Distillations podcast

Deep Dives into Science Stories, Both Serious and Eccentric

Making Senses

How biohackers are using artificial perceptions to enhance reality.

Engraving of a robot in side profile with mouth slightly ajar. The robot's body is made up of cogs, pieces of wood, bits of chain and other tools.

Most of us are content to use our existing five senses to see, hear, smell, taste, and touch our way through the world. But an increasing number of people called biohackers are not satisfied with watching the everyday brilliance of a sunset or petting a silky kitten. They want infrared vision and electromagnetic fingertips.

“Why wouldn’t I want to add one more sense to the ones I already have and enjoy so much? The ability to feel just a little bit more?” Nic Fox asked reporter Catherine Girardeau. Fox has a device embedded in his chest that vibrates when he faces magnetic north.

To understand more about these would-be cyborgs, we turned to Kara Platoni, author of We Have the Technology: How Biohackers, Foodies, Physicians & Scientists Are Transforming Human Perception, One Sense at a Time. Platoni is a science reporter and a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. She describes how many biohackers feel the future hasn’t gotten here fast enough. They’re ready to be cyborgs now.


Hosts: Michal Meyer and Bob Kenworthy
Guest: Kara Platoni
Reporter: Catherine Girardeau
Producer:  Mariel Carr
Associate Producer: Rigoberto Hernandez
Music courtesy of the Audio Network


Making Senses: How Biohackers Are Using Artificial Perceptions to Enhance Reality

Michal: Hello and welcome to Distillations, I’m Michal Meyer, a historian of science and editor in Chief for Distillations magazine here at the Chemical Heritage Foundation.

Bob: And I’m Bob Kenworthy, CHF’s in-house chemist.

Michal: What we think of as reality—the way we experience the world—is shaped by our senses.

Bob: Have you been watching The Matrix?

Michal: Stay with me Bob…think about it: we interact with our surroundings by seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling. And we’re pretty used to those five senses. But some people just aren’t satisfied. They want more. Like this guy, Nic Fox—he’s a body piercer in North Carolina:

Nic Fox >> It’s a very natural and sort of innate human desire to extend what we’re able to experience via drug use, or meditation, and all the other things we’ve done throughout history. Why wouldn’t I want to add one more sense to the ones I already have and I enjoy so much? The ability to feel just a little bit more.

Michal: Nic is not alone. There are plenty of people out there, many who call themselves biohackers, who are disappointed by the status quo of our regular, functional bodies. They want more, and they want it now.

Kara Platoni Clip >> They’re trying to shortcut evolution by saying, “Look. Nature, if left to its own devices, probably won’t build this for the human and even if nature did, it would take forever and we won’t be around to enjoy it, so we’ll build something now.”

Michal: That was Kara Platoni, the author of We Have the Technology: How Biohackers, Foodies, Physicians, and Scientists Are Transforming Human Perception, One Sense at a Time.

Bob: We’ll hear from Kara in a bit. But first, this:

[Footsteps on snow, breathing, walking]

Siri, recorded on iPhone >> Head North on Anderson Street toward Anton Avenue.

Catherine Girardeau: Do you know where north is right now?

Girardeau: Sometimes our surroundings can be disorienting.  Maybe you’re in a new city, or maybe you’ve simply exited the subway in your own city, but you can’t figure out which way is which. Or maybe you’re out in the woods. Far from home. But where there’s a phone, there’s usually a compass… But what if you could be a compass?

Bob: Have you ever known someone who seemed to have a “sixth sense”? Someone with an innate ability to get their bearings in a strange place?

Michal: These hunches, or sensibilities, can’t really be called senses—not like the five we know and love. But a company in the UK thinks there’s a market for artificial senses. They’ve recently created the first one available to the general public—a wearable electronic circuit board, encased in body-compatible silicone, which vibrates every time you face magnetic north.

Bob: Independent producer Catherine Girardeau tried to get a sense of what this new product, called the North Sense, is all about.

Girardeau >> Have you ever wished you were a human compass?

Wolcott >> No! I wouldn’t like that. I have a very good idea of where north is, as long as I can see the sun.

Dubois >> I love the idea of having a sense of the earth’s magnetic field.

Girardeau: For champions of artificial senses, the five senses we have aren’t enough. These would-be cyborgs are interested in augmenting their bodies with technology. Liviu Babitz is the CEO and cofounder of Cyborg Nest, a company….

Babitz >>… Dedicated to helping as many people as possible become cyborg by extending their senses with new artificial senses.

Girardeau: You heard that right—Babitz wants to help people become cyborgs. In fact, he’s turned himself into a human compass. His company recently created a wearable sensor that vibrates like a cellphone in buzz mode whenever the user faces magnetic north. The North Sense is a circuit board with a compass less than a square inch in diameter, encased in transparent silicon. For the last few months, Babitz has had the device semi-permanently attached to his chest with tiny titanium rods used for body piercing. Cyborg Nest suggests mounting the device on the chest because it’s continuously connected to our vision and it is a part of the body we instinctively protect.

Babitz >> North Sense connects us to the earth’s magnetic field.

Girardeau >> Why is sensing magnetic north useful? One could argue that evolutionarily, we don’t have this sense….

Babitz >> Having the North Sense is not necessary for a specific use. It’s not a tool. A compass is a tool you use once you need it. Once you’re done you put back in your pocket. Senses are always part of us. The North Sense is the new way of creating memory.

Girardeau: Babitz isn’t interested in the utility of the North Sense, but rather how it can enhance our experience, especially our memories.

Babitz >> We all have memories of smells from our mother’s kitchen. We all have memories of sunsets from places we love. So our senses capture memories that later on in life, when triggered again, create a chain of emotions.

Girardeau: Babitz thinks the North Sense can be used to deliberately “geo-tag” memories, as he lives them, in real time.

Babitz >> Recently I’ve been to US, and it was the first time I traveled away from Julian, my son, since I had the North Sense. A specific memory that I deliberately created, by holding his hand, turning around, remembering exactly that moment when North Sense vibrated on my chest, how that moment looked.

Girardeau: Babitz said that later, the North Sense helped him recall that particular memory. Creating memories—that’s his thing. But Babitz isn’t telling anyone else how to use their North Sense. And yes, other people are trying it. The North Sense is not just one man’s cyborg fantasy, realized. It’s a commercial product.

Nic Fox >> I was driving through the desert on my honeymoon when I saw the preorder was open, so I went ahead and grabbed it… while driving.

Girardeau: Nic Fox is a body piercer in Ashville, North Carolina. As soon as his North Sense came in the mail, he got the necessary piercings—four metal mounts—and started wearing it.

Nic Fox >> It’s mounted to my chest via two surface bars, so I basically just have four dots protruding from my chest that the device attaches to with these little silicone O-ring type things.

Girardeau: North Sense users can take it off to recharge it, or change the strength or duration of the vibration by synching the device to a smartphone app. But it’s designed to be worn all the time.

Girardeau >> What was it about idea of having an artificial sense that attracted you the most?

Nic Fox >> It’s a very natural innate human desire to extend what we’re able to experience via drug use, meditation, and all the other things we’ve done throughout history. Having a richer experience, sensory-wise, as a I move through the world seemed like a no-brainer. Why wouldn’t I want to add one more sense to the ones I already have and enjoy so much? The ability to feel just a little bit more.

Girardeau: Nic Fox says the device is a little reminder—

Nic Fox >>—That I’m a physical person in a place on the planet. At my home, direct north is a mountain, right in my front yard. Every time I face this massive, beautiful mountain, I get a vibration in chest, which is very pleasant. While I am at work, my chest vibrates whenever I am facing clients. The way the shop is oriented, if I’m at the counter, or in the piercing room, when they’re on the table, both times I’m actually facing north.

Girardeau: Back in London, Liviu Babitz takes us on a walk through his neighborhood so we can get a real-time experience of the North Sense.

Babitz >> We are now in a playground near my house. We spend lot of time in afternoons together here. Walking with North Sense, I start paying attention less on a conscious level but the impact on my life becomes bigger. So our brain cannot deal with everything all our senses are capturing at same time. If I will stand for example in front of school before I pick him up you’ll find me standing doing this gentle gestures right to left which basically trigger the little vibration.

Girardeau: Sensing north, all the time, is a novel experience for these human cyborgs. But in 2017, with all the technology that we have at our disposal, do humans really need this ability to determine the cardinal directions? Well other animals do. And people have been studying how they do it for a long time.

Charles Wolcott >> I’m Charles Wolcott, and I’m Professor Emeritus of Neurobiology and Behavior at Cornell University. It’s an interesting problem. The homing pigeon lives in a loft. You take it 500, 1000 miles away … let it go, it flies in a circle, and heads home. And the great question we’re interested in is, how does it know what direction home is in?

Girardeau: Wolcott spent 30 years putting radio beacons and magnets and other devices on pigeons, trying to figure this out.

Wolcott >> We now know the pigeons use the sun as a compass. But occasionally the sun not visible and then they switch and use earth’s magnetic field as an auxiliary compass.

Girardeau: I can’t quite shake this nagging question about humans, though. Wouldn’t magneto reception—the ability to sense directions—have been pretty darn useful before the compass—and the iPhone—were invented?

Girardeau >> Do you think there could be a dormant human sense we’re not using?

Wolcott >> Well, there may well be. You could certainly imagine in primitive man the value of such a thing. There are lots of people who seem to have some sort of sense of direction. You go out in woods with one of them, say, “Which way back to camp?” and they point and are able to take you right back.

Girardeau: Yeah, we all know people like that, and though there’s one scientist at Caltech named Joe Kirschvink who claims that humans do have this innate sense. It’s too early to conclude that we actually have a primal sense of north. At the moment, an

artificial “sixth sense” may be the best we humans can do. And though for now it’s more of a playful luxury, North Sense early adopters like Nic Fox thinks it’s just another sign that we’re all ultimately destined to become cyborgs.

Nic Fox >> Wearable tech// is simply unstoppable. People are attaching technology to themselves. I don’t know if you would consider that human evolution, or tech evolution, or a combination of the two—I think it’s an undeniable fact. I’d rather get on the train than get run over by it so to speak.

Girardeau: For Distillations, at 37 degrees 7 minutes North and 122 degrees 41 minutes West, I’m Catherine Girardeau.

Bob: In the biohacking underground the North Sense is not that impressive. One member of a popular online forum claimed it wasn’t much more complicated than a vibrating nipple ring.

Michal: But the impulse to enhance and expand our perceptions is the same. We asked Kara Platoni, author of We Have the Technology, to tell us more about the biohackers she met while writing her book.

Bob: Kara is a lecturer at Cal Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and full disclosure, our producer Mariel Carr, while she was a graduate student there, was Kara’s student.

Michal: We called Kara at home in Oakland, California.

Platoni: A lot of people who are working in this world are very frustrated with the limits of the human body. They’re trying to shortcut evolution by saying, “Look, nature, if left to it’s own devices, probably won’t build this for the human and even if nature did, it would take forever and we won’t be around to enjoy it, so we’ll build something now,” but it’s not true evolution because even if I stick a bunch of magnets in my hands, that is not going to be passed down to my children.

Bob: Among the biohackers Kara met were people who have implanted magnets in their fingertips.

Platoni: And no matter how many magnets you stick in your hand, your kids are never going to inherit any magnetic abilities. By the way, I should say, don’t try this at home. Don’t just go stick any magnet in your hands. These magnets that people are using are specially built  by professional piercers, body mod experts who have put them in these sort of special silicon cases that are hard to break because you wouldn’t want one of these magnets to come into contact with your blood stream or breach. Don’t do this at home kids, is what I am saying.

Michal: Can people who do that actually really sense magnetic fields even to the point that they might be able to navigate with them?

Platoni: This is an interesting he said, she said thing. Of course, right? I spoke with quite a few people who have had these little magnets implanted, usually into the tips of their fingers or somewhere else near their hand and a lot of people say, “Well, I can truly get sensation from these magnets. I can feel when there’s metal nearby. I can feel this paperclip here. I can feel this staple in the paper.” Sometimes they say, “I can feel electric current.” The question really is, what are they feeling? Is it true electromagnetic sensation the way that a bird, or a salmon, or a sea turtle would feel it and the answer is, probably no.

Whatever they’re feeling is quite weak. They have to be very near the source of whatever it is. They couldn’t feel something as defused and as weak as the earths magnetic feel. Certainly not able to navigate by it. Okay so then the question is, even if they are feeling something, like their hard drives starting up, they’re feeling the staple in this paperclip, what are they feeling. Is this truly magnetic sense? And now the tricky thing for me as a reporter, there really aren’t that many scientists you can go ask, hey what’s happening. Nobody really study this in the lab. So what I would say these neuroscientist are you aware that people are putting magnets in their hand they would say “what are you talking about?” but I was able to get a few of them to talk about well what might be going on. The best guest is that the various biohackers in my acquaintances that are doing these experiments and the neuroscientist the best they were able to agree on is that probably what’s going on is that these moments are influencing the touch sensors. The mechanics receptors that are already embedded in your skin. So probably what’s happening, the magnet when it responds to metal or environment is moving slightly. That is acting your touch senses and the information is being ported to the brain along those touch channels that are already part, that is already built in your touch. Now the question is that touch or is that something else. And a lot of the people I spoke with said, “you know it’s kind of like touch plus. It’s touch but you’re getting information you normally wouldn’t have gotten it’s information that would have been invisible to you in your environment and its being relayed to this channel that already exists.”

Michal: So it’s two different senses, for a bird they do it their own way but a human being it’s converted into an already existing sensory system.

Platoni: Right, because basically what people are doing, it’s kind of a hack. It’s kind of a work- around. A bird or a butterfly probably has a part of its brain that is built to interpret this touch information. Just like for humans, vision  is a very important  part of our sensory world, so there’s a giant part of our brain that’s devoted to interpreting sight, it’s huge. Same with touch, there are parts of the brain that are specifically devoted to sensing touch. We don’t have one for electromagnetic information because our bodies don’t truly have those kind of sensors and also probably because it’s not something we need to survive. We don’t migrate the same way that a salmon or a sea turtle would. The only way to get that information to the brain is to hijack a channel that’s already going there, like touch, to get there through some other pathway that already exists, so it’s a very clever hack and the people who are doing it are doing it as a shortcut. They’re saying, “look, evolution didn’t build this for the human, so we’re just going to see if we can work around it.”

Michal: There seem to be two groups in the people you interview: the tinkerers who want to make a few minor changes and the people who seem to be more on the more transhumanist side of things who somehow want to be much more? And I should pause here and give my take on transhumanism. For me it connects the biology in a dissatisfaction of who we are as biological creatures who were born, who lived and died and the technology that we’ve developed in the 20th century is so fantastic and amazing that is suspect that it’s giving rise to this idea “why can’t we apply this idea to our biology. We won’t be reliant on evolution anymore. We won’t have this slow process of change over thousands of years, millions on years even. And it won’t be a change that comes from the inside in. It would be the changes that we decide to make to ourselves and it would be at a much faster pace than it would be made possible by evolution.

Platoni: In the world of the people that I interviewed, there were a lot of people on the trans- humanist or hacker side, who were motivated with this idea of becoming superhuman or augmenting the body to be better than it is, but there were also a lot of people who were very serious medical researchers attached to large universities or privately  funded companies  that were trying to come out with what’s often called assistive technologies. The idea is, it’s a technology that would help somebody with disease, or a condition, or a disability, that’s very serious, that can’t be helped through other means. For example, one of the people that I got to meet was a man who has a retinal implant in his eye. So it’s actually inside his eyeball. He had been born with vision and lost it as an adult, because he has this disease that’s called retinitis pigmentosa. He had been essentially totally blind for seventeen years and then he volunteered for a clinical trial for a device that’s called the Argus Two, which is this new retinal implant, just went on the market in the United States two years ago and it restores some degree of vision to him, which is a remarkable advance in technology.

So some of the groups I was speaking to said “look, there are things that we can do to help people who have serious vision impairments, who have serious conditions like paralysis, Lou Gehrig’s decease, other diseases that might prevent other people from moving or from speaking or other sensory function, so they’re part of the mix too. I should tell you that the biohacker transhumanist wing and the for-profit, or university research arm, very rarely talk to one another. They’re not intricately involved in one another’s world, so I always felt like the plague rat who was traveling back and forth with all of these different ideas and saying, “Hey, do you guys know what the people over here are working on?” They’d say, “No. We’ve never heard of that.” “Well, they’re really interested in similar things to you.”

Platoni: Definitely, I think a lot of people are inspired by the idea of being a superhero. A lot of the people that I spoke with specifically, members of this biohacker collective called Grindhouse Wetware, were very inspired by the ‘Dr. Sleepless’ graphic novels, which are by Warren Ellis and they portray this post-apocalyptic near future, near dystopian future, in which people are just really fed up with the technologies that are available to them. They feel like the future didn’t get here fast enough and didn’t turn out right, so they start to build their own augments. In this world there are people who have implants in the palm of their hands so that they can feel their partner’s heartbeat in the palm of their hand.

When I heard that, I thought, “Oh, wow. That’s kind of like a far out wild idea,” but you might remember just about a year or so ago when the Apple watch came out, one of the things that Apple had built into it was this haptic feedback device, so that you can feel thingsthrough your wrist and one of the things that it can do is take your heartbeat and transmit your heartbeat to somebody else’s watch.

That already exists and that’s for a very mainstream audience who might not really think of it as super power. They might just think of it as a neat feature on a device, but that technology is already here.

Michal: I want to talk about objects that can artificially change our reality. Some of these objects became wearable like the wrist watch or the eye glasses that go in your face, but in the coming era we’re really talking about devices that are smaller and more portable, more lightweight. Less obtrusive than they ever been before.

Platoni: Then the question is, okay, if it’s influencing how we perceive things, how do we know when it’s on or when it’s off? Right? How do we know what it’s doing? If it’s just always on, if it’s always in front of your eye, it’s always on your hand, if it’s always in your pocket, how much is it just constantly influencing your perception in ways that you aren’t aware of? That, I think that’s interesting and that’s new.

Michal: I can see some dystopian possibilities there.

Platoni: Absolutely. A lot of researchers said to me, “How will you know when it’s a dream and when it’s reality? How do you know where what you’re imagining ends and the real world begins?”

Michal: Distillations is more than a great podcast. We’re also a multimedia magazine.

Bob: You can find our videos, our blog, and our print stories at Distillations.org

Michal: And you can also follow the Chemical Heritage Foundation on Facebook and Twitter.

Michal: For Distillations I am Michal Meyer.

Bob: And I am Bob Kenworthy.

Michal and Bob: Thanks for listening.

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