Human Body Merges With Technology in ‘Biohacking' Trend

Imagine being able to open a door with the swipe of your hand or communicate with your smartphone through a tiny implant in your body. It may sound like science fiction, but it's a reality for some.

"I have five different implants," said an Australian biohacker, who asked to be identified only as Alex Smith. "One in the forearm, one in the back of the arm, two in the hand here and one in the finger." 

Smith considers himself a cyborg: part human, part machine.

He can open doors with the swipe of his arm, take his internal body temperature and unlock his smartphone all with chips smaller than a grain of rice that he implanted in his body.

"We're trying to go one step beyond what the natural body can do, so we want to have a sixth sense or be able to interface with computers," Smith said.

Smith biohacks his own body, performing surgery on himself and others in underground or basement labs. He has no license or authority to perform these operations, but he is unapologetic about what he calls his contribution to science.

Biohackers like Smith are considered extreme by some, but then there are the mainstream scientists who conduct research on similar technology under the backing of major universities. Both groups are pushing the limits of the human body as we know it and in a sense hacking evolution.

"We can measure heart rate, heart rate variability, respiration rate," said John Rogers, a biomedical device engineer and scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The technology is confined to something that looks like a child's temporary tattoo and is thinner than a strand of hair.

"I can laminate it onto the surface of my skin," Rogers said. "I can wrap them around the outside surface of the heart. I can integrate them into the textured surface of the brain. I can inject them deep down into the region of the brain to really do things that were previously impossible."

Rogers spent the last decade developing a stretchable electronic technology that can be used inside the body or applied to the skin. In his lab at the University of Illinois, the patches are being used to wirelessly monitor the vitals of newborn babies, observe how wounds heal and track brain activity in animals.

Outside the lab, athletes also use the bandage-like patches to monitor hydration. At Northwestern Medical Center, doctors use the devices to wirelessly monitor prosthetics.

As Rogers and his team push the boundaries of medicine in licensed labs, biohackers like Alex Smith push the boundaries of what is socially acceptable in the race to make their own contribution to science.

"We don't want to wait for the future to happen," Smith said. "We want to take it into our own hands. And make the future happen now." 

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