Gamers often perform repetitive tasks to improve their character’s skill set, gain rewards, and advance to new levels. The process is known as grinding: Now, an underground movement has taken up that expression, calling themselves grinders, and they’re trying to gain some of those same superskills—only in real life by hacking their bodies.
To cynics, the upgraded-self movement—aka body hacking—can seem a reckless and narcissistic pursuit. After all, treating your body like a home science kit can have serious consequences (scarring, bleeding, pain on the scale of passing out). Yet tinkering with human hardware is a centuries-old pursuit. Bolting titanium plates onto problem spines has become downright common. Today’s transhumanists take it further. They seek to extend the senses and co-mingle them, allowing themselves to do things like detect Wi-Fi, hear colors, sense magnetic north, and see in the dark. Technology is driving the trend. But so are a few renegade surgeons—operating in an ethical gray area—and a growing number of innovative grinders, all of them hoping to one day push the cyborg off the Comic-Con floor and out onto Main Street.
Meet The Borgs
In 1998, U.K. professor Kevin Warwick became the first person to have a transponder chip implanted under his skin, but only after receiving ethical approval to experiment on himself and enlisting a doctor to assist him. It wasn’t until Seattle-based IT consultant Amal Graafstra had a chip implanted in each hand, in 2005, without seeking approval, that the grinder world found a spark. Graafstra uses the chips to open his home and car doors and to log on to his computer. He also sells them to grinders on his website Dangerous Things. Last year, Graafstra became the first to implant a tiny photovoltaic panel in his forearm to learn how much light traveled through the skin and whether it could power internal sensors such as a heart monitor. Though it generated a mere 50 microamps at 3 volts—about a 400th of the current needed to run an LED—he felt elated, saying, “it proves the value of citizen science.”
This article was originally published in the September 2015 issue of Popular Science, under the title “Go Hack Yourself. Not Really.”