Hacking the body through technology might sound like a futuristic novelty, but it could have the potential to revolutionise our daily lives.
This article is part of a series of SBS News stories marking National Science Week (11–19 August).
From chipping to bionic technology, recent advancements could change our relationship with technology – and even, the human body itself.
Chipping the body
How many times have you forgotten your keys?
It’s a problem Kayla Heffernan never needs to worry about – she has two chips implanted in her hands, which she uses as her house keys, office swipe pass, and more.
“It’s really just convenience, I’ve had 20 people tell me, they can never remember their keys, or they’ve locked themselves out before,” she told SBS News.
“I thought, it’s 30 seconds of pain – not even – for the guarantee that I’ll never forget my key. For me, that’s worth it.”
The 28-year-old is part of a growing community of biohackers, or “grinders” – those who use technology to enhance their bodies.
Ms Heffernan had the chips implanted, as part of her PhD research into how technology and the body interact, for non-medical purposes.
“They just sit there; I use them multiple times a day. They never bother me. I’ve just been away and had keys for an Airbnb, and had to be very careful not to lock myself out, as I’m used to just leaving the house with nothing,” she said.
While there are concerns around the technology, Kayla said there are ways to implant the chips safely.
“As with anything going into the body, there is a risk of infection – some people will go to a piercing place, or even their doctors. Once the implant is in, it’s in a bio-inert glass, so there’s a very low risk of the body rejecting it,” she said.
“As for people using the chip to track you, it’s entirely passive. It doesn’t have a battery or any sensors. It’s like how you can’t pinpoint someone’s location using a credit card – the card doesn’t do anything until it is put in front of the right sensor.”
Bionic technology advances
Recent advancements in transplantable and insertable technology go beyond just convenience.
At the Humans 2.0 event in Melbourne, scientists have gathered, with a range of bionic device on display for the general community to experience. Some of the items are only just starting clinical trials.
The event was held to celebrate both National Science Week, and the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which is perhaps the most famous literary example of the intersection of man and technology.
Dr Chris McCarthy, from Swinburne University of Technology, is part of the team developing a bionic eye, using computer vision algorithms.
“What we have been working on is to bring the world to someone with a bionic implant, so we aren’t trying to restore complete vision, we are just trying to restore enough to complete tasks of daily living,” he said.
“The technology is a little microchip of electrodes, and it electrically stimulates the surviving cells. This would be for people who have lost vision through diseases like retinitis pigmentosa – the device can send a signal to the brain, and create light spots.”
Dr McCarthy is hopeful about the impact bionic technology can have.
“We are right on the cusp of a generation of technologies which will augment the way we see the world, and also enhance, particularly for people who have lost capabilities, whether it’s visual or physical," he said.
Some of the bionic technology displayed at the event made use of other technological advancements, to create devices which can be worn, implanted or transplanted.
Dr Alireza Mohammadi, from the University of Melbourne, and his team use 3D printing to develop light-weight bionic hands, which interact with cells in the body.
The material for the hand are relatively inexpensive, which means it can be made in a variety of sizes – including child size.
“The hand is soft, ultra-light weight, and adapts to the shape of objects. We are trying to make the control more intuitive,” he said.
“In the next stage, we will add tactile sensors, pressure sensors, temperature sensors, and we can get a feeling, like a human-feeling, and send those back to the brain.”
Geneticist turned science curator Dr Renee Beale believes the advancements in bionic, and the way technology interacts with the body, will raise some interesting questions in the future.
“We have a tendency as humans to want to fix things, to make things better. As technology gets better, there’s a tendency to want to combine some of that technology with ourselves,” she said.
“I think that in the future, what we’ll see is that our technology surpasses our own bodies – so there will be decisions about whether we want to keep what our genetics have given us, or whether we want to enhance that.”