Biotech and the Age of Biohackers.
I signed up as an observer, came out a participant.
There were 19 responses on my survey before the conference.
Biohacking has, for the past couple of years, been one of the major buzz words. Ranging from health optimization to technological augmentation, biohacking covers a range of a whole loads of “boundary pushing”. This year I attended my first BDYHAX CON, held in Austin, Texas for the past four years. The BDYHAX CON (bodyhacking conference) is centered around the idea of making the right choices for your own body by getting access to the latest in science and technology. Translation? Two whole days of a hot-spot for early adopters of sensory enhancing devices, bio-artists, wearable and implantable tech, prosthetics, deep philosophical discussions on dual-use inventions and bioethics, and more!
I attended the conference for two main reasons, I have been an elite athlete for a good decade of my life (should there be a blog link here?) in pursuit of the ultimate diet, the ultimate training schedule and the ultimate recovery. To add to that, and very much taken from my Dad, I absolutely love technology and have always — whenever I could — been an early adopter myself! But the second and most important reason that readers, you must take not of, is that I attended the conference for research purposes. What does that mean? As that single odd sentence at the beginning of this article may elude to, I was running a survey before, during and after the conference to collect some useful data for my PhD research (link to my research here!). I traveled from London to Austin to get as many participants of the conference to fill in my questionnaire about biohacking. Or at least that was the original plan…(foreshadowing much?)
I arrived a few days early, got the chance to settle in and get rid of jet-lag from my morning 14–17 km runs where I explored the city full of big trucks, a beautiful sun and the great Lady Bird Metropolitan Lake. Friday arrived, and it was badge collection time from a ranch-like, live-music, beer and sausage pub called Banger’s along the Colorado river by the East-side. There I was, obnoxiously nervous on who I would meet, even though as I socialized I found myself already in deep conversations on biotech. Pretty exciting, I was getting the chance to meet really bright people, whom had really technical backgrounds, in physics or computer science, whom may have not continued within academia but rather have since created a few interesting technological prototypes; like a home-made microscope, you know, as you do. Research me goes, you got this. You may have not invented a freaking microscope, despite your first-class Biochemistry bachelors, two masters and the start of a doctorate, but yes, you got this. That’s when I ended up in a quiet room. Filled with people sat around in a circle in silence. Listening to two men in the center. I found myself in a consciousness hacking event.
Alright, so I later found out it was a coinciding event, not organised by BDYHAX, and definitely an experience I’ve never had in the past, to say the least. Without side tracking too much, the gist of it was, it started out as, what I thought would’ve been how I imagined a “self-help” kind of a session to be like — I say imagine because I have never actually been to one to know. We started off with a staring exercise, where you stare at the person sitting next to you to break each other’s barriers and have a bigger sense of closeness in the room. It then quickly escalated to a deep — so deep to be honest at some point I was completely lost — conversation on dual-use technologies, how the inventor perpetually battles through this dilemma of creating for good but trying to prevent the conquer of evil. I was excited in the beginning when this was the topic as a major part of my research focuses on how to place a relevant security system that protects us from criminal exploitation of biotechnologies. My excitement soon came to shreds when the conversation kept slipping deeper and deeper in the hands of riddles. All in all, it was a very interesting three-hour experience I would never expect to emerge from a “meet and greet” event, yet alone a conference badge-pickup.
Right, back to the BDYHAX. Knowing a few faces from the registration the night before, I found the LZR, a cozy patio-like entrance to the main stage where the phenomenal Angel, the bionic actress, launched the event. There was a break out section on the right, with comfy couches, VR headsets that either made you dance or enter meditative states, combined with an audio-visual system and a vibrating bed; how couldn’t the “SoundSelf” system not take you away? On the left, the signs led you to the Yantra room, where a man sat on top of a pool of water with a symmetrical island playing music. The music, his deep corded voice and light drum, would make beautiful patterns on the water as he played, spreading from one end of the Yantra device to the other, filling the room with awe. I was completely mesmerized but could not tell you if it was from my own experience listening to him hum or from observing the immersive experience of a blind lady next to me whom had sat right up against the device with her hands in the water to actually feel the music travelling through her body. Truly magical.
Opposite the main stage was the technical space of booths with the newest and latest gadgets, as well as — drum-roll please — live chip procedures! Yes, that is RFID or NFC chips being implanted there and then. They were the new VivoKey chips of DangerousThings with a booth of their own. The best part was a literal chain with a block attached to it as a complimentary gift when purchasing a chip — the blockchain! Next to their booth was the lovely Anastasia, the magician, showing off her trick cards — RFID nail stickers, magnet fidgets and key chains. As I went around, I made friends, as everyone was super welcoming. When greeted at the entrance, I was told that I had a booth to run my survey from at noon. “Right, remember”, I told myself, “twelve o’clock, booth, survey”.
There was live dub-step and drum n’ bass music playing, a table with modular and colorful pieces to play with, especially great for tactile people like myself. Due to my background, the best way I can describe them is by saying they looked like molecules, with which I tried to make a double stranded helix model — geek, distance thyself! There were also concurrent workshops such as the RFID programming 101 course with Patrick Paumen, who gave some neat tips and tricks on security — the funniest moment was when someone in the audience had locked their VivoKey accidentally to “read-only,” which only meant that that freshly implanted chip — that was just put in — would have to come right out as he didn’t format it correctly to read AND write using the DangerousThings app.
The Genome workshop, was run by two lads who went through certain genes involved in important well-being process such as sleep — letting you know if you’re an actual night owl or a morning person — apparently only 2 % of the population is genetically a night-owl, so don’t lie to yourself please, it’s called procrastination!
And finally, Lepht Anonym ran a workshop on self-surgery, whom I have previously met and interviewed in London. Before too many alarm bells go off in your mind with the “self-surgery”, Lepht is a lovely and curious individual, whom has been quite pioneering in the work of grinders. A lot of people traveled to BDYHAX just to meet Lepht! Her workshop was mainly focused on health and safety – ie how NOT to get sepsis.
There were talks around Art Science, with one, a particular favorite of mine, a mask made out of soft robotics, “ApoSema”, that covers a third of your face with — the closest way I can describe it — what looks like bubble wrap but with bigger bubbles filled with liquid and color to reflect facial expressions. This is done through the contractions of your facial muscles that are sensed and in turn change the colors in the fluids of the mask to distinguish a happy facial expression from a sad one. As a speculative exercise, the project both demonstrates a thought experiment for the future, for when technology will be so integrated in our lives that man will no longer recognize facial expressions, but also for the present, as an assistive device for autistic children.
The most interesting talks I found were the ones coming from patients themselves, whom use certain medical devices — of course monopolized by big health companies — that so desperately require a “version two” to fit the functionality they need to have a better day-to-day life. One speaker even passed around her spinal medical device, for which I was shocked to read “for animal use only” printed on it. And these so-desired additional functionalities were things that could be implemented today: with current and even frankly, outdated pieces of technology that would, for example prevent them from overdosing from their own medication when changing their environment for example by visiting higher amplitude places — a simple threshold sensor? Common biohackers, seems like you’re our only hope to personalized medicine!
Biohackers. Yes it is time to dive into that word and put all the myths to the side by visiting all the different people I met at the conference that had all traveled for this biohacking meetup.To display the diversity, I’ll attempt to describe as many wonderful people as I can fit in this blog without writing an essay — would well be worth an essay nevertheless! Let’s start with the academics and get them out of the way. I met an Assistant professor at Illinois focusing his efforts on the study of doping — yes the normal sports doping we think of and know of when hearing that word — which makes you wonder why he was interested in biohacking. But in a sense, it may be quite apparent. We had a long conversation of how sports doping has made a move into the academic space and into Universities, where it once headed towards the “jocks”, it starts making aim towards the “geeks”. Academic doping, especially in the States has become a real issue, as you can straightforwardly see with the case of Adderall. As the professor and I discussed the matter, I shared my own interest of research and started talking about the “everyday” cyborgs and biohackers in relation to current legislation and future criminal opportunities of concern. How the current system is not structured to protect a humanity that is very rapidly moving towards technological integration, and thus cannot be controlled through traditional law enforcement bodies (please DM me for more info on this!). I also met a ton of super intelligent people that had dropped out of physics or had technical expertise in highly complex subject areas without necessarily a paper certification to go along with it. People whom challenged my own intellect, despite my collection of degrees and higher education transcripts.
Two more students I met, both studying a bio-related subject at university, debating on ways to make medical devices more secure. Jake, originally from China, explained multiple jurisdictions and cultural differences that may cause tensions on technological adaptation across the world as what may be found acceptable in one country may be a disgrace to another. The example of the pharmaceutical industry and the drug development pipeline was introduced, where there is a number of “acceptable” deaths — that number is 72 if you were interested in knowing by the way — whereas a single death in the Western part of the world would be utterly unacceptable.
I met another PhD student studying Transhumanism with a perspective coming from the studies of religion, I met an entrepreneur triathlete and an IT hardware developer whom monitors his glucose levels in real time through a trans-dermal device. I also met a “science-submissive”, who is always willing to try out version 1’s of developed devices from his co-biohackers, and I also got the opportunity to meet the bad-ass coordinator of the biohacking village at DEFCON — only the world’s largest hacker convention, held annually in Las Vegas, Nevada. An extra-peculiar experience was that that I had with a man in – what I believe – to be in his late 70’s, whom after identifying the kickboxing tank-top I was wearing that day, approached me to try pilot his mysterious formulation in the form of a lotion that would – apparently – increase my bone density and improve my motor function — at 25 I now know what “don’t take magical potions from strangers kids” really means?!
It was hard to separate the organizers from the participants as everyone behaved as a community, but when I casually started conversation with the person at reception, I ended up talking to the head volunteer. Whilst studying chemistry she explains, she volunteered once the very first time the conference began four years ago and volunteered each year after that as she found a solid group of friends. The photographer, a local Austin-er, spoke to me about how he lost loads of pounds after his failed marriage and how empowered he felt over his health after doing so. I met people that tried to come up with a way to making my dream of becoming a mermaid reality through different designs stemming from current submarine technology.
Another young lady with a biochemistry background, like me, expressed her frustration regarding the current career differences between the life sciences and IT programming. How although her ultimate passion lies within protein structural biology, her needs to address her finances are met through UX programming as it pays substantially more. I met an IT consultant that is currently conducting his own R&D to create and later sell a secure NFC chip, with a couple of chips implanted in his own hands. He was also developing VR learning experiences for school students and teachers.
All in all, if I could summarize the wonderful people I met with a sentence, I would defiantly say that they are a collective of true innovators and creatives that are not bound to paradigms that restrict their inspiration but have the technical skills to make an idea reality. Even a staff member at the local sandwich place, where I bought my lunch from, mentioned how much he always loves the people the conference brings each year!
The first day of the conference included a night social. Upon arriving for “The Wormhole” or probably the coolest way to name a social event, everyone was gathered around a buffet of a peculiar selection of snacks. From pickles to lemon slices, jalapeño peppers, olives, carrots and candy gummies! This was all to trick your taste buds and taste perception after trying the “magical berries”. Lemon for me tasted as if it had been dipped and soaked in syrup!
Have you ever heard of competing with someone else to see who can meditate the fastest? Sounds like a juxtaposition but ultimately really fun! EEG headsets were set up with a projector in one of the breakout rooms at the LZR for the meditation knockouts! It was very fun to watch and thought I’d give it a go — I thought, I must be able to focus hard enough. Immediately I tried thinking of ways to hack it, speaking to previous contestants and gathering information on how and what they did when they were up there. One of the female participants could get that orange bar going from the very beginning, whilst another took a good minute until she could get a single point. Needless to say, no matter the Intel I gathered and the self-perceived inner-zen I thought I had, I couldn’t even get it to a SINGLE point when I got up there and gave it ago. Some might say I’m an over-thinker others might, quite cowardly, say that it was a “technical problem”, not sure who would say that though.. Ha! If I were to describe what I was trying to focus on or begin to meditate was the way I feel under water, then I tried to swim — virtually — I then began to replicate my usual 12 km run in London — apparently all of those are all the wrong ways to find your inner peace!
Speaking of inner peace — or lack thereof — there was a moment of peculiarity when a Police officer strangely visited the premises; a moment where people were quite confused to say the least, contemplating on whether to stay or gap, until it was revealed that the officer was there for a lost wallet..phew?
The last night of the conference brought one last group dinner at a local vegan place, nevertheless spicy Korean broccoli and a curry I ordered filled the (carnivorous) void of mine. There were more meetings of new and interesting people, discussions around lucid dreaming and its logging, 3D jewelry-making, brain-computer-interface developments and one last session of constant brain stimulation and interaction!
To narrate the moral of the story, I found that standard methods are not suitable for every type of research. I learnt more by the fieldwork I conducted through attending the conference than indirectly asking questions through a survey. To all the researchers out there, who may already know this, really think about what it is you are trying to understand in your work and then take careful extra time on how you approach it!
From the people I met, the ridiculous Lime scooters I traveled around Austin with, the long runs and delicious BBQ I tried, the trip to Austin came to a wrap. With a hug from a total stranger, whom said hugs would solve 80% of the problems today, the BDYHAX conference 2019 had come to an end. So yes, very long story, short: If you’re into science and love technology. Believe in open source and love to innovate and build. Go. To. BDYAHX. I’m trying to bring this baby to London — so stay tuned!
There were still 19 Responses on my survey after the conference (for dramatic effect).