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Biohackers on "Grinders," Van Gogh's Other Ear and the Augmented Self at Techonomy

"It’s fascinating, and a little bit scary, and I kind of want to try it."

Nellie Bowles

Eri Gentry, who works at the Institute for the Future and co-founded something called BioCurious, asked the audience at the Techonomy Conference if they “knew about Grinders.”

Not the gay hookup app, she clarified. She meant the hackers who have begun to implant devices into their own bodies. The ones who design human-safe sensors, cut open their own arms or fingertips, insert said sensor, and sew themselves back up, without anesthesia.

“They’re raring to go!” Gentry said. And they’re not interested in waiting for multimillion-dollar clinical trials.

The Techonomy conference — an annual mix of mainstream technologists, CEOs and fringe futurists at the luxe Ritz-Carlton in Half Moon Bay, Calif. — attracts an eclectic group, from the new Coursera CEO to a Pinterest-star representative. The founder, reporter David Kirkpatrick, wore a bright pink-and-green paisley shirt for his interviews with guests, who included LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel.

The “Innovating Our Selves” panel — sandwiched on this afternoon’s schedule between “Confronting the Internet Counter-Reaction” and a presentation from a Femto Management philosopher — featured Gentry, along with Carlos Olguin, who heads the Bio/Nano/Programmable Matter Group at Autodesk Research, and Drew Purves, head of the Computational Ecology and Environmental Science Group at Microsoft Research.

Olguin talked about how artist Diemut Strebe, with participation from MIT and Harvard, grew a replica of Vincent Van Gogh’s severed ear from a DNA sample taken from a postage stamp, and what that milestone might mean for living people. Purves talked about building a digital mirror of himself, which would text and tell him to stop drinking when he was drunk.

Playing moderator for the session was Marcus Wohlsen, a Wired magazine reporter who wrote a book about DIY body hackers.

“I first encountered the idea of the post-human in the mid-’90s,” Wohlsen said. “The impression I was left with were some people who were really into body-building. It’s been remarkable, in the past 20 years, what’s happened in terms of the thinking about self-augmentation and the possibilities of using technology to improve upon the ‘quote-unquote’ self.”

“When computer scientists and designers start to look at known problems, the solution looks a lot different from when doctors do,” Gentry said. “They’re brushing up against regulation. How do we innovate against FDA regulations?”

She said that biohackers do things that may be illegal, but also may be helpful to them. Things like DIY brain stimulation.

“People hacking nine-volt batteries and getting wet sponges to try to accelerate their learning,” Gentry elaborated. “It’s fascinating, and a little bit scary, and I kind of want to try it.”

“People are designing out of curiosity, out of the desire to be better, or because they really can’t live without their hacks in some cases,” she said.

Olguin wanted to make it clear that “Autodesk is not doing any self-augmentation tools.”

But the 3-D design company is working to program matter, he said. “Biology is a technology we don’t fully understand.”

And they are doing some fun matter programming, which Olguin called “art projects.”

The van Gogh ear was one of those efforts: “But that’s just art.”

Purves said that at Microsoft he was interested in building an enormous data pile that would create a “virtual mirror” to humanity.

“If we had a mirror, maybe he could text me if I drink too much, like, “Oh, Drew are you kidding me?'”

Everyone else on the panel seemed to liked the idea of a texting conscience.

Gentry suggested that it’s amazing how happy people are with wearable technology, given that the currently available bands and such are just fancy pedometers. A really interesting wearable would be one that delivers shock therapy to your arm when you did something bad, she said.

“These are the sort of triggers we actually need,” she said.

She also said her team had come up with a “Magna Cortica,” or set of rules for human augmentation, which should be more widely adopted as biohacking becomes more common.

This Magna Cortica includes five rights: The right to know about augmentation, to augment yourself, to refuse augmentation, to decide whether your child is augmented and to know who has been augmented.

“It sort of frees you,” Gentry said. “At least it’s more clear-cut whether you’re breaking rules or not.”

Clarification: An earlier version of this story attributed the Van Gogh ear replication to Autodesk. The company is working actively with the artist on the next iteration of the project.

This article originally appeared on

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