“Each time you’re facing north, it gives a short vibration. So now I know north is the way my living room faces the garden, and the direction my boy goes into his school. Last week I gave a talk and standing on the stage I knew north was to my left. The whole connection between places in my brain happens in a different way now; it starts to embed into your memories…"
Liviu Babitz has been wearing the North Sense, a small silicone device, with tiny titanium bars embedded under his skin, since the start of 2017. It sits high in the centre of his chest and when he first showed it to me on Skype, I thought it looked like a robot bug from the future gorging on his flesh. Yet I’m fascinated by its premise and more generally the idea of humans adding an extra sense to a repertoire most of us have spent our whole lives imagining was fixed.
"The whole connection between places in my brain happens in a different way now; it starts to embed into your memories"
Sense hacking with a view to helping us experience the world anew is the central motivation of Cyborg Nest, a company founded by Babitz and his partner Scott Cohen. The North Sense was their first product, costing $425 each; it sold out at the end of last year. Babitz feels it’s such a part of him now that “thinking of not having the North Sense anymore is terrifying…like waking up in the morning and not seeing the colour green."
He believes: “We’re standing on the edge of a really new era. There is so much around us that we cannot perceive with the senses we were born with. In the room where you are now there are endless colours, sounds and other stuff like the electromagnetic field of the planet, that we as humans are not equipped to sense."
It’s hard to separate our own understanding of reality from what we see, smell, hear, feel and taste. But other species provide a useful insight into how differently we could experience life on this planet. Pit viper snakes can see in infrared, for example, while jumping spiders see four primary colours not three, elephants can pick up vibrations from other elephants 10 miles away and vampire bats can smell exactly where a vein is. And like Babitz with his North Sense, both honey bees and roundworms are attuned to the earth’s magnetic field.
“We miss 95 per cent of what’s happening around us," says Professor Kevin Warwick, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Coventry University and Cybernetics expert. In 1998, he had a silicon chip transponder inserted into his forearm, which then allowed him to turn on lights and open doors in a synced-up office. He playfully dubbed himself the world’s first ‘cyborg’. Four years later, he used electrodes to connect his brain and nervous system to the internet so he could communicate with his wife, who was also hooked up to what he called ‘Braingate’, in an office on the other side of the Atlantic. When she closed her hand Warwick’s brain received a pulse.
Warwick believes tweaking or augmenting our senses fundamentally addresses what it means to be human: “When you look at western philosophy going back to Descartes and Kant they were looking at mind/body duality: ‘I think therefore I am’. And this research is very much stirring all that up: ‘What is I? When you have a bit of tech in your nervous system or brain even: ‘What does it mean to be I?’"
Despite Warwick’s pioneering research, which was significant enough to be discussed at the White House as part of a council on BioEthics, a lot of the forward momentum in cybernetic implants and sensory hacking hasn’t been driven by the scientific community, the medical profession or even big corporations. The real advances instead have come from DIY cyberpunk self-experimenters who very much exist on the fringes of science and even society.
"What does it mean to be I?"
Often known as grinders, they’re driven by curiosity and in some cases aesthetics, to test hardware implants on their own bodies having researched and connected with similarly-minded people online in forums such as biohack.me. They include Neil Harbisson, who was born with a rare type of colour-blindness that meant he could only see in grey. Since 2004, he’s had an antenna implanted into his skull enabling him to ‘hear’ in colour. Along with the colours we can see, Harbisson can also see infrared and ultraviolets, and he defines himself as a ‘cyborg artist’. His friend and fellow artist Moon Ribas implanted a seismic sensor so she could feel earthquake vibrations. Others modify their hearing so they can hear sounds from computers or wifi, including Frank Swain who made the Phantom Terrains tool to help people map London according to wi-fi noise, while others use AI to enhance their eyesight.
The North Sense is attached to the body through a barbell-design; it’s deliberately made that way so it can be easily fitted by a body-piercer. Doctors are reluctant to fit this kind of cybernetic tech, so tattooists and body-piercers have filled the gap, albeit without anaesthetics, when it comes to helping people out with DIY body modification. It’s convenient as there’s a big overlap between people with tattoos and piercings wanting sensory implants. Or perhaps the fact tattoo artists and piercers can fit the tech is the reason for the overlap. Most likely it’s both.
I ask Professor Warwick why sensory enhancement hasn’t been embraced by the scientific community? “The academic world is very conservative. I’ve got a number of research students that have investigated implanting magnets in their fingers, to try and extend the sensory range but trying to get a paper published… it just doesn’t fit anywhere in the journals. It is like a subculture in the way it’s turned out, it’s certainly not academic mainstream."
The cynic in me asks if that’s because there is no funding from big pharmaceutical companies? “That’s not cynical at all, that is an aspect of it…I’ve ended up being this strange addition to the subculture. The movers and the shakers seem happy to take me on board, I’m an ok guy and I have my role to play but I’m a little bit different when I see the guys and what they’re implanting I think: ‘What they hell are you doing there!?’"
"The North Sense could be great for explorers"
Later that day, I’m reminded of Warwick’s words when I come across firefly tattoos on biohack.me. They sit under the skin glowing from decaying tritium gas. But Warwick is broadly supportive of the DIY ethos of it all. “Good for them," he says. “We learn a lot from them and the materials they use and when it goes wrong, what they did wrong, things like that. There’s a mutual respect." It’s worth noting many see Warwick as the godfather of the movement.
What can go wrong? “Sometimes the body can reject the implant, if you’ve not sterilised it enough, and that is difficult to do. But there are a lot of materials the body doesn’t mind, silicone is one, depending on the size, also iridium, platinum, and gold, the body accepts those materials."
Dr Ian Harrison is one of Professor Warwick’s former students; he still has two magnets implanted in his fingers, “my left middle finger and pointer". For his undergraduate degree he’d wanted to link his brain up to a computer like Professor Warwick but they couldn’t get it past the ethics committee so he settled on the magnets instead.
Why magnets? “For ‘magnetic vision’. I didn’t coin the term it was on the internet, but I went for it for that reason. And for my thesis [which was published in 2015] I asked people why they got their magnets and the top answer (60 per cent of respondents) was ‘magnetic vision’, second was ‘interest and fun’, then ‘transhumanism’. I thought it was really cool that people were wanting these implants so they could feel these magnetic fields."
“Implanting magnets in the skin started off in the 90s, it was an art form, a magic show"
Harrison’s magnets were fitted in 2009, though he had one replaced in 2011. He says: “Implanting magnets in the skin started off in the 90s, it was an art form, a magic show, taken up by the bio-hacking community. When I did my research it was new to academia but not the world."
I ask if they still work now? “The older one is weaker in comparison to the other, as over time the magnetic field does drop off, but I can still use them for what I was doing before."
Which is? “As sensory extensions. The touch sense, as we know it is a contact sense you have to be in contact with the object in order to perceive it. But if you embed magnets under the skin you can then use magnetic induction and have the magnets move with the exterior magnetic fields so you no longer have to be in contact with the object."
“If I’m in a kitchen and a microwave is on I can hear it and see it but I can also feel it, like a vibration. Same with laptops…it’s become part of my life, my day to day. I was at a bar one night and I felt something, so I ran my finger along the bar and realised I could feel where the motor of the bar pump was. I once did some work near some power lines and I could damn well feel them! The current going through a power line induces a magnetic field around it, that was quite interesting." Many electricians have magnetic implants for that reason.
I ask if he’d be allowed an MRI scan? “I’d be allowed to have an MRI but I wouldn’t want to, the pain would be quite intense, because of the presence of such a strong magnetic field."
I ask Harrison how he feels about the DIY self-experimentation side of things: “I’m very much thrilled and very much scared. It’s really cool that people are pushing the boundaries of science and perception by going ahead and doing these things themselves, but if it goes wrong then the perception of the science could be completely shot. I’m not trying to put people off but just do your homework, do a bit of research, and make sure what you’re doing is safe."
There are also some pretty gruesome pictures online of infections caused by implants and Harrison tells me some horror stories including a person who decided to wrap their magnet in a mouldable glue which was “definitely not designed to be put in the human body", and another person who had to get their magnet removed as it got slammed in a door. Another friend broke the coating of his magnet and exposed his body to neodymium, which could be harmful to the liver, if it reached it. “If you puncture your skin or accidentally cut yourself are you going to damage the electronics and then expose things? There are a number of questions you need to walk through in your own head before you do it."
Harrison tells me he’ll probably get the older magnet taken out soon as it’s not really serving a purpose and “it’s been in there for eight years so I just want to make sure it’s fine".
Devices under your skin may feel more a part of you, but at least you can upgrade tech worn outside of your body easily, so you won’t risk having a hand or body full of out-dated hardware or “abandonware" as Harrison puts it.
His academic work no longer involves sense hacking research. He says: “I had to come out of this area because it was very much on the fringe of science. Whether it was even considered science or not was a debate. I did consider it science as we were doing research that added to the knowledge base and was repeatable in multiple locations so I consider it science. But it was very much on the edge and there’s no funding in it."
The lack of funding may be due to perceived risk but then the medical world implants many devices safely into the body, from pacemakers to artificial hips. It could also be connected to how useful these gadgets are perceived to be.
"I have some experience with psychedelic drugs and it’s a very different place"
The North Sense could be great for explorers, like an inbuilt compass, I suggest to Babitz, but he replies: “It’s important to understand the difference between a tool and a sense. A tool is something you take out of your pocket when you need it, then when you’re done you put it back in your pocket or wherever it came from and you don’t use it until the next time. A sense is something that is already part of you. You don’t leave your ears off when you’ve finished listening to music. We deliberately made a decision not to be a company that comes to solve a problem that someone has."
I ask what kind of people their customers are? “We can’t find any thread between the people who bought the North Sense. One day it’s a lawyer, then someone who works in a shop, then someone from the tech industry, then someone from the body modification industry. It’s been very eclectic but the bigger picture is at the end of the day everybody will be interested in having those things."
Does Babitz see a parallel between expanding our senses through tech and altering our senses through drugs?
“It’s not the first time I’ve heard the comparison…I have some experience with psychedelic drugs and it’s a very different place…the only place where you can compare it is maybe the connection to something you haven’t been connected to before. And the curiosity maybe."
Given how he was using an implant to open doors in 1998 is Warwick surprised we don’t all get into our houses via implants? “Yes I’m surprised it isn’t used more widely and I can’t see why it hasn’t been done for say passports as it’s not fakeable."
"You don’t leave your ears off when you’ve finished listening to music"
Though he also thinks it’s amazing how many people have implants now “well into the thousands". And though magnets are still popular, there is a big growth in more practical less sensory-based implants. Ryan Chandler has four rfid implants, which have a range of uses from unlocking his office door to starting his motorbike, all were implanted by the same woman who did his six piercings. Where as Patrick Kramer, the CEO of bio-hacking supply site Digiwell has no tattoos or piercings but he and his wife both open their doors with rfid implants. “We have two little kids, we’re very normal people."
Kramer believes practical, safe implants will see the biggest growth in the future. To which Babitz would say: “It changes maybe your wallet or your bag but it doesn’t change your sense of north. Having a new sense has a direct impact on you as a person."
But beyond satiating the curiosity of the individual with the implants why does that actually matter? “Everything we have ever created we created because we had senses," says Babitz.
Harrison agrees: “Newton perceived the falling of an apple and postulated gravity. What could happen if we had an extra sense, how much further could we push?"
But he thinks the real leaps forward will come from vision though not magnets. “Everyone likes the visual sense and being able to put a contact lens, without invasive surgery, and perceive infrared and UV. I can’t see us being too far away from that. And if UV and infrared were being perceived across the globe that could spark interest in other senses and sensory enhancement of them and who knows what will happen then?" It will certainly be exciting to see, albeit in a spectrum we can’t begin to conceive right now.