Q&A session with Tim Cannon of Grindhouse Wetware, a bio-hacker getting under Pittsburgh’s skin.
By: Amy M Edwards
Photos By: Ryan O’Shea
Transcending the online forums of biohack.me in the winter of 2012, Grindhouse Wetware formed in Pittsburgh as an open-source biotechnology company geared towards augmenting reality and human capability, most noticeably through the subdermal implantation of cybernetic devices.
According to biohack.me, an online forum whose mission is to, “promote talk in the self-biohacker [or, grinder] community,” “Grinders are passionate individuals who believe the tools and knowledge of science belong to everyone. Grinders practice functional extreme body modification in an effort to improve the human condition. [Grinders] hack [them]selves with electronic hardware to extend and improve human capacities. Grinders believe in action, their bodies the experiment.”
Pittsburgh based startup, Grindhouse Wetware, is one of the only open source biohacking companies in the world and, as such, occupies a unique position to bear witness to and inform the future coalescence of the human and the technological.
Tim Cannon, co-founder and Chief Information Officer of Grindhouse Wetware, is a software developer turned entrepreneur. He was the first to implant one of Grindhouse’s wares in his body and agreed to answer a few questions about his experiences:
You were the first to get Grindhouse-designed biometric implants. How many individuals now have GW implants?
I would say that is still in its infancy; maybe 20 people have powered implants done by Grindhouse, at maximum. We are very careful with who we allow to get these implants as it places a responsibility on them to report to us regularly and participate in testing.
I currently have several magnets: finger, tragus, wrist, side of the hand. I have found the magnetic sense quite useful. I have an xNT NFC chip in one hand and a standard RFID in the other hand. The one on my left is attached to the Pittsburgh hackerspace, that has saved me some time, I can tell you. I would forget the swipe card all the time. I have the NorthStar unit, which is the first version of the NorthStar being released. This one has brought me the most fun. It makes people curious, and I can’t help but love watching the reaction on people’s faces when it lights up. It”s fascination, horror, or both.
What is the long-term goal for the evolution of implants towards the augmentation of human capability? Biofeedback and health, or something more?
I would say biofeedback, tracking biological data, and mining the data for patterns is the short term. But the long term goal I think is to make this so accessible and easy to design and imagine that our ability to predict breaks down. I think when it becomes super easy to change the form and function of your body then diversity takes on a whole new meaning.
Are other companies, universities or start-ups pursuing similar designs through different avenues? Do you view them as competition or allies?
There are others in all spheres that you mentioned. We tend to view it more like “co-opetition.” This community tends to be small. We specialize in various areas and share information, challenges and sources freely.
How do you balance the cerebral and the corporeal? How does this affect your innate sense of humanness?
At the end of the day it is all cerebral. That said, my sense of humanness is mostly bound with my progression away from biology. I don’t think biology makes us human. I think it’s intelligence and consciousness. The more conscious I become, the more human I am. Thus, if I add senses, I become more conscious, and therefore more human.
In the future when augmentation becomes more common, how do you think accessibility will be addressed or affected? Will this technology be available to most or will there be a prohibitive cost involved?
We try to use open source technology and we do everything at the lowest possible cost. I imagine that will put pressure on people and on major corporations to reduce the costs. However, until we solve some underlying social issues and biological issues, I imagine the cost will be prohibitive of some new and important technologies when they first arrive to market.
The most common implants are the smaller magnets and injectable NFC’s (Near Field Communication apparatus that enables two devices to establish communication when within 2 inches of each other – think automatic keypad entry and smartphone point of sale). The benefit of an NFC implant is obvious for anyone who has ever, as Tim mentioned, forgotten their swipe card at work, or, in the case of POS transactions, lost their debit card in Manhattan while on a weekend trip. The magnetic implants carry a less perceptible, yet arguably more mind-bending, advantage. Individuals who have undergone magnetic implantation claim to be able to perceive the electromagnetic fields in our surroundings such as those from cash registers, computer fans, power cord transformers and microwaves. This added sense enriches the modern technologically-populated environment that we already inhabit and allows us to interact with it on a more fundamental level.
The Northstar device that Tim currently has implanted is the first version, or V1. At this time, the Northstar is purely aesthetic in nature, lighting up with a series of LED’s. Through the implantation of the current V1 version of this device, Grindhouse may study the efficacy and safety to apply to future implants of similar size and construction. The second, upcoming version, or Northstar V2, will have further capabilities such as gesture recognition and Bluetooth capability in order to build a stronger conveyance, or communication, between machines and humans. Such gesture recognition technology would have monumental impacts on the way in which we interact with our technology, potentially even making conventional forms of information input, such as keyboards and touchscreens, redundant. Other less invasive advances in gesture recognition are currently in development, such as wired gloves and vision tracking cameras, and only time will tell which win out in the largest market, the home consumer market. In addition to gesture recognition, biometric data feedback would be collected via the V2, such as blood pressure and sugar levels, aiding incontestably in preventative medicine.