Op-ed

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Are the cyborgs coming? No, they're already here

by Tom Keenan

Calgary Herald
August 2, 2017

It was a room full of fascinating people.  Some had MDs or PhDs. A few were tech company CEOs. Many had chips implanted in their bodies. Some have even had a brush with the law over their attempts to alter their bodies in interesting ways.

The scene was the BioHacking Village at the gigantic DEF CON hacker convention, held recently in Las Vegas. Over 20,000 people converged on Caesar’s Palace, mostly to talk about how to break into (or protect) power grids, voting machines, and even car washes, which turn out to be highly hackable.

I love those kind of talks, but increasingly, I spend my time at DEF CON with the people who are shooting for bigger goals – they want to hack their own bodies.  Take Clinton (Cosmo) Mielke, a PhD-holding data scientist who, according to his biography, “scans brains for a living” at the University of California, San Francisco.

Mielke’s passion is understanding the genetic basis of obesity.  He has a family history of diabetes and most of his relatives are definitely on the heavy side.  Being a big data guy, he got his entire genome sequenced and start probing into it.  Sure enough, he found a variant on his ADAMTS9 gene that is associated with Type II diabetes.

He also found a mutation on his SLC25A gene, which controls the ANT2 protein.  “This is spooky,” he says, “because I did my PhD on the closely related ANT1 protein without knowing about this”.

In a 2014 paper, researchers led by Yun Sok Lee of University of California, San Diego, reported that ANT2 increased cellular oxygen consumption, and eventually led to obesity and insulin resistance in mice. They suggested that a similar process may happen in humans, and that a drug might be created to counteract it.

Mielke’s genetic probing was so intriguing that he founded a non-profit citizen science project to do crowdsourced research on genetics and obesity. Anyone can participate at www.infino.me.  One insight I got from his work is that, while some DEF CON attendees might need size 3XL black t-shirts because they spend too much time sitting, there are genetic factors at play here too.

Security analyst Jennifer Szkatulski’s interest in her own genome may have saved her life.  One day she had a terrible headache and was rushed to a hospital.  She was told she had a brain bleed and could have died.  “I was determined to find out why this happened to a relatively young, otherwise healthy person,” she says. It turns out one of the drugs she was taking, an oral contraceptive, carried a warning not to take it if you have a family history of this type of bleeding. She didn’t know of any relatives with this problem, but genetic testing showed that she carried a gene that put her at risk.

She cautions people not to get too carried away trying to do their own genetic diagnosis and treatment. After the bleeding experience, she tried various vitamins and supplements to address other conditions and, she says, “that didn’t work out well”. Of course, the ideal thing would be to consult with professionals, but how many doctors are willing or able to plow through your genome with you?

In case you are wondering how this is a men’s health issue, the social stigma of body modification seems to fall harder on guys. Ear piercing has long been considered normal in women but may raise eyebrows if men have it.  Women insert IUDs and that’s considered acceptable. But Australian researcher and political candidate Meow Ludo got into big trouble when he implanted his transit card into his hand.  The government demanded it back!

One speaker at the conference found that the legal system can work against guys who push the limits. I won’t use his name because he’s got a pending court case in Utah. He posted a video of himself getting a shin implant on YouTube. At the time, he was in the middle of a bitter custody battle with his ex-wife, who used this as evidence that he was an unfit parent.  “My kids never even saw the video I posted, but I’m being called some kind of a monster because of this.”

Perhaps the most common implants are RFID chips, which are great for opening doors when you’re carrying a load of books; and biomagnets.  One electrical engineer with a fingertip magnet said he is called on to use his enhanced sense to quickly diagnose faults in control panels.

If you want to join the “grinder community,” you can order implants, and the tools to install them, from sites like the aptly named www.dangerousthings.com .  And if you’re wondering when this will become mainstream, nine Canadian eye clinics are already offering people the KAMRA inlay. It’s a tiny ring that can eliminate the need for reading glasses.  Yes, it’s implanted into the cornea. Our cyborg future is definitely here.                                                

Dr. Tom Keenan is an award winning journalist, public speaker, professor in the Faculty of Environmental Design at the University of Calgary, and author of the best-selling book, Technocreep, (www.technocreep.com).

Image credit: a-papantoniou / Tonis Pan - Fotolia

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