National Geographic : 2017 Apr
Beyond Human 63 Human enhancements needn’t confer superhuman powers. Hundreds of people have radio-frequency identification (RFID) devices embedded in their bodies that allow them to unlock their doors or log on to their computers without touching anything. One company, Dangerous Things, claims to have sold 10,500 RFID chips, as well as do-it-yourself kits to in- stall them under the skin. The people who buy them call themselves body hackers or grinders. Kevin Warwick, an emeritus professor of engineering at Reading and Coventry Universities, in England, was the first to have an RFID device implanted in his body, back in 1998. He told me the decision had been a natural emanation of working in a building with computerized locks and automatic sensors for temperature and light: He wanted to be as smart as the structure that housed him. “Being a human was OK,” Warwick told a British newspaper in 2002. “I even enjoyed some of it. But being a cyborg has a lot more to offer.” Another grinder had an earbud implanted in his ear. He wants to implant a vibrator beneath his pubic bone and connect it via the web to others with similar implants. It’s easy to caricature such things. The practitioners reminded me of the first men who tried to fly, with long arm paddles fringed with feathers. But it was when I asked Harbisson to show me where his antenna entered his skull that I realized something else. I wasn’t sure whether the question was appropriate. In Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the book that became the movie Blade Runner) it’s considered rude to ask about the mechanisms powering an android. “Nothing could be more im- polite,” the narrator opines. But Harbisson was eager to show me how his antenna worked. He reminded me of how happily people show off their new smartphones or fitness trackers. I began to wonder what the difference really was between Harbisson and me—or any of us. Nielsen reported in 2015 that the average adult over 18 spent roughly 10 hours a day looking at a screen. (By comparison, we spend 17 minutes a day exercising.) I still remember the home phone number of my best friend from childhood, but not the numbers of any of my good friends now. (This is true of seven of 10 people, according to a study published in Britain.) Seven out of 10 Americans take a prescription drug; of these, one in four women in their 40s or 50s takes an antidepressant, though studies show that for some of them anything from therapy to a short walk in the woods can do as much good. Virtual reality headsets are one of the hottest selling gamer toys. Our cars are our feet, our calculators are our minds, and Google is our memory. Our lives now are only partly biological, with no clear split between the or- ganic and the technological, the carbon and the silicon. We may not know yet where we’re going, but we’ve already left where we’ve been. j D. T. Max is a New Yorker staff writer and author of The Family That Couldn’t Sleep: A Medical Mystery. Owen Freeman is an illustrator based in Los Angeles. His artwork covers science, history, entertainment, and current events. Artist Álvaro Valiño, whose work has appeared in various National Geographic publications, created the icons featured in this story. Tall Europeans Tall stature among northern Europeans could be another sexually selected trait, reinforced by its allure for the opposite sex. Skin color Light skin (higher latitudes) increases absorption of ultravi- olet light and produc- tion of vitamin D. Dark skin (lower latitudes) offers UV protection. Blood mutations Different populations exhibit various blood mutations; in a tropical climate, sickle-shaped cells can bestow resis- tance to malaria.