Michael became a cyborg

The day I became a cyborg

Words: Michael MacLennan
Photography: Terra Mater

No, this isn’t a science fiction tale. At the Pioneers Festival 2016, I became an “enhanced” human, and now you can too, thanks to a biochip the size of a grain of a rice. But what does it mean once you become a cyborg, and is it something worth doing?

If you feel between the thumb and forefinger on the top of my left hand, there will be a slight bump. Barely noticeable, but it’s there.

It’s the mark of the cyborg. A sign that I’m enhanced, that I’ve been upgraded…

Wednesday May 25th, 2016 was my new birthday. It’s the day that I had a biochip – about the size of a large grain of rice – implanted in me and suddenly became more than human.

It was a pretty surreal birth, surrounded by attendees at the Pioneers Festival in Vienna, each of whom were evidently also fascinated by the idea and insertion process. However, for them it wasn’t as personally relevant when chip implanter Dr Patrick Kramer held a large needle (containing the biochip) before him, examined my hand, and remarked: “I think I need a lot of force here.”

Hearing the above from a man in a surgical mask grasping a pretty large needle leads to a perfectly logical question: why on earth would I go through with this?

I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of becoming a cyborg since I was a child. That’s not too surprising: after all, I grew up in a society that had a bit of a cultural obsession with the fusion of man and machine. My favourite band Queen sang about it, one of my favourite cartoon characters, Inspector Gadget, was clumsily bionic, and we certainly shouldn’t forget the iconic Darth Vader.

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But it was Robocop I couldn’t get out of my mind. Despite being more than a decade too young to watch it, I found out all about the plot and pivotal scenes through childhood friends (whose parents weren’t nearly as strict as my own).

There was one particular image of its protagonist that I had glimpsed and couldn’t stop thinking about, his visor removed and the skin of his remaining head meeting the gleaming metallic back of his robotic skull, his face still recognisably human but feeling alien due to the artificiality of its construction. What would it mean to become more than an organic living being? What would we stand to gain, what would we stand to lose?

Cyborg Pioneers Festival 2016

Those are precisely the sort of lofty questions that made me so curious when I saw a page in the Pioneers programme that proclaimed:

“Interested in a chip implant? Become a cyborg”.

(In its own way this feels like the start of a film by Robocop/Total Recall director Paul Verhoeven.)

the future is calling

It felt like a personal calling, one given credibility by its inclusion in the line-up of a major Tech Startups festival. I started finding out about the benefits, reassuring myself about any risks, but in my mind it was always clear that there was the chance to be at the very start of a new journey for humankind. Just imagine! Even if the beginnings are relatively small and humdrum, the increasing prevalence of humans using technology to enhance themselves seems inevitable – as does the backlash of those who no doubt prefer to be “purely human”. Forget about performance-enhancing drugs for sport, what about performance-enhancing biotech?

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This particular iteration of becoming a cyborg would involve having an RFID-NFC biochip inserted into my hand. The amount of information it can hold is quite small, less than one megabyte, around 880 bytes to be more precise.

What’s the benefits of a chip implant?

This means that the benefits are quite limited. You can replace key fobs and swipe cards, pay for things using BitCoin, have a business card literally within you, store other data that for example can compose and send a Tweet. And, as activist and biohacker Hannes Sjoblad told me, there is more you can do if you possess the technological knowhow: “If you are interested in hardware hacking you can do a lot of things. I have friends who have modified motorbikes, home alarms, all kind of devices.”

“Welcome to the cyborg generation: it’s much the same as the last, except you don’t need to worry so much about forgetting your keys“
Michael MacLennan

None of that seems immediately spectacular: at the moment people aren’t controlling computer networks using their minds, changing traffic lights at will, or directly communicating with their mobile phone. Instead it’s a subtle improvement, a small step rather than a giant leap. Unlike others who embrace the word, Sjoblad himself prefers the terms ‘upgraded’ or ‘enhanced’ human rather than ‘cyborg’ with regards to the current biochips, since he believes that implies some kind of sensory or neural interaction between the body and the implant.

Waiting to get updated

Upgraded chips set for introduction this year will do a bit more. “With the next generation of implants that we’re seeing, you’re going to have newer, better functions,” Sjoblad explained. “They will have encryption functions, and they will have the ability to function on public transport systems, which require certain standards. I think the day where you have a chip you can use for riding the bus or metro, it will be very useful to a lot of people. This is when we will see this technology move into the mainstream.”

My upgrade took place at Pioneers Festival in Vienna, which earlier that day had featured on its main stage a talk and demonstration with Kramer (of Digiwell), Sjoblad, and Elsa Sotiriadis (a tech analyst for the festival), during which Elsa’s own chip implant kickstarted a composition by Stuart Mitchell who had “turned genetic code into orchestral music” especially for the event.

© Pioneers Festival // Youtube

After their onstage appearance Kramer took residence at a booth where several attendees were chosen from a selection of eager volunteers to receive an implant. For each he would remove the packaging of a formidable-sized sterilised needle containing the new chip (which would need coding afterwards). It can remain in the hand permanently, and removing it apparently involves making a small incision and taking it out as one would with a splinter.

Nobody screamed in agony, and when asking for reassurance Kramer told me: “I chipped my wife a few days ago because she lost the tag she had for our door lock, the little transponder. So I chipped her and now she always has her door keys with her.”

Michael version 1.1

Biohacker Hannes Sjoblad cyborg

Biohacker Hannes Sjoblad with ‘cyborg’ Michael

Soon enough it was my turn. “Shall I go in on a freckle?” he dryly joked, before performing the implantation with clinical rigour, ensuring the area of my hand was also sterilised and straight away covered with a plaster. He asked me to grade the pain on a scale of one to ten: a two seemed about appropriate. Though it felt weird to have performed, it felt much like when I had my eyebrow pierced – apart from the fact that I wasn’t then left with a bionic eyebrow.

Afterwards I was greeted by Hannes with a cheery: “Happy New Birthday, Michael version 1.1”.

In the weeks beforehand I told few people about the decision to become a cyborg. It felt like the more I spoke to about it, the more pressure I might feel – and I didn’t want to buckle. From those that I did confide in, the reaction was generally a bit disbelieving. Why would anyone volunteer to have someone stick a sizeable needle into their hand and insert a bionic chip in there, when there was no real need to do so? Some others were much more squeamish.

Would I get another chip implant?

That’s a reaction that I’ve noticed more since my new “birth”, as more and more find out about it. If I offer my hand for inspection, despite its bare visibility people tend to react as though I’ve shown them a particularly nasty injury or an especially badly drawn tattoo.

Like a tattoo, it’s something that can apparently remain a part of me forever. To remove it would involve a small incision, and forcing out the biochip like one would with a splinter. That’s something I try not to think about too much for the moment – currently it doesn’t freak me out so much that I feel like needing it removed. Would I get another one? Now that I’ve been through the process, which felt straightforward and was pretty painless, I’d absolutely consider it – depending on the benefits and cost. (To get the current chip implanted could cost you around 100 Euros, depending on circumstance.)

Watch the video of Michael’s implantation and also read the interview with him on redbull.com

If the new generation of chips could replace my bank cards, also allow me to leave my keys and work pass at home, and carry out other daily functions, it’s something that I wouldn’t think twice about. Using my phone and other technology as frequently as I do nowadays – and always having them on my person – also having something on the inside of me that fulfills some of those same functions feels… well, remarkably normal.

How does being a ‘cyborg’ feel?

Somebody asked: “How does it feel to be not only human anymore?” In one way, that feels like a question suited for a more significant enhancement: maybe something that I can contemplate once I start thinking in binary, or can calculate my monthly budget within a microsecond. At the moment it feels much the same, except that I’ve got something extra to talk about to strangers at parties.

Actually, that’s not quite true. It might sound ridiculously grand for such a small object, but the biochip helps me feel more positive about the future of humankind. That I’m an early adopter of something that in the future may improve the lives of millions is hugely exciting, even if at the same time my own contribution to it is pretty minimal. In a sense, the daily effect of being a cyborg isn’t significant: until I get into the more geeky side of coding it, the main effect is the physical presence of the biochip making itself known. (I habitually feel for the biochip-sized bump in my hand in the same way that somebody would rub their beard.) However, it’s extremely comforting, an artificially manufactured, hidden sign of an unknowable potential that may hold huge promise for us all.

Oh, and airport security scanners? I actually forgot about the possibility of setting it off until I went through successfully – I was too worried about the external technology I was carrying to think about that on the inside of me. Once I realised, I almost felt disappointed. What’s the point of being a cyborg if nobody even notices?

I can feel the power growing

Well, it does open doors, I guess. I can pay for things with Bitcoin. It stores information about me that I can share with others. And in the future it will do a lot more. I’m less than three weeks into my new existence, but already I can feel the power growing. One day you may well feel it too. (I mean that in terms of also having an implant, not that I’m about to unleash any bionic powers upon you. Well, probably not.)

Welcome to the cyborg generation: it’s much the same as the last, except you don’t need to worry so much about forgetting your keys.

To find out more about the process involved click this to find out more about the process involved click this link

Hannes Sjoblad and Patrick Kramer are both featured in Supersapiens – The Rise of the Mind, which is released in January 2017 at the Sundance Festival. 

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