The Morality of Becoming Superhuman

The Austin Convention Center in Texas is often filled with suits and ties as it plays host to conventions on education, business, medicine, and sales. However, late in January of this year it was filled with people a little more unconventional. While most of the attendees had nothing noticeably different about them, others had strange dark spots, blinking lights under their skin, bulky clothing filled with electronics, or even the occasional antenna. They also possessed unique abilities, like opening doors with a wave of their hand, sensing people behind them without turning their head, seeing in the dark, hearing colors, sensing magnetic fields, or an intuitive sense of magnetic north. But this isn’t science fiction- it’s bodyhacking.

A Swedish company implants computer chips under employees' skins for identification. Image from Flickr - Carlos Alberto Teixeira
A Swedish company implants computer chips under employees’ skins for identification. Image from Flickr – Carlos Alberto Teixeira

As the term bodyhack would suggest, these people look to extend and improve human capability using mostly electronic hardware, though some go the biology route and use chemicals and special diets. As Bob Parks writes for Popular Science, the movement started in 1998 with Kevin Warwick, a professor of Cybernetics at the University of Reading in England. Warwick carefully implanted an RFID transmitter in his hand after receiving ethical approval and enlisting a doctor’s assistance. The RFID allowed him to open doors and turn on lights and heaters just by approaching them.

Since then, the bodyhacking movement has moved on to even more impressive feats. The aforementioned BodyHackingCon, where companies showcased products meant for bodyhacking and enthusiasts came together to discuss new advances in the field, featured a performance from Moon Ribas, a dancer who has an implant in her arm that allows her to sense earthquakes from around the world, and a keynote by Neil Harbison, a color blind artist who has a camera that connects to his brain through an antenna and allows him to hear colors. There were also on-site RFID implants from companies like Grindhouse Wetware and Sensebridge, startups that create technology for bodyhackers. For example, they produce the North Star, a set of LED lights that can be implanted beneath the skin on the back of the hand. Sensebridge’s most popular product is an anklet that contains a circle of small vibrating motors. The motor closest to north vibrates, and after being worn for a few weeks its wearer gains an intuitive sense of north.

Yet despite the amazing potential, bodyhacking can come with immense risks. Since doctors aren’t allowed to insert non-medical devices, nearly all hacks that require injections are done at body piercing shops without anesthesia, which means the process can be incredibly painful. Additionally, since ideas are often traded online with little outside supervision there is little assurance that what worked for one person would work in the same way for another person.

Biohacking is used to make a finger magnetic. Image from Flickr - Quinn Norton
Biohacking is used to make a finger magnetic. Image from Flickr – Quinn Norton

Given these risks, it is not surprising that many beginner level hacks also have non-invasive equivalents, like a magnetic ring instead of a magnetic finger implant, which still allows the wearer to sense magnetic fields but does not inspire the same squeamishness. Many of these beginner level hacks are aimed towards convenience, like RFID implants that allow easy unlocking of phones, since people feel uncomfortable about large scale changes like those at BodyHackingCon.

Most people at Monta Vista fall in this category, and simply do not see the point of making large and potentially risky changes to their body unless there was some concrete benefit.

“It would depend on what exactly I would be augmenting”, said junior Kristy Maanavi. “To enhance myself even more would feel unnecessary, but … something to make my life a little simpler, I would be okay with.”

Freshman Jaspreet Singh agreed, saying “I just think … I wouldn’t be that comfortable with it.” Since there are a lot of risks involved in bodyhacking, Singh felt that for him, the risks would not be worth the potential benefit. However, for people who have a clear vision for their augmentations, it can be a useful addition to their abilities, especially if they are not satisfied with what they currently can do. Even for those who simply want to streamline their lives, bodyhacking provides a simple way to accomplish that.

Mannavi, who sees potential benefits with bodyhacking, also recognizes the moral issues with making such changes.

“Something to listen to music all the time would be bomb,” she said. “[But] the idea of a superhuman enhancing of your senses is immoral because it tips the balance in an already unfair system. … If they can’t afford it that means they’re already at a disadvantage to you, so if you enhance yourself some more you have even more of an advantage over them.”

Similarly, as Tony Salvador, who works at Intel studying how social values affect technology, told NPR, “Sometimes, technology moves too fast and outpaces accepted social boundaries — not to mention laws.” In such a situation, where bodyhacking ideas move past laws and social agreements, it would not be difficult for such exacerbated inequalities to occur. “It creates a social misunderstanding,” said Salvadore. Without enough time for society to process and normalize the technology, people’s first instinct will always be uncertainty and perhaps revulsion.

“If [bodyhacking] is widely available to everybody that might be okay because we’re all together as a species or an organism rather than a few people gaining the power and becoming greater than the rest”, said Maanavi. But at the same time, “People could go power-trippy over it.”

Despite initial uncertainty and personal reluctance about biohacking, freshman Jaspreet Singh thinks that people should be able to decide on their own whether they agree with biohacking or not.

“Everyone has their own reasons, so if someone’s willing to go through with it, then, sure,” he said.

On an individual level people have the right to do whatever they want to their bodies, but when they start taking undue risks or face danger it could become more of an issue. Even if the bodyhacker is okay with changing their body drastically, other people may not agree. Already violence motivated by this disagreement has become an issue: in an NPR article on bodyhacking, Neil Harbison, the keynote speaker at BodyHackingCon earlier this year, said that people have tried to remove his augmentations. He has since founded an organization called Cyborg Foundation to deal with these issues. Ultimately bodyhacking is currently viewed similarly to other body modification like piercings — while some people don’t agree with them, they are increasingly becoming more accepted.

Though bodyhacking currently favors some people more than others and is not widely practiced, as the movement spreads, the larger availability could have unforeseen effects. On an individual level those effects are risks taken willingly by the bodyhacker but on a larger scale, the collective changes to society could be surprising. In anticipation of this growth it would be prudent to seek answers to the larger questions that must be answered for bodyhacking to be accepted — how far should a person go with technological augmentation? Should this movement be encouraged as a way to bring humankind forward or should it be resisted in order to maintain the sanctity of the body? In short: how far are we willing to go for the sake of progress?