Hacking the Body to Hack the System: What Can Healthcare learn from a Biohacker

Ryan O’Shea runs the business side of Grindhouse Wetware, a Pittsburgh collective of programmers, engineers, and enthusiasts working towards body augmentation using safe, affordable, and open-source technologies. Started in 2012 by a group of colleagues through the Biohack.me forums, Grindhouse has rapidly grown into a key figure in the biohacking movement and gained a great deal of press through initiatives such as Tim Cannon’s 2013 implanting of the Circadia body monitor into his forearm.

The funny thing about talking to a biohacker like Ryan O’Shea is that while he acknowledges integrating machines into the human body to enhance ourselves is weird, the entirety of human history’s connection with technological development is also pretty weird, if you think about it. Airplanes, space travel, Facebook: In many ways, we are already a transhumanist society. For people like Ryan, body hacking is simply the next logical step.

Yet when we begin to explore the traditional medical system, O’Shea’s tone is somewhat less empathetic. His frustration with the media and public view of biohackers as “disturbed people in basements cutting themselves open and jamming cell phones inside” is completely understandable when you learn of the impressive roster of scientific professionals working with the team. However, they do still work out of basements, garages, and other places away from the public eye, though largely out of necessity. Money aside, working from the coffers of a large biotech or academic institution would allow a much more professional setting – yet risk massively hindering the speed and transparency of their work through patents, regulation, ethics reviews, and other red tape.

So what can the medical community learn from a group of ragtag pioneers such as the Grindhouse crew? In talking to O’Shea, we uncovered a few things where the pros could take note.

Medical Science’s Biomimicry

“People seem to be fine with getting a prosthetic limb if they need one, or getting a cochlear implant if their hearing is damaged. Medical science is fine with bringing people who are considered ‘damaged’ in some way up to normal, but it seems largely uninterested in making ‘normal’ humans better.”

While O’Shea’s point is very relevant in the recovery vs. enhancement argument, there is an even deeper learning here about the ways in which medical science treats the body. Due to either our conservatism or the limits of our imaginations, by and large the types of treatments we pioneer to humanity’s ailments are attempts to copy nature, assuming it had it right all along.

But we only need to look to examples like composite running blades, ultrasonic neural stimulation, and Chlorin e6 injectable night-vision to realize that the unnatural is at times a better way forward. While we have traditionally sought to restore body functionality to a state of normalcy through biomimicry, we are in essence setting for ourselves an upper-limit on the types of treatments we are able to create. This is a constraint not simply on the functionality of our bodies, but also a handcuffing of medical researchers who are told to hit the “sweet spot” of human ability – not too little and not too much.

There’s this lingering belief that the human body is some perfectly crafted, pre-planned organism. It’s not.

Our Bodies Are Vessels

“There’s this lingering belief that the human body is some perfectly crafted, pre-planned organism. It’s not. It’s the byproduct of generations of accidental mutations, adaptation, and survival. Parts of our biology are vestigial remnants of our animalistic past.”

This extreme view should remind us that while it’s important to tend to the body’s ailments, ultimately the body is simply what transports and serves our minds. Each year, it seems, our advancements in prosthetics, artificial organs, and synthetic body chemicals leaps forward – while our understanding of the mind inches at a snail’s pace. We hold the body on a pedestal, though as O’Shea points out, it is nothing more than a byproduct of centuries of evolution. Our current attempts of integrating technology into the body, while somewhat risky, are simply an acceleration of this change.

The medical community needs to pull the human body off the pedestal and stop enabling society’s narcissistic view of ourselves as Adonises. If this article’s first point has merit, then future treatments will likely inch further and further away from the body’s original state. If we do not begin to reset the norm of medical care to be one of optimizing ourselves instead of simply restoring the functionality of our evolutionarily mutated flesh bags, then we will begin to see a divergence between the trailblazers who are willing to hack their bodies, and the stalwarts who are too scared to vaccinate their families despite over 200 years of proven technology. Our bodies are not sacred temples. They are imperfect, and at times, broken systems that we need to get comfortable with augmenting or repairing through any means necessary if we truly want to optimize health.

DIY

“The fact that we choose to go the route of the open source, citizen science, and maker communities isn’t an indictment of our methodology or vision. If anything, it is a conscientious stand against ridiculous patents, hindering regulations, and bureaucratic red tape that would keep us from innovating how we see it.”

Perhaps the most obvious yet important thing the medical community can learn from a group like Grindhouse is how to rapidly innovate. While decades of regulation have made our health systems more safe and reliable, this has also prevented the medical community from sprinting forward on many advances. Yes, we must always weigh the risks and consequences of our actions. However, those aware of the risks should have the choice to circumnavigate regulation.

This would allow the types of incredible pioneering work being done at places like Grindhouse, Science.Mic, Biohackspace, or DIYbio, to take place under far more safe, controlled, and scientific communities. It could mean that new drugs and new medical devices could be in-market within months instead of years. Regulation and property are crucial concepts for the business world, but when it comes to matters of our health, we have a moral imperative to serve the needs and health of people ahead of our organizations and governments. Yet until we resolve this dissonance, expect that more and more of the major medical breakthroughs you read about over the next decade will not come from the top universities or biotechs of the world – but by the basement-dwellers and hackers like Ryan O’Shea.

Read more about the integration of technology and the human body with:
A Reason to Cross the Final Boundary of Skin: What can Healthcare learn from a Cyborg Professor?
The Other Needle Experience: What can Healthcare learn from a Tattoo Artist?

Featured in the MISC 2015 : The Creative Process Issue.

Shane Saunderson is the head of health devices at Idea Couture. He is based in Toronto, Canada.

the author

Shane Saunderson

Shane Saunderson is VP, IC/Things at Idea Couture. See his full bio here.