Details Magazine Biohacking Article:
The Weird Science of Biohacking
A growing number of amateur scientists are transforming themselves into the closest thing yet to real-life cyborgs. These would-be Mr. Robotos may sound like something out of sci-fi, but in reality, the rest of us may not be that far behind.
Prop styling by Robin Finlay.
At the New Flesh Workshop, a big, bright space on the barren outskirts of Queens, New York, everything is coated in a fine white plaster dust, and mannequin parts are strewn across the floor. It's here that Dr. Seth Adventure (real name: Seth Kane; also, not a doctor) fabricates tools for what he calls "human enhancement." There's a bulletproof leg in a protective case lying in a corner; molds of silicone ears with embedded hearing aids are piled on an oversize workbench; prototypes of an implantable electromagnetic "muscle" the size of a pencil eraser sit near the keyboard of his iMac. (The implant, he explains, attaches to tendons or bone and through a coil will contract and move soft tissue, allowing those who have lost the use of a limb to regain some mobility.)
At 28, Adventure looks every bit the part of a hipster tinkerer, sporting an anachronistic mustache, thick-rimmed glasses, and a pair of faded thrift-store jeans. Today he's eager to test out his latest invention: a flexible exoskeleton made from a carbon-fiber composite, which he created for rescue workers and has asked me to try on. "We don't have any cinder blocks here, so how about I hit you with this hammer?" he asks, waving a Craftsman. He winds up and delivers a two-handed wallop to my lumbar. He belts me 10 or 15 times. It doesn't not hurt, but I'm still standing, bones intact.
A former science instructor and circus performer who's a few credits shy of a bachelor's degree in biomedical engineering, Adventure is now a full-time biohacker, one in a growing movement of amateur scientists who, over the past decade, have been conducting ambitious, unregulated experiments in makeshift labs. (According to the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the DIY-biology community grew more in the second half of 2013 than in any previous time.) Though biohackers vary greatly in their pursuits and personalities—they range from teenagers in after-school programs manipulating plant DNA to CEOs using smart drugs like nootropics to boost their God-given biology—the intent is the same: Embrace an open-source ethos (i.e., share findings and instructions online) to quicken the pace of scientific advancement. "Science used to be people doing crazy and dangerous shit to find knowledge," Adventure says. "But it became this massive, sterile industry. We do things our way."
Adventure believes that beneath the dust may be a fix to issues too narrow to draw the attention (and funding) of Big Medicine, like prosthetics for people with rare disabilities. And though some projects sound like props in a sci-fi film, it's hard to dismiss young people who think they know better: Consider 21-year-old Palmer Luckey, who built the prototype for a virtual-reality headset, Oculus Rift, in his parents' house, then sold it and his company to Facebook for $2 billion. "Every major industry that's been launched in the United States has been launched outside of an establishment," says Oliver Medvedik, Ph.D., a biomedical scientist and cofounder of GenSpace, a DIY-biology lab in Brooklyn. "The aerospace industry was started by two bike mechanics in a shop in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina—NASA didn't fund the Wright brothers. Jobs and Wozniak launched the PC revolution in a garage."
Much like Adventure, Amal Graafstra took things into his own hands, literally, when he had an idea for revolutionizing how we open doors. While working as an IT consultant in Seattle in the mid-aughts, Graafstra was locked out of his office regularly, and it got him thinking about the archaic nature of keys. His interest in transhumanism—the belief that man can evolve beyond his own physical and mental limitations—prompted him to investigate the radio frequency identification (RFID) chips that veterinarians implant in pets. "There's a difference between carrying a tool and integrating a tool into yourself," he explains. "It expands your expected set of capabilities." Graafstra programmed a chip and had his GP insert the glass-encased tag into the fleshy area between his right thumb and forefinger (the cylinder is slightly larger than a grain of rice). He installed an RFID reader on his office door and, just like that, no more keys. He added one to his car, his front door, and his office safe; he waves his hand in front of each to open it. "Biohacking is an iterative process," he says. In other words, each experiment moves the science forward.
Unlike in traditional research—with test subjects, waivers, and red tape—using oneself as a guinea pig is common in biohacking. A sect called grinders prides itself on it. One notable group, Grindhouse Wetware, gained national attention when one of its founders, Tim Cannon, implanted a biosensor in his arm. Built by engineers in his basement, the sensor, called Circadia, is the size of a soft pack of cigarettes. It transmits weeks of data on Cannon's temperature and pulse to his cell phone via Bluetooth. This procedure, performed by a body-modification artist (a pseudo–plastic surgeon who might carve elf ears or implant metal bolts in a client's neck) during a German biohacking conference, served as proof of concept: The technology of monitoring yourself from within is basic, but it can be done.
Considering the near-ubiquity of the quantified-self movement (obsessing over REM cycles and caloric intake has become de rigueur for type-A personalities), the implications for an implanted data-collection tool would seemingly have investors seeing dollar signs—one estimate predicts that wearable tech will be a $101.2 billion industry by 2018. This spring, Grindhouse started working to make Circadia smaller, with a better battery and fuller functionality, so that, as another of the group's cofounders, Lucas Dimoveo, puts it, "people feel it's acceptable to have one." But not everyone shares that goal. Dimoveo says there's a nonconformist streak among grinders, who see personal augmentation as a means of self-expression, not performance enhancement. In fact, there's often an overlap between grinders and body modifiers—the folks with synthetic horns and forked tongues.
Although that bizarre aesthetic could hinder biohacking's entry into the mainstream, the body-modification crowd may be essential to making these implants accessible. While Grindhouse members were developing Circadia, people in other hack labs were also experimenting on themselves. After receiving an e-mail from a young woman who landed in the hospital with sepsis from attempting to put a magnet in her hand, Graafstra launched Dangerous Things, a company that sells instructions and safety materials for RFID implants, and curated a network of body-modification artists to safely install the chips, since many doctors won't. "Maybe someday a major company will offer to mass-produce these things," Graafstra says. "Until then, [biohackers] are breaking ground, not just on the technology, but also the acceptability of it. We're letting people play around, get used to it. It has social value."
Still, the question remains whether a sparsely funded industry populated mostly with part-time enthusiasts can change the way we live. Money, lab space, and motivation are hard to come by. Tom Burkett, founder of the hack lab BUGSS (Baltimore Under Ground Science Space), says that biohackers frequently brainstorm far-fetched solutions to important problems but that technology and funds take time, and the lack of immediate feedback frustrates many. Adventure sees only possibilities. "You know what biohacking could lead to? Human photosynthesis," he says excitedly. "You'd get an inoculation. Instead of eating, you'd sit in the sun and have nourishment." His voice carries no hint of recognition that the idea is ridiculous. But then again, at one time, so was flying.
HOPES & FEARS
- January 5, 9:30 AM
Doctor Adventure makes an ear!
By making prosthetics for artists and superheroes, Seth Kane has gained a reputation as a mad scientist for the eccentric. For his latest feat, Kane converts a friend with a missing ear into a cyborg.
“Do you want to know something cool?” This is one of Seth Kane’s usual quips. “I’m making my friend a new ear.” Kane, who is perhaps more appropriately recognized by his alias, Doctor Adventure, is referring to a fully-functioning prosthetic that he is designing for his friend, Juliannah Vasquez, who is missing almost all of her ear—including the opening—since birth due to microtia. He has been prototyping for over a year out of his Brooklyn-based laboratory, The New Flesh Workshop.
The New Flesh Workshop toes the line between multidisciplinary garage and a menagerie of oddities; loose bolts and nuts are sorted in model skulls, an articulated composite and Kevlar glove resists the tight grip of a vice. A pirate’s peg leg—replete with an etching of a schooner—stands proudly next to the Workshop’s founder. Established out of Kane’s garage in 2007 after he dropped out of Drexel University’s biomedical engineering program because they were “slowing him down,” The New Flesh Workshop has served as a factory for the prototyping and production of customized protective gear and wearable technology with the vision of redefining human capabilities.
“The goal of the New Flesh Workshop is to give people superhuman abilities,” Kane tells Hopes&Fears. “My definition of a superhuman ability is something you cannot train your body to do.” It’s the difference between a skill, such as optimizing the body with exercise and coaching to become the fastest runner on earth, and using technology to extend beyond the mortal; take Aimee Mullins, for example, a double leg amputee and athletic pioneer who has leveraged her prosthetics to enhance her body in every way from speed to height.
Kane has undertaken this vision from two angles: the first, by prototyping experimental armor systems that allow users to protect their bodies in dangerous environments such as burning or collapsing buildings. The second, by embracing those who need prosthetic replacements for missing or lost body parts as having the potential perform at higher levels than any biologically complete body. Or in Kane’s words, “Why would you replace a missing arm with a worse version of an arm, when you can have it shoot lasers instead?”
Kane hasn’t created any laser-shooting prosthetics…yet. But he has applied his method to a number of differently-abled clients—mostly artists and performers—who share his philosophy. “I make prosthetics for artists who are, in one way or another, challenged to do their art because of their abnormality,” Kane explains, “so I help them find the tools that allow them to express themselves and engage in their craft.” He customized a prosthetic pinky with an interchangeable tool tip for an engineer, and a protective torso guard for Eduardo Garcia, an extreme sports enthusiast who lost several ribs in an electrical accident, so he could continuesnowboarding.
In this way, Kane has gained a reputation as a sort of mad scientist for the eccentric—hence, the comic book-worthy pseudonym. But beyond that, he embodies the Hippocratic Oath to heal with empathy as seriously as any medical professional—or perhaps even more so, because he is constantly on the lookout amongst his peers for physical abnormalities to solve before they come looking for him.
Which is exactly how Kane found himself making an ear.
Back and front of Kane's finalized cyborg prosthetic ear
Singer and fellow Brooklynite Juliannah Vasquez runs in the same social circle as Kane and the two would often bump into each other at events and gatherings. In fact, Vasquez’s former partner, Walker Fee, rented desk space in Kane’s Workshop to use as an art studio. Before long, Kane noticed that Vasquez was missing all but the pierced lobe of her right ear, a skein of scar tissue where the rest of the ear, including canal, would normally be.
Vasquez was born with microtia, a congenital ear abnormality which results in the partial or total loss of the outer ear and often the ear canal. Often the internal structures that are capable of hearing are still intact, but they cannot be reached by airwaves and compression needed for regular hearing because of the lack of an opening. “It took a while for me to notice because Juliannah usually covered it with her wild hair, and the lobe was pierced,” Kane recalls. “Plus she has a generally spunky attitude, so you’d never know that sometimes she literally couldn’t hear you.”
After considering his options, Kane approached Juliannah and told her that he wanted to make her a functioning ear. “Doc and I were at this giant festival together and he comes up to me at six in the morning when the party is finally wrapping up,” Vasquez tells Hopes&Fears, “and he just says, ‘I want to make you a robot ear.’” It was something she had been waiting to hear her entire life. “I just started crying on the spot,” Vasquez recalls, “I will remember that moment forever.”
Vasquez’s lifelong battle with microtia has been painfully debilitating. She experienced her first surgery at the age of four, when doctors cut through her undeveloped ear canal opening in order to assess the viability of her interior hearing organs, commencing a long string of hospital visits that would span her childhood. In second grade, Vasquez had a silicone ear implanted under grafted skin, a surgery that confined her to a wheelchair for about a year. The implant had no function beyond the aesthetic—to make her appear “normal.” Instead, it made Vasquez’s childhood more difficult than her doctors or family could imagine.
Vasquez required four transdermal implants, which would be magnetized to hold the prosthetic in place
“Everyone around me was just trying to cover up this thing that they thought was strange and ugly,” Vasquez said, “It’s hard to feel beautiful when everyone you trust thins you’re ‘incomplete.’” Soon after the surgery, she fell off her bed and punctured a hole through her freshly-grafted skin, sending her back to the hospital for more procedures. Her body never took to the ear—a chronic infection formed a perpetual wound that would force her to take antibiotics every two or three months—completely obliterating her immune system—and over the next few years it became obvious that her body was rejecting the implant.
So Vasquez made one last trip to the hospital to have the implant removed, placing her back at square one—but with a far more emboldened spirit. “I wanted to accept the beauty of my body as it was,” she said, “it felt like my spirit was reacting to something that wasn’t a part of me. I think having that attitude was part of the reason my body rejected it.”
Unlike Vasquez’s prior experiences with medical professionals, Kane makes no assumptions about the needs or desires of those he collaborates with. His process starts with a basic physiological assessment of the situation from the fundamental (what is the medical prognoses?), to the functional (what do you want or need to be able to do that you can’t do now?), to the esoteric (now that you are a cyborg, what type of cyborg do you want to look like? How do we take your weakness and make it a superpower?). “If you’re differently-abled, what your body can do is different than what others can naturally do, so just to get everyone on an even keel to start with is a big part of our prosthetics focus—so get your life back, express yourself and love your body,” Kane explains. “Once you can do those things, then the question is how to move beyond it.”
In Vasquez’s case, she could not hear from her right side, which made it difficult to pursue her passion for music. It’s especially hard for her to perform live, because she can’t even hear herself over other instrumentals and a noisy audience. And like many artists struggling with the high cost of rent and metro cards in New York City, Vasquez relies on her bike to keep transportation costs low. So she often fears for her safety since she can’t totally hear traffic around her.
Just to get everyone on an even keel to start with is a big part of our prosthetics focus...once you can do those things, then the question is how to move beyond it."
Seth "Dr. Adventure" Kane
As for the type of cyborg she wanted to be? One who could transform into an elf. Or a robot. Or hide under the cloak of normalcy, if necessary. Thus, a year of research and prototyping began.
Kane already had an idea of how he was going to approach the challenge before ever presenting his idea to Vasquez. Vasquez could not receive sound via air; she could, however, hear sound conducted by physical vibration. So Kane thought a transducer, a small metal disc which vibrates at the same frequencies as the sounds it receives, would do the trick. A transducer will transfer sound directly into the skull when held against it, essentially turning the bone into an amplifier of sorts. It’s like those Sound Bites singing lollipops from the late '90s that "Lets you hear music inside your head"; by applying sound vibrations to the tooth the music suddenly becomes really loud, as though there’s a small radio inside your head.
The first prototype was straightforward; using an ordinary pair of headphones, he replaced the right earbud with a conductive transducer so that sound would translate via disc, making the right channel a vibrational pad that could resonate sound through her skull. It doesn’t seem like much, but for Vasquez, the result was life-changing. Vasquez had never heard in stereo before; her hearing was flat—an aural equivalent of walking through a three-dimensional world but only seeing it as though you were watching it all on a screen. For the first time in her life, music had a depth.
“I was shocked that I could hear such specific notes and beats I never knew existed before,” she says, “it was like someone opening blinds and I never even knew there was an outside.” This alone opened Vasquez’s eyes to possibilities in music that she had dismissed as lost causes—DJing, or even producing her own music, for instance—as they required hearing on both sides.
But Kane had committed to making Vasquez an ear—an appendage that could translate noise as it was created around her, rather than just a tool she could use to listen to recorded music and other recorded sound. Beyond that, Kane wanted to create something that Vasquez could develop a relationship with as part of her body—something that could be identified as her ear.
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Silicone model of Vasquez's missing ear location, made using an alginate castHearing aid and conductive transducer, which are then soldered togetherAn ear mockup with the ear mold and hearing aid is used to make a positive plaster mold for the final prototype moldThe positive plaster mold and negative silicone mold with a relief of the prototype ear designTwo final prototypes, a flower "elf" ear and a gold dragon ear, made of silicone
While more complex than the headphones, Kane’s prosthetic is still remarkably simple. Using a standard hearing aid, Kane replaced the receiver bud with a transducer, just like the headphones. The next step was making the proper ear itself, starting with an alginate model of Vasquez’s deformed ear which Kane developed into a silicone model. Then, using a dummy hearing aid in conjunction with the silicone model, he created a positive plaster mold that would shape the space needed for the final hearing aid and residual lobe of the ear. Finally, Kane used a two-part mold—a negative relief of the final silicone ear design on one side, the plaster positive mold on the other—to shape a working prototype of the prosthetic ear. “We had to work through at least half a dozen prototypes to just get the hearing aid component functioning,” Kane recalls, “then we had to figure out making a mold for a silicone ear, so there was a lot of experimentation with techniques, materials, pigments, stuff like that.”
Even in its prototypical form, Kane’s design was regularly stunning Vasquez every time she tested it. “We tried out a prototype and I could hear the bus going by, people walking around, a dog barking across the street—it was all so loud,” Vasquez recalls. The little sounds often taken for granted were something that she had never heard before. “I was literally weeping for three minutes straight. It was all so loud.” Then there were the more practical developments; Vasquez, for instance, never knew how loudly or softly she was speaking because of her partial deafness. “I am constantly told that I am too loud, or even losing my voice, because I can barely hear myself over other people or loud noises,” she says. Until now, she could never assess speed or distance of objects around her because she wasn’t capable of hearing the shifting sound of objects passing from one side of her to the other, and her sense of balance was a constant challenge. She’s excited to lose the awkwardness of moving someone over to her left side so she can hear what they’re saying, and having to repeatedly ask her conversation partners to repeat themselves. “Now I don’t have to explain to people why I’m clumsy or loud,” Vasquez says.
The final prosthetic is a 3D-printed ear scanned from a sculpt conceived by Juliannah’s friend Paul. Its silver robotic design distinctly cyborgian—a celebration of her missing appendage rather than an attempt to hide it. With the ear complete, the final hurdle to cross was how exactly Vasquez could attach it to her body.
More often than not, prosthetics attach to the body using a suspension system that holds the device to the remaining portion of a missing limb, which is fitted into the prosthetic’s socket. These devices are what people most commonly associate with prosthetics—artificial devices to replace the bottom portion of a missing arm or leg for instance. In Vasquez’s case, there was no residual limb; her attachment point was the side of her face, a flat surface that lends no protrusion to which a prosthetic can be suspended. Without surgery such as a bone fixation—a procedure in which a prosthetic is literally screwed into your bone—Kane decided to employ transdermal implants.
A transdermal implant is a form of body modification that places an object just below the skin with part of it exposed externally. While transdermal implants are used medically, they are frequently affiliated with extreme body modification culture, with enthusiasts embedding small, threaded bases below the skin in which they can screw jewelry such as spikes and studs. Transdermal implants for cosmetic use were popularized by surgical equipment designer Steve Haworth and fellow body modification artist Jesse Jarrell, who terrified millions of suburban mothers across America with their “Metal Mohawk”, a more-punk-than-punk mohawk that used transdermal metal spikes instead of Elmer’s glued hair. “I had known about Haworth and Jarrell since I was 16 and so that was always something I’ve done a ton of R&D for,” Kane says. “That’s why I went to school for Biomedical Engineering—so I could learn about the materials and techniques, as well as the anatomical concerns of putting things into people’s bodies.”
Implanting transdermal jewelry is not a simple process, and definitely not for the faint of heart. With the location implant marked on the skin, the body modification expert creates a small incision about an inch away from the final point. He then elevates the skin to make a small pocket through which he can slide the jewelry and, using a dermal punch, creates a hole in the skin where it is marked. He can then push the jewelry under the skin and into the corresponding hole.
In Vasquez’s case, Kane designed a magnetic transdermal implant system that would use four magnetic bolts that could hold the prosthetic, retrofitted with corresponding magnets, to her head. This would allow her to interchange the ear design based on her need or mood, as well as remove the piece so she could sleep without it. All in all, the procedure for Vasquez took around three grueling hours; and since it was not medical, there was no anaesthetic involved. “We had talked about the procedure beforehand, but I didn’t really comprehend the specifics,” Vasquez recalls. “It was definitely one of the most painful and traumatic experiences I had put my body through.” She could actually hear her skin tearing and it took all the strength she could muster to keep from jerking her body out of pain.
Despite this, Vasquez sees this final step as a rebirthing—a test of mental and physical stamina that she had to experience in order to embody her incarnation as a cyborg. “It really, really tested how much I was willing to invest in being able to hear, she says.” Vasquez is certain it was all worth it. “Just the fact that maybe one day I’ll be able to have someone whisper into that ear that they love me… I’ve been looking forward to the day where I don’t have to fear that I’m less than everyone else. I no longer feel that way.”
Great Big Story