A while back, Brooklyn native and theverge.com editor Ben Popper stepped into a piercing parlor near Pittsburgh for an appointment. He wasn't getting an earring, though. He was getting a small magnet implanted in his finger.
The magnet allows him to interact with invisible electromagnetic fields. Popper feels the pulse of magnets, microwaves, and even the third, electrified rail on the subway.
The magnet was installed by one of a dozen people in the Pittsburgh area interested in do-it-yourself "cybernetics" — the study of how technology can play a role in human behavior. They're part of what he calls a growing movement to see machines play a role in the human body. And according to them, we're already seeing it: Google's new glasses, for example, which will allow you to surf the web as it displays inches from your eyes.
But imagine if this technology wasn't on you, like with Google's glasses, but in you. This is not science fiction — it's happened already. Popper also reports a new invention in development by the Pittsburgh "biohackers," which features a LED screen displaying a person's vitals through their skin.
"They want to evolve the human body with machines, and they think that rather than waiting for some giant corporation to do it, they should just take it upon themselves," Popper says. "They use implants that are medical-grade safe." Unfortunately for these "grinders," as they call themselves, the piercing parlors are not licensed to use a number of medical tools, including anesthesia.
At the more established end of the spectrum is Professor Kevin Warwick at the University of Reading in England. With the approval of the university's medical board, Warwick has turned himself into a human laboratory. He's had electronic sensors implanted in his arm so that his wife can give him a loving squeeze from thousands of miles away.
"What we're looking at is sensory substitution," Warwick says. "When they feel the magnet moving, it actually relates to an ultrasonic signal or an infrared signal, so it extends the range of senses. The ultrasonics could be useful for someone who's blind, [as they] could actually feel the distance to objects in their finger."
Despite the warnings of a wide range books and movies that warn of the perils that await whoever fuses their bodies with cybernetic devices, Warwick is extremely optimistic about the benefits of electronic implants. He gives the example of deep brain stimulation, a technology involving a sort of "brain pacemaker" that treats the tremors caused by Parkinson's Disease.
"If we can upgrade, if we can enhance, then why not?" the professor asks. "I've had electrodes fired into my nervous systems by neurosurgeons. Partly, that has been to look at how this can help people with disabilities, but partly it's to look at how we can improve our performance, how we can improve how we are as humans."