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'Body Hacking' Movement Rises Ahead Of Moral Answers


They call themselves body hackers, people who say they're pushing the boundaries of implantable technology. By that I mean, they insert everything from computer chips to LED lights into their bodies. This week in Austin, about 300 body hackers gathered to share ideas and techniques at a first-of-its-kind conference in the U.S.

NPR's Eyder Peralta went there to explore the ethics and philosophy behind this cyborg movement.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Amal Graafstra is sitting in the middle of an exhibit hall filled with booths on everything from exercise equipment to meditation techniques to brain scanning caps. He's getting ready to implant microchips in a long line of people. The guy who's next in line is sporting a mohawk.

AMAL GRAAFSTRA: You're doing right hand?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Unintelligible).


PERALTA: A huge needle pierces his hand, and a chip that's a bit bigger than a grain of rice slips under his skin. The RFID chips can hold encrypted information, and their unique ID number can be used to open doors or unlock your smartphones. That's what the guy with the mohawk wants to do.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: No longer do I have to worry about the thumbprint or putting in a password.

PERALTA: Across the way, Sascha Rose (ph), who was working at a meditation booth, wonders if it's a good idea to embed personal data into your body.

SASCHA ROSE: That's why it's crazy to me, actually - is 'cause people are just willing to just line up and go - yeah, stick that in me.

PERALTA: That night, I meet with Amal Graafstra who is chipped and has a magnet in his finger that he says let's him sense some magnetic fields. He's outside a club with Ryan O'Shea, whose company makes LED devices that light up under the skin.

Graafstra says we live in a new world, where technology can improve the human body instead of just fixing what's broken.

GRAAFSTRA: Like, a patient may someday come, you know, very soon and say my eye is totally fine, but I want, like, a eye that can see infrared. And I want an eye that can zoom.

PERALTA: O'Shea says that people are only freaked out about these devices because they're not thinking about them logically.

O'SHEA: I think once people realize, oh, it's OK that my grandma has a pacemaker, a magnet's much less invasive than that - people are going to start to accept this. You know, the era of transhumanism, I would say, is here. So let's accept that and then see where that logically takes us.


PERALTA: Inside the club, there's a drone hovering above the dance floor, and Tony Salvador is at a table near the bar. He's an anthropologist for Intel who studies social values and how they affect technology. He says that sometimes technology moves too fast and accepted social boundaries, not to mention the law, don't keep up. That's part of the reason, he says, that people who wore Google Glass were called glassholes - with the G.

TONY SALVADOR: It created a social misunderstanding. You didn't know what was going on.

PERALTA: He says that it's up to philosophers to help set those boundaries, and they're letting us down.

SALVADOR: There are too few of them. They are too esoteric, and we're not actually addressing the moral and ethical issues and saying these are the right ways to go.

PERALTA: So later, of course, I call a philosopher. I ask Alva Noe, a Berkeley professor who's written books on cyborgian naturalness and also blogs for NPR, about society's tolerance for artificially enhancing the body.

ALVA NOE: We don't condemn people for using glasses to see better. But we do start to think taking speed to cope with, you know, your work life is a - is questionable.

PERALTA: But Noe says society may never settle on just where we draw the line.

NOE: We may reach consensuses and then lose them, just as there was once a consensus where it was OK to smoke to function effectively. And now we have the consensus that, increasingly, it's not OK to do that.

PERALTA: Back outside the convention center in Austin, I meet with a guy who's considered the rock star of the body hacking movement. He's Neil Harbisson, a colorblind artist from Barcelona, who has a camera screwed to the back of his skull. The lens arcs over his head and dangles in front of his face. He calls it an antenna because it detects the color in front of him and translates it into musical notes.

NEIL HARBISSON: The traffic light now is A. It was F a moment ago.

PERALTA: When he gave the keynote address, he said the first time he heard those colors while dreaming, he felt truly cyborg. Now, he identifies not as human, but as a, quote, "cybernetic organism."

HARBISSON: If we define ourselves as organisms, suddenly our group is wider. We are on the same level as an insect or as a cat or as a plant.

PERALTA: But he's well aware of how the world perceives him. On more than one occasion, he says, people have tried to rip off his antenna. I ask him if he's ever thought about just taking it off.

HARBISSON: To me, it's much stronger, the wish to sense what's around me than the fact that people keep annoying me.

PERALTA: He says he hopes that in the future, as others get new senses, he'll be considered normal.

Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.
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