July 20, 2017

#3 - Hacking Humans

What would be possible if the human body was integrated with technology? In this episode of Moonshot we meet the people who are actively trying to augment the human body and improve our own abilities.

#3 - Hacking Humans

What would be possible if the human body was integrated with technology? In this episode of Moonshot we meet the people who are actively trying to augment the human body and improve our own abilities.


Moonshot is hosted by Kristofor Lawson (@kristoforlawson) and Andrew Moon (@moonytweets).

Our theme music is by Breakmaster Cylinder.

And our cover artwork is by Andrew Millist.


BRYAN JOHNSON: All of us do a lot of things in our own power to improve ourselves. We drink coffee to stimulate ourselves, and we read books to become better educated. We go to school, we wear nice clothing, we work out. We do all the things that help us succeed in life. The things we want to do…. Having this chip to implant in our brains is a continuation of what we've always done. A desire to be our very best selves….

KRIS: I’m Kristofor Lawson,

ANDREW: And I’m Andrew Moon.

KRIS: And This is Moonshot - the show where we explore seemingly impossible technology ideas and the people working to make them happen.

ANDREW: In this episode - hacking the human body. From RFID chips in the palm of your hands... to hardwiring your brain for entirely new senses - we’re exploring the realm of where human and technology literally and physically become one.

Kris: You’ll hear from people hacking at the skills we possess, how we see our world, and in the process challenge our understanding of what it means to be human.

BRYAN JOHNSON: My name is Bryan Johnson. I'm the founder and CEO of Kernel.

KRIS: Bryan Johnson is one of the most interesting people you’ll find in tech. He’s what you would describe as a serial entrepreneur… but he’s always had a burning desire to do something more.

BRYAN JOHNSON:  I guess this goes back to when I was 21 years old. I just returned to the United States after living in Ecuador for two years and I felt this burning desire that I wanted to spent my life trying to improve the life of others. I lived among extreme poverty. I asked myself the question, like what is the single thing I could do that would contribute the most value to the species? I couldn't find the answer…. and so I decided that I would become an entrepreneur, retire by the age of 30, which is crazy, but the time it made sense to me, and then with abundance of time and money, I'd go out and find what that thing was.

KRIS: Back in 2007 - Bryan bootstrapped an online payments company called Braintree - in an effort to improve the way digital payments worked... the company was a success and in 2013 he sold it to eBay for $800 million.

BRYAN JOHNSON:  For the duration of that time I'd been thinking almost every day, like what is the single thing I would do? I arrived at the conclusion that working on human potential is the single greatest contribution I could make to the world in terms of its ability to impact the future of the human race.

KRIS: Bryan had the means to fulfill his long term goal of working on a meaningful problem, and now he had the idea… So he invested $100 million of his own money to found Kernel, a project which aims to improve human ability by integrating technology into the human brain.

BRYAN JOHNSON:  We are building chips to implant in the brain to fix what's broken. For example, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, anxiety, depression are all things that have afflicted us personally or our friends and family.

BRYAN JOHNSON:  OK… so we know what you’re thinking. Implanting chips in the brain… isn’t that just a little bit crazy?

BRYAN JOHNSON: To a lot of people's surprise, there are already more than 125,000 people in the world who have implanted chips, and they're used for deep brain stimulation to treat Parkinson's. In the industry, you call it a lead. It's implant in the brain, in the area of the basal ganglia, and if you can electrically stimulate that portion of the brain, then a person's motor function can return to normal and the person can restore a relatively normal life.

KRIS: So I saw Bryan present a session at VivaTech in Paris, and he shows this video of a parkinson's patient who has one of these deep brain stimulation devices. The patient looks normal… but when he turns off the stimulation his body starts to shake… and when the stimulation is turned back on the shaking instantly stops.

BRYAN JOHNSON: We're building upon that technology. For example, how do you build technology to chronically implant in the brain? How do you know how to stimulate what parts of the brain, and what ways? We're building on things that have been out for 20 years. It's just the instruments out there are blunt in nature, and the question that is really exciting to me is if we can take the advancement in microelectronics material science and build upon that and create better tools, then we'll have a more capable tool set of addressing more complicated diseases, other diseases.

ANDREW: Bryan Johnson’s initial focus might be fixing things that are broken in the brain… but there’s a much larger goal here - one that could see technology used to not just repair ...but actually upgrade our own abilities….


ANDREW: Yes. It’s our old friend Elon Musk!... Musk confirmed in March that he’s working on a similar project to Bryan Johnson’s called Neuralink…amongst all his other day jobs… in a quest to address what he sees as a growing gap between humans and artificial intelligence.

ANDREW: Now Facebook have also announced that they’re building technology to interface with the brain - something they see as a way to make improvements in their domain - how we communicate with each other. This is Facebook’s Regina Dugan.

REGINA DUGAN - FACEBOOK F8: “So what if you could type directly from your brain? It sounds impossible but it’s closer than you may realise.”

KRIS: Facebook say they’re wanting to create a brain interface technology that is non-invasive - so rather than implanting a chip directly in the brain, their approach is to create a wearable interface.

ANDREW: But it’s not just about the brain - Facebook even have some skin in the game so to speak… [

REGINA DUGAN - FACEBOOK F8: "And if we can make it possible to communicate directly from your brain what if you could hear directly through your skin."

KRIS: And the idea of creating non-invasive technology to integrate with the body is something that gets investors like Kevin Rose excited.

KEVIN ROSE: We have so many different changes that are happening in our body right now that, if we were provided the data, could really help us in a variety of different ways.

KRIS: Kevin is an investor with True Ventures and is someone who is fascinated by body-hacking, wearables, and all the data that can be gathered when you integrate technology with humans.

KEVIN ROSE: Like I went to my doctor and got a… You have to get a prescription for it in the States, for a continuous glucose monitor. And you're given this plunger that you hook up to your side and you inject a probe into your fat, into your belly, and then you wear this sensor that transmits data back to your phone or Apple Watch. And I can glance at my Apple Watch and at any point in time; I can tell you exactly what my glucose level is in my blood. And we know that spikes in glucose and the release of insulin has been linked to diabetes. I don’t have diabetes, but I find it fascinating to think about and figure out how to control inflammation and spikes in glucose, just because we've seen that when you don’t have these huge massive spikes you're at a lower risk for everything from cancer to you name it. So it's just a fun body-hacking kind of experiment. And so looking at that data and figuring how we can get at that data without having to be invasive I think would be a huge step forward.

ANDREW: But while many are looking at a non-invasive future - there’s plenty of people right now who are actively integrating AND living with technology in their own body…. in an effort to enhance their daily lives.

ANDREW: So if you could just introduce yourself, your name and your title.

AMAL GRAAFSTRA: Sure. It’s just Amal Graafstra. And Founder and CEO of Dangerous Things.

ANDREW: Amal Graafstra is what you would call a biohacker - one of an army of pioneers experimenting right now with how our bodies can be augmented with simple, useful technologies.

AMAL GRAAFSTRA: What we’re doing is bionics; it’s biological electronics merging together through device implants. And that can be simple implants that are simply put under the skin or into the tissue, or can be complex, interactive devices; pacemakers, cochlear implants would fall under that category.

KRIS: Amal is one of the pioneers of the biohacking movement. He got his first RFID implant back in 2005 and has been educating people ever since on the possibilities of the technology.

ANDREW: After noticing a bunch of people experimenting on themselves...and it ending badly, Amal founded Dangerous Things as a way of making bio-hacking safer. He now provides kits so you can get your own RFID implants...and implant them safely under your skin.

AMAL GRAAFSTRA: And so one of the things that we strive to do at Dangerous Things, the design tenets, are that the devices that we make should be more or less management-less. They should be something that just is invisible, it becomes transparent. And the reason that that is, is that there’s a real psychological imperative here where if you pick up your phone, you are superhuman. You have access to all the world’s knowledge on the internet, you can reach out and communicate with just about anyone, anytime, anywhere. You have superpowers. But you would never consider that to be part of you – part of your capabilities as a human being, it’s a tool you’re using. There’s always the sense of separation between yourself and your tools. But when you put it inside of you and it’s completely management-less, it’s thoughtless, and some will use the term frictionless, you now have something that’s very powerful, it can do a really important job for you in the world that you interact in and you live in, but you don’t really think about it. It’s like your heart or your kidneys. You don’t think of those at all but they’re doing extremely important work for you.

ANDREW: Now when I was talking to Amal, it’s so easy to get swept up in what the future holds for in-body technology, or what he’s most excited about. One such area is cryptography - essentially using your body as a more secure access token.

AMAL: There’s so much focus right now on biometrics, but the reality is that fingerprints or an iris scan or a biometric of any kind, your body’s not a secure token. Your body’s an analog device that you roam the earth in. And to get any information from it it needs to be sampled. It’s an analog thing that gets sampled and digitized, and that means that it can be replayed, it can be captured, it can be stolen. And so you don’t have to… Everybody’s like, “Well what if we cut off a finger,” or whatever? You don’t have to do that. You can just copy the fingerprint data and you’ve won... Your digital identity and your digital security is going to become even more paramount than it is today, even more important. Your ability to not only prove your identity, but prove it cryptographically.

ANDREW: So that’s all well and good, but what about the fun stuff. What about the day that I can put a memory card in the side of my head, and voila! Any language, at the tip of my tongue. Turns out- there’s one big barrier.

AMAL GRAAFSTRA: So the challenge is, for biohackers and for any implant device maker that wants to use a battery, is the power source. Batteries are terribly prone to explosion, and there’s all kinds of quality analysis that has to go on that, frankly, biohackers can’t afford. And so this is why medical device development takes a very long time and is very expensive, and then the devices themselves are very expensive.

AMAL GRAAFSTRA: When it’s in a Samsung Note 7, that’s okay. It explodes and you go, “Oh, wow.” Or if it’s on a hoverboard that catches fire, or a e-cigarette thing that blows up. Those are scary events, people do get hurt, but by and large it doesn’t equal death instantly. It just means, you know, whatever. But hydrofluoric acid, heat, explosion is bad. And so anywhere in the body, you’re going to have serious, serious trauma, if not death , from an event like that.

KRIS: So right now, Amal’s focus is on technology that can exist within us to add capabilities useful to our daily existence. From opening doors, to securing our identity. But these devices sit within the body, and don’t really interact with any internal systems. But what about if you wanted to go beyond these capabilities to add extra senses - beyond what anyone else could see, feel, or hear?

KRIS: How would you define a cyborg?

MOON RIBAS: A cyborg, it’s a type of an identity... it comes from the word cyborgnatic organism and actually what’s going to define humans and modify themselves in order to survive in other environments, like in space. But we feel that now we’re transforming ourselves not only to survive in space and other environments but in our own planet, and to adapt better to earth.

KRIS: This is Moon Ribas… Moon is a cyborg artist… which means...

MOON RIBAS: I have an implant in my arm that allows me to feel the seismic activity of the planet. And I feel that this is a new sense that I have that I call the seismic sense. And I see this as my art project… And I share my experience through dance, also through music with precaution, with the sculpture. Yeah, different mediums.

MOON RIBAS: it’s a bit different from body hackers because we modify our body but that’s not our aim. Our aim is to modify in our mind and to change our perception, and in order to that we attach things or implant things to our body.

MOON RIBAS: So the sensor I have in my arm is connected to online seismographs. So every time that there is a new data – which is very often – I get a vibration in my arm. And depending of the intensity of the earth, the vibration I feel is either stronger or weaker...

ANDREW: Now Moon says these earthquakes can be as frequent as eight minutes apart… and this fusing of real-world data with her body has created a unique connection with the earth.

MOON RIBAS: It’s alive and it creates vibrations very, very, very often - like all the time. So in the beginning I had to get used to all these vibrations but now it’s like I… it’s integrated, so it is part of me. And a good way to describe it, it’s like I feel like I have two heartbeats now; my own and then the earth beat having its own rhythm inside my body. And it’s fascinating how alive our planet is. Because it’s very different, I guess, to know that the earth is alive and to actually… to feel it. It makes you feel and connect differently.

KRIS: ...As you’ve got this sense, you know that there’s earthquakes happening? Has that changed your perception of earthquakes?

MOON RIBAS: Yes, definitely. There’s this bad perception that earthquakes are a bad thing happening in our planet, but earthquakes have always existed and they’re part of our nature. So I feel that the bad thing is that humans haven’t been able to adapt to it; to adapt and to really learn how our planet works. So if we would have been listening to the earth for a longer time, we probably wouldn’t have been building cities at the edge of the tectonic plates or in these very dangerous places. So I feel that we need to readapt to our own planet.

KRIS: When you feel really big quakes happen and then later on you find out what that may have been, do you have any perception of that at the time when you feel it? Like, “Oh no, this one was really big. Maybe this affected people or…”?

MOON RIBAS: Yes, this… Actually I was surprised of how many big earthquakes are and nothing bad happens. Actually I was surprised of the other way round. Like, 99% of earthquakes, nothing bad happens. Because at the beginning I was like, “Wow, that’s big,” and then it was like… So it really depends where it happens and intensity. But yes, if there’s a big one I would check or… And then when something bad happens it’s really uncomfortable. I really… It feels weird. It’s something not right.

ANDREW: Implanting chips or hard wiring the body is an idea that many people, including myself, find a little bit off putting. Andrew: But like any new technology that first feels foreign - everyone we interviewed about this spoke with a kind of assuredness that ... this idea of analog and digital becoming one ... would soon become the new normal.

MOON RIBAS: I think the younger generations, yeah, they would be less afraid. Like now it’s normal to have tattoos like this. Now no one is afraid of that. So I think the next generations won’t be afraid of implants. I don’t think our grandchildren or children they would like to be like their parents all the time, looking at the screens and looking at extra elements. I think it’s more practical to have it implanted. And that allows you to relate better to the world, I think, with less tools.

AMAL GRAAFSTRA: I’ve been doing this over a decade and in 2005 when I talked about it people’s reaction was quite visceral.

ANDREW: That’s Amal Graafstra again.

AMAL GRAAFSTRA: Like death threats and violence. Just crazy. Craziness. And anybody that… Random stranger, I would say, ‘Hey, look at this implant,” and they would just recoil. “Eww, why would you do that? Oh my god. Eww.” Now, today, somebody who I talk to who swears they have never heard of such a thing, their reaction is, “Oh, interesting. Good for you. I wouldn’t do it, but whatever.” So it’s much more benign. And the reality is they have heard about it. They had to have heard about it, but they just didn’t pay attention and they’re like, “No, I’ve never heard of this.” But they’ve been exposed to it. So the mere-exposure effect has kicked in in society at large and now the idea is less scary. And so that paves the way for potentially larger businesses to say, “Okay. Now it’s time to launch the Apple Health Implant,” or whatever, because of the work that we’ve done.

KRIS: Now the obvious path to a general acceptance of implants is one that’s bound to be paved with all kinds of regulatory issues and will require a lot of education - and Bryan Johnson acknowledges those problems - which is why his team is initially focused on building chips to improve health and fix existing issues with our brains. It’s much more palatable to fix things that are broken then it is to give ourselves extra abilities. But before you start thinking this conversation is years away - Bryan says the technology is here right now. His team has already started doing some trials in humans… and will be announcing further trials later in the year. But as we learn more about our neural code, Bryan says the possibilities of this technology will end up in a place that we can’t even possibly imagine.

BRYAN JOHNSON: People do things to improve what's broken, but then it socially becomes acceptable in time. I think what we'll see as we work on this technology in the brain that as we see the success in its ability to treat things that are broken, it will naturally evolve to expanding what humans can do. Again, to become our best selves in a broader way.

BRYAN JOHNSON: What's exciting to me is if you take the general premise and we say, "Okay. Let's build a chip and we will implant it in the brain." I say, "Great. We're going to try to fix the things that are broken in the brain." Then, because we're human, our imaginations immediately go to the familiar. We say, "Okay, well then how about can I improve my memory? Can I read seven books in the time of one? Can I have a perfect memory? Can I telepathically communicate?" We basically think of all the things we do today, we just say better.

BRYAN JOHNSON: What we're not great at is imagining the whole realm beyond the familiar. The examples in history are replete to demonstrate humans are really terrible at imagining the potential technology. For example, if we were with Gutenberg in 1450 and we said, "Hey, what kind of ideas do you think are going to be written about with this printing press?," we probably would have struggled to imagine the ideas of the book that have been written.

MOON RIBAS: I really hope first that people are open and find exciting the idea of designing yourself, that nothing is done that you can decide how to do it.

MOON RIBAS: At least for me it is like the union that if you extend your senses and experience the earth in a deeper way and you get inspired by all the species living in this planet that maybe it would create more empathy to other people and we’ll be more aware how we are damaging our planet and how we treat the other species living in this planet. So I really hope that this can create more empathy and that people would respect more the other animals and the planet.

AMAL GRAAFSTRA: If you have technology inside of you, permanently inside of you – it’s not something you could lose or forget or you need to replace or upgrade every other year and you don’t think about it, then it really does become part of who you are and how you consider yourself to be in the world as a human being.

BRYAN JOHNSON: It's scary to some. It's exciting for others. We all have this mixture of emotions, and I think that's appropriate. But I would rather that we have this conversation so that we can try to start marinating in it and looking at the possibilities because we really do need this lead time to digest it. What I think a suboptimal outcome would be is to not raise these difficult topics now. I'd rather raise the discussions and debate now so we have time as a society to kind of think this thing through. It takes us a long time to reconcile with new technologies and how we might use them.