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courtesy of photographer Wai Lin Tse

Everything you need to know about biohacking

Kenyan-born, Canada-based bodybuilder turned biohacker Glyph, one half of Instagram duo @biohackinfo, offers his notes on the weird and wonderful world of biohacking

TextGlyphPhotographyWai Lin Tse

Glyph is a 29-year-old biohacker and one half of the Instagram duo @biohackinfo. Glyph isn’t his real name, it’s just what he prefers to go by. The same goes for his partner, CyphR, who is even more reluctant to share personal details. Glyph grew up between Kenya and Belgium, but currently lives in Canada where he met CyphR - a biochemistry undergrad who at the time of meeting had already performed three implantation procedures on himself (he has one RFID chip implant that he uses to start his car, lock and unlock his phone, and another one in which he stores the private keys to his cryptocurrency wallets. He also used to have a magnet on his index finger) and was working on a protein that inhibits muscle growth regulator, myostatin. They met in the gym, where Glyph was working as a personal trainer. As a body builder, Glyph had always been fascinated by the concept of human enhancement. But it wasn’t until he met CyphR that he able to pursue this interest in a meaningful way. Since then, the pair have worked on numerous groundbreaking projects all in the name of human enhancement, with Glyph more often than not acting as CyphR’s test subject.

Earlier this year, they decided to introduce their underground exploits to the mainstream by setting up their own Instagram, which they plan to follow up with a website in November. A resource for all things biohacking, will be a space where amateurs and enthusiasts can come for guides on how to biohack and set up your own home lab, as well as tips on DIY body modification, implantation procedures, and gene editing. Ahead of the launch, here Glyph offers some notes on biohacking.

A magician uses her magnetic sense to screw off her finger and reveal the circuitry inside. A teenager starts work on gene cloning, at home. A former NASA scientist injects himself with DNA to make his muscles bigger. A cyborg designs a pelvic implant that will turn him into a human vibrator. A software engineer runs into “biohackers” at a tech boot camp in Chile, and they seem gimmicky to say the least, but he doesn't know that he will one day become their lab rat.

This is not a science fiction plot because these are all real people, and what they are doing – biohacking – could save humanity. As an emerging trend listed in the 2018 Gartner Report, biohacking was recently added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary: "Biological experimentation (as by gene editing or the use of drugs or implants) done to improve the qualities or capabilities of living organisms especially by individuals and groups outside of a traditional medical or scientific research environment."

Anastasia Synn the magician and Rich Lee the soon-to-be human vibrator – represent the more punk, DIY, cyborg niche of biohacking called Grinding, which emerged when magnet implants were co-opted from the body-modification subculture as a hack to acquire an electromagnetic sense. It took off when a Reading University professor implanted himself with an RFID chip that he used to open doors, and is creeping into mainstream markets with wearable tech like activity trackers, getting more and more personal. 

Daria Dantseva, the 18-year-old bioengineering student who plans on opening Ukraine's first do-it-yourself biology community lab, and Josiah Zayner who injected himself with gene-editing tool CRISPR so as to grow bigger muscles, represent the other side of biohacking – DIY bio – a niche whose hacker ethos of democratising biotechnology the same way computer software is, has opened possibilities for people like HIV positive activist, Tristan Roberts – people who are frustrated by progress in clinical trials or lack of access to treatments and are testing DIY bio treatments on themselves.

These five individuals are all biohackers, and as crazy as what they are doing may seem, it would be wise if you were also involved. Your future could depend on it.

Why? China is entertaining the idea of genetic engineering for human enhancement, and the threat of sentient Artificial Intelligence is giving tech magnates like Elon Musk sleepless nights. Unlike the West, China is very lax on regulating gene editing. For example while CRISPR experimentation on human embryos is banned in the US, last year researchers in China were able to modify genes in a human embryo. The Beijing Genome Institute has also been sequencing the genomes of the world's top 1000 IQs, with growing concerns from bioethicists that China will use this genetic data to increase the IQ of subsequent generations by up to 15 points.

As for Elon Musk, his concern about AI comes from the fact that he thinks, much like the late Stephen Hawking, that once AI becomes sentient, its evolution will be exponential and humans who are limited by biological evolution won’t be able to keep up. In which case humanity will be at the mercy of AI that might find them redundant. Elon has repeatedly tried to address this with lawmakers and politicians, including Obama, and though some listen, little action has been taken.

Clearly, humanity is on the cusp of opening a techno-biological Pandora's Box. Since technologies like genetic engineering, human enhancement, designer babies and AI will affect the whole human race and raise new ethical concerns that require laws and regulations, it will not just be up to lawmakers to address this but everyone – since everyone will be affected forever. 

In today's information age, one would think most people would be informed about the topics, but they are not. Even after efforts by science communicators like astrophysicist Neil Tyson DeGrasse and Bill “The Science Guy” Nye, who have done a good job of getting the public to be enthusiastic about some scientific topics. However, the majority of the public still tends to see science as something mystical, only for the scientists. But biohackers have completely revolutionised this perception of science, they are slowly but surely eroding the barrier between science/research and the lay person. Amateurs and lay people are doing research at home, experiments in the garages and kitchens and being involved without any form of public outreach to coerce them to do so. In the case of grinders who use technology to modify their bodies, their identities end up intertwined with the science of whatever biohack they carry out. This personal level of participation and identity investment is also materializing in DIY bio, because what's more hands-on and personal than editing your own genetic code?

Biohacking is the area where the public is active in science, and so biohacking can be used to draw the public in even more further. Biohacking is so far the only practicality offering itself as a solution to the problem of an uninformed public that is existentially required to be thoroughly informed in the evolutionary juncture ahead. Fostering a grassroots do-it-yourself culture of biohacking that promotes tech-consciousness and bio-literacy among the general public means most people end up informed and pro-active, preventing nightmarish socio-political implications in the world that is to come.

“I want to live in a world where people get drunk and instead of giving themselves tattoos, they're like, 'I'm drunk, I'm going to CRISPR myself,'” is an infamous statement by Zayner that he received backlash for. But imagine such a world; a world where you can access such technology like a trinket on a night out. Sounds wild, but it's a more comforting world than imagining the opposite – where such technology is in the hands of a few, where human enhancement is a privilege that would literally split the species into the enhanced and non-enhanced. As Tristan Roberts puts it, a world where human evolution is controlled by corporations and nation-states is more terrifying. And as a person living with HIV he knows too well the grim fact that millions who are infected depend on pharmaceutical companies for their continued survival. A global culture of biohacking through open-source science would effectively prevent governments and corporations from having a monopoly on biotechnology, and human life.

A world of cyborgs and designer babies, where humanity seems to be playing God, is still frightening for some. Not for Daria Dantseva though, who not only sees biohacking as opening the door for participation in science regardless of gender and profession, but also as affirmation of her Christian faith, “A lot of people are afraid of biohacking because they think that biohackers are playing God. As a Christian myself, I feel it is an amazing way to learn more about how God designed us. I'm just a regular teenager from Ukraine and I never thought I could do genetic engineering at home.”

Dantseva's statement encapsulates biohacking; so hands-on and personal that multiple perspectives can coalesce without contradiction – more so as biohacking is no longer a transhumanist trope; it has become too practical for that pigeonhole. It is no longer a subculture of techies impatient for the future, because it's becoming a civil act of exercising morphological freedom, a tool for defining and redefining ourselves – a new stepping stone for humanity.

“Technology is made by humans,” Neil Harbisson, the world's first person to be legally recognised as a cyborg once said. “If we modify our body with human creations we become more human.” This humanity within science and technology is how we can understand biohacking; it is hands-on humanity, a self-transforming humanity that Roberts sums up best when he says, "My goal is not to become transhuman, or even cured, but truly: transformed."