the devices are embedded in their bodies.
But there is a difference, said Dr. Jeffrey Gusenoff, associate professor of plastic surgery at the University of Pittsburgh.
Major body modification surgery should not be done at home, Gusenoff warned, because implanting a device beneath the skin can cause permanent nerve damage or lead to buildups of blood or fluids.
“There are a lot of risks, so you really need to make sure the person doing it understands the anatomy of the regions where you desire the modification,” Gusenoff said.
Cannon admits he often lies awake at night, worrying that the batteries in his invention will fail and leak poison through its thick silicone coating into his bloodstream. But despite their unorthodox methods, he and other biohackers have won some traditional admirers.
Grindhouse eases the way for the public to accept technologies, said Kevin Warwick, a leading researcher on artificial intelligence and biomedical engineering at the University of Reading in England. He implanted a computer chip in his arm and had electronic sensors wired into his nervous system.
“Tim and others take on an important role,” Warwick said. “Firstly, they open people's minds to think about the possibilities, which is vital as it makes folks a little more receptive to more scientific-type experiments.”
The grinders push the envelope with materials, technologies and methods that the official research community cannot easily use, Warwick said. Biohackers decide what to do with their bodies; university scientists face ethical limitations and insurance restrictions.
Some Grindhouse members, such as Cannon, have implanted magnets in a finger to pick up electromagnetic pulses. They can find electric wires within walls and feel intuitively when their laptop computer's hard drive starts.
They have radio-frequency identification chips implanted in their hands, like those used to identify cats and dogs. The group doesn't know how it wants to use them, but they could be programmed to interact with locks or to start devices by emitting signals.
Grinders want to start building a high-tech future. Only in their 20s and 30s, they are focused on inventing machines to prolong life.
Dragging on a mentholated Marlboro cigarette, Cannon talks about wanting to invent a low-cost mechanical heart. If one round of machines extends life for 50 years, maybe inventors can build on that to add 100 years or 1,000 years — even eternity.
Humanity is moving inexorably toward intimacy with machines that play “Jeopardy!” and chess and take on dangerous jobs.
Hans Moravec, a Carnegie Mellon University professor, predicted years ago that thinking machines would love humans as the children of our minds. He spends most of his time building and selling robots, and he still sees a future for humans and machines that share goals and values.
“It's my long-term road map,” he said. “Estimate about 30 more years before the machines can take care of themselves.”
Someday we might live forever, uploading ourselves into computers or robots, said George Hotz, 24, a Carnegie Mellon student who hacked the iPhone at 17. Perhaps our digital selves will transcend the cyber-reality Rubicon in the other direction from Stuxnet, the computer virus that leaped into the physical world by tricking Iranian uranium centrifuges to spin too fast out of control.
The chasm has narrowed in unpredictable ways. Humans implant Internet-ready heart pacemakers and insulin pumps with wireless monitors. Those advances leave them susceptible to being hacked, said David Betz, a cyber warfare strategist at King's College in London.
“In the coming decade, perhaps two, millions of us will be voluntarily cyborging ourselves to one degree or another,” he said. “Then cyber security will get interesting.”
Cannon worries more about the safety of his creation.
Once homeless, Cannon works as a software engineer by day to make the money for his evening experiments. He wears a T-shirt printed with the words “This is what awesome looks like” and has a piercing through his lower lip, above a tuft of hairs growing from his chin.
He lives in a rented house with his girlfriend, Danielle Greaves, 26, a website developer, and their puggle dogs, Frankie and Johnny.
Their basement is the laboratory, with spider webs clinging to rafters and rusty rotary blades hanging from a nail. The biohackers work at a long, plastic folding table and a higher bench made from three boards.
A plastic hardware box holds rows of small drawers filled with tiny lights, a joystick, electronic wires, odd pieces. They buy parts from RadioShack and Adafruit, an online hacker warehouse.
Grindhouse has volunteers who Skype from around the world, and tinkerers who drop by the house to work on projects. They want their designs to succeed but abide by an open-source philosophy, sharing them online for others to take.
Using their own money to get started, the inventors dream of building a $6 million man on working-class incomes.
Lucas Dimoveo, 21, who dropped out of college to join Grindhouse, works at a convenience store and lives in Cannon's house. He would consider implanting a magnet or chip, except that it might interfere with his parkour workouts. Parkour is a workout that involves using movement to propel oneself over obstacles in one's environment.
Dimoveo joined Grindhouse because “a bunch of people were talking about this — but they were actually doing it.”
Shawn Sarver, 30, of Conway, a barber with a waxed mustache, learned electronics as an Air Force senior airman and visits the house on most nights.
Their inventions include Thinking Cap, which is designed to stimulate brainwaves with low-level electrical currents to increase focus for studying; and Bottlenose, which interacts with a user's implanted magnets to detect objects by sonar. A blind person might use it to locate objects.
Grindhouse envisions a market for the lights on its Circadia device by developing illuminated silicone skin implants in shapes such as stars and music notes. One idea would be for a user to have a star-shaped hand implant that glows when pointing north. Dimoveo hopes to have 500 of them implanted within a year.
Cannon, though, still dreams of making a biometric device that could detect pulse rate, blood pressure and blood-oxygen levels. Runners might use that information to maximize performance, or someone with heart problems could avoid dangerous triggers.
“I'm a technophile,” Cannon said. “It can always get smaller, faster, (have) more features. ... Of course, I want the upgrade. I just have to invent it.”
Andrew Conte is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7835 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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