by Shara E. on October 11, 2012

While exploring the wonderful world of implant history last week, I found myself struggling to stay on topic.  I was trying to stay mostly focused on the more “official” side of implants, butI kept tripping over some absolutely crazy, homemade implants that people have designed and used on themselves.  Well that and an overwhelming number of pages about breast implants, but I’m ignoring those.  While Steve Mann (who I mentioned last week) definitely ranks as one of the crazier examples of self-made implants I found, it turns out that there is a surprisingly large “Biohacking” community out on the Internet, and wow. These folks have done some crazy things to their bodies.

As someone who will definitely be first in line when Google figures out how to implant a search engine directly into my brain (thereby making Statistics  so much easier for me to learn), I was seriously intrigued by some of the devices I came across.  As a student at the School of Public Health, I also get that there are likely side effects to these forays into madness.  So, my dear readers, I present to you, for your pleasure some of the results of my exploration; the crazy, the wacky, and the downright stupid things that people have put in their bodies, all in the name of science.

First off, a brief introduction to the term “Biohacking”, as far as I understand it: to steal from the highly scientific and  utterly valid resource of Wikipedia, there are actually two meanings of the word, but in this case I am using the first:

“ Biohacking refers to activities involving both biology and the hacker ethic.[1] Additionally, biohacking refers to a growing trend of non-institutional science and technology development.[1][2][3]

Biohacking aims to make biology, and more particularly Do It Yourself (DIY) Biology experiments (See DIYBio) more accessible, and then goes running and screaming with the concept. In the realm of body modification, this means combining Hardware (technology), Software (apps) and Wetware (Humans) to achieve new heights for humanity — or something like that.  One of the key ideas that I kept stumbling upon was the belief among biohackers that Humanity has reached the edge of its evolutionary potential. If we want more, we are going to have to do it ourselves.  For more on biohacking, I recommend a short documentary made by The Verge.  Be forewarned, there are quite a few shots involving surgical procedures, and descriptions of body rejections so it is best avoided by the squeamish.  Currently, biohacking is mostly on the fringe of body modification, as Tim Cannon of Grindhouse Wetware says in the documentary: 

  “ You pretty much have two ways to go, there’s the medical field and then there’s the piercers. And frankly, the piercers are just much more willing to talk about it.”

So what sort of hacks are people coming up with?  Well, the short answer is a lot.  This week I’m going to focus on Radio-Frequency Implant Devices (RFID) chips, which started out in the realm of biohacking (albeit in a more academic way), but have since become a potential future staple of the health industry. RFID chips use electromagnetic fields at radio frequencies  to transfer information short distances.

Courtesy of WikiMedia Commons

RFID chip implants actually have the luxury of being slightly more academic in their history. Specifically at (and in) the hands of one Kevin Warwick, a professor at the University of Redding.  Professor Warwick is listed on the Physics and Ethics Education Project’s website as a case study on scientific works and resulting ethical dilemmas, along with other moderately well known figures such as Galileo GalileiAlbert Einstein,  Marie Curie and Robert Oppenheimer.  In 2002, Warwick  published results from an experiment where, having implanted a micro electrode array in his right arm, he was able to control a cybernetic hand in New York from Redding, as well as operate an electronic wheel chair.  After 96 days the implant was removed, without any signs of rejection (more on rejection next week). However, of the 20 electrodes that were actually connected to his nervous system, only 3 were still intact.  Warwick actually implanted himself with an RFID chip the first time in 1998, using it to monitor his movements around his Department, open the door to his lab, and cue his computer to great him when he walked through the door.  Hopefully he never got  “I’m sorry Dave, I can’t do that” as an answer.

Since then, RFID chip implants have become more common among the biohacker crowds, such that there are actually several DIY implant guides , kits and instructional videos available online. They have also become considerably more mainstream in the medical field, and are being studied for potential use in Alzheimer’s patients. There have, however, been some bumps along the way.

My dog Dexter didn’t much appreciate getting chipped. I’m not so sure I would either.

In 2007, an anti-chip advocacy group CASPIAN published a review entitled, “Microchip-Induced Tumors in Laboratory Rodents and Dogs: A Review of the Literature 1990–2006.“ The subsequent chaos resulted in PositiveID’s stock dropping nearly 50% over two weeks.  PositiveID are the makers of Verichip, an RFID chip that was licensed for implantation in humans in 2004 and is also used in pets. However, the FDA did not recall Verichip’s approval for implantation in humans, citing the 34 studies attached to Verichip’s application that showed it was safe (relative to  to the 8 studies presented by the report). TIME  magazine also did a review of the report that did not turn out favorably.  In terms of health risks, the biggest ones posed at the moment are probably those surrounding user error. These include failure to sterilize the chips before implantation, choosing a poor implantation site (such as the back of the wrist where it may impinge on nerves or blood vessels) and failure to properly care for the wound after implantation.

Additionally, I did find some websites that suggested using devices designed for implanting chips into pets, rather than finding a biohacker who is more specialized and has performed RFID implantations before.

Of course, there’s always the potential for new health risks to evolve with our increasing integration with technology. Not only are we vulnerable to biological pathogens, but we are potentially vulnerable to technologically based ones as well.


Coming up next week: MAGNETS!!!! 

[Update: Edited for typos, punctuation fixes, and changing one or two sentences for the purpose of clarification]


Elizabeth Fryer October 12, 2012 at 12:31 am

Steve Mann is a “cooler example” of what? The link was no help. I expected the link to return a picture of a guy with an obvious implant. That’s not what happened. I didn’t take the time to look through the site for what you want me to find. Readers are reading *your* blog post; they don’t want to take the time to read into another site—and you shouldn’t want them to. Please share with your fellow students the following tip. It seems I’m making it over and over.

*You need to make it easy for your readers to get your point.*

Define acronyms at first use. RFID?

Is U. of Redding a typo? And if it should be Reading (which the experiment description clued me in to), you should give the state. I don’t know where U of Reading (or Redding) is. And New York is a state while Reading is a city. They need to be parallel (ie, the same).

“Signs of rejection” would be a good link to … signs of rejection. I’m curious what those signs are.

Here’s another tip to share with your classmates: The text of a link should be descriptive of that link. For instance, the link for “1998″ readers will expect to return some history on the year 1998, a list of monumental things that happened that year. Better text for that link would be “first time,” but I would reword the sentence: “The first time Warwick implanted himself…” and have those words be the link.
“designed for pets” would be more descriptive as “implanting [should that be "implant"?] devices designed for pets.” Do you see how “designed for pets” doesn’t tell us what we will see?

The post is full of minor punctuation errors. They occur so often that it’s really not a minor issue. I urge you to proofread.

On a positive note, your use of first-person language was appropriate, your casual tone came through, the writing was clear, and connections were made. The only part I had to reread was the paragraph about Warwick. The Redding/Reading thing sent up a flag.

Shara E. October 12, 2012 at 8:32 am


Thanks for the input. Really. In terms of flow/content, this week i really struggled, partly because it was such a big area to cover. A lot like last week actually, only this time i recognized there was no way to fit everything into one post! Your comments on clarification and typos were very helpful, i’ve gone through and tweaked many of the problem areas in response. I am also slightly flabbergasted at myself for having spaced the Reading/Redding mistake.

Thank you so much for your input, it really helped me. Sometimes a little tough love is necessary!

Elizabeth Fryer October 12, 2012 at 3:25 pm

When Andrew Maynard invited his LinkedIn connections to comment on your posts, he encouraged us to bring it on strong—if not in so many words.

When I was in grad school—for professional writing & editing—my graduate assistantship was maintaining the English Dept’s website. I would send out monthly reminders to English profs, maybe something like
“March’s Faculty Notes are due to me by Friday so I can get them on the site by the 1st.”
One of my profs told me to change the tone, and she didn’t sugar-coat it. If you read the sentence again, you will see that I put the burden on ME. Like I’m saying, “C’mon you guys, get your notes in so because I have to get them on the site.” A better sentence with the same meaning—
“If you have info for the March Faculty Notes, please reply with them by Friday.”
There is no need for first person. I now look at all my writing, especially to bosses, and remove as many references to myself as I can.

This is not the only thing that hard-nosed prof taught me. A funny thing is, when she was telling me to improve my tone, I was near tears thinking, “YOU need to improve YOUR tone!” She made me a better writer, whatever her teaching style.

Angela October 17, 2012 at 7:55 pm

Ha – interesting! I came across this topic through German hacker conference (e.g. ) and some anthropologists seem to be working on the topic as well. Usually I tend to pass out when people talk about it, but I want to know about the development of ‘biohacking’ at the same time. I liked the way you linked this to pet issues, as the topic is sometimes presented as something ‘wooooo – out theeeeere!’. This brings it back to the everyday & might make people think about the future of this technology in different ways (e.g. ‘my pet has a chip implanted – will we implant chips into prisoners next? or into people with certain medical conditions that need monitoring via implanted biosensors? old people? kids?).

Shara E October 18, 2012 at 10:06 am

Thanks for the comment Angela!

Not sure about prisoners, but there are definitely some studies out there using RFID chips for Alzheimer’s patients. There’s also a lot of concern about using RFID chips to track people, as at many states have passed laws banning forced implantation on employees (California and Wisconsin to name a couple). There are also some conspiracy theorists grumbling about ObamaCare including a plan that forces everyone on Medicare or Medicaid to be chipped, but i’m just not even going to go there. Thank you again!!

Margaret October 18, 2012 at 1:30 pm

Hi. Shara,
An incredibly interesting topic once again, but the flow was a little rambling. I am not an English person, but this did seem to be written in one long thought without much organization. I tend to write like that in my first drafts…. I need a lot of extra time to make sure my information flows well.

A small typo: “computer to great him when he walked through the door.” I think you mean greet.

Again, a great topic. I am excited about your new topic on Magnets.


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