In 2014, Timothy S Cannon had a lump of electronics the size of a deck of cards implanted under the skin of his left forearm. All it did was measure his temperature and his blood pressure, two biometrics that can just as accurately be read from the outside, but it turned him into a grinder – part human, part machine.
Of course, no doctor would rip a perfectly healthy man open to stuff an untested, non-approved box of LEDs and transistors inside him, so Tim got a professional from the body modifications world to do it instead. Without anaesthetic. After all, experience giving ear lobe extensions is basically the same as a degree from Harvard Medical School, right?
Implantables: Would you go that far?
We caught up with this major player in the grinder community for part of our implantables series to find out why he does what he does. It turned out to be one of the most sensible conversations we've ever had.
"Most people did not consider what I did within reason," explained the 35-year-old from the sofa of his Pittsburgh home.
Every little tingle felt like the battery was bursting and I'd convince myself that the poison was entering my system
"I think a lot of people saw the size and the Frankenstein stitches. I understand why that makes people think what we've done is dismissible. But I'm okay with that. Nobody was expecting anyone else but a guy like me to be doing it. This was not meant to be for the masses. This was for a test.
"We didn't focus on making it small or low power. We were just looking at if it was possible. What nobody knew was whether things could be implanted safely, and used, and charged. Now that we've proved we can do it safely, we can do it smaller."
Read more: The future of wearable tech
The "we" that Cannon refers to is a group of bio-hackers that call themselves Grindhouse Wetware, and the "it" - the implant - is a device called Circadia. Initially part of a forum community, Cannon grew frustrated the more he read of its members talking about human tech implants while no one was out there actually doing it. He put out a call for anyone serious about getting down to the nuts and bolts of body augmentation to meet up – and so Grindhouse Wetware was formed.
The grinders were born.
Cannon currently has three implants in his body: an RFID chip in the webbing between the thumb and forefinger of each hand and a magnet in a fingertip used to determine the distance of metallic objects.
He's the first to admit that none of these are that useful right now. It's handy having NFC capabilities for payment and access credentials on you at all times but certainly far from essential.
Bio-proofing to prevent the body's rejection, keeping everything contained and in order and making sure that battery didn't overheat and start scorching Cannon's flesh from the inside were all key hurdles that were overcome but just because the hardware was ticking away nicely, there was little to stop the psychological trauma of carrying around a battery and circuits under your skin.
"There was about a 30-day period where I had panic attacks daily; really bad panic attacks," he confessed.
"Every little tingle felt like the battery was bursting and I'd convince myself that the poison was entering my system. There were moments when I thought I'd crossed the line but I wouldn't be doing something bold if it wasn't a little scary."
Far from a quest for personal glory, though, his gung-ho attitude is about getting things moving in the world of implantables in a way that regulated science can't. It may seem like madness on the outside but grinders aren't smothered by the FDA or caught up in the red tape of rigorous stage testing at every step of the way.
Quite simply, they're free to get things done in a fraction of the time with the yin to that yang the less than clinical attitude. As a result, despite the catcalls of the medical industry, Cannon and his cohort have pushed the limits of biology that have made jaws drop.
Grindhouse's next project is a gesture-sensitive, coin-sized silicon implant for the back of the hand called North Star. Tap it, it glows red for a short while during which time you can use it to send Bluetooth commands to your phone or any object in your smart home for whatever action you'd like to customise.
Read more: The consequences of the quantified self
More impressive, though, is the plan for Circadia 2.0, which can detect blood glucose and oxygenation levels, as well as blood pressure and heart rate data.
"It's about a year or two away," claims Cannon. "That's the beginning of how to chemically analyse the blood. From that, I can tell your stress levels, how emotionally engaged you are, whether you're in love or predict patterns that you can't see right now."
What becomes of the broken hearted?
"When these are done, we're going into a project called Open Heart," he continued. "We want to make the first optionally replaceable heart. So, people will be able to say, 'I'm 30. This thing is going to go bad eventually. I want the one with iTunes. Just chuck this one in the garbage and give me the good stuff.' It's ambitious. It will take a long time and we want to do it open source with 3D printed parts and make it really low cost."
I have no intention of dying. That sounds like a horrible idea. That doesn't mean that it won't happen but I'm going to try to live forever
Where the idea behind Open Heart differs from the others is that it's the first time people will be throwing away perfectly good bits of their own bodies to make themselves mechanical. That's a tricky idea to sell to your average Joe and it begins to throw up all sorts of moral and religious anxieties; the sacredness of the flesh and whether you will, ultimately, still be you once you're part-man-part-machine.
"People will find it hard to cope with up until the point where their hearts go bad," countered Cannon. "Then it's completely easy to cope with. It's an illusion. It's a perspective problem. What those people are really having trouble with is, 'Why would I go through pain to have something untested in order to augment my self?' That's what makes people queasy."
"As your mortality bears down on you, all of a sudden your morals become flexible. Ask an Andes soccer team whether or not it's acceptable to eat humans before and then after they crash and you're going to get two separate sets of answers."
Cannon and his group's vision is simple. We get to live forever, replacing parts with hardware upgrades as we need them while we pursue hundreds of lifetime's worth of ambitions and interests that our bodies could simply never allow. The mind will be willing and the new synthetic flesh more than able.
"I look at biology and I'm not impressed. The biology and evolution game is not in line with humanity's stated core values. The biology game is about survival. It's about competing with the others around you for resources and I don't think that's the game we want to be in. Instead, I want to give humanity the capability to be what it claims it wants to be which are these curious, benevolent researchers and explorers. I definitely don't think that the body we're riding in allows for that in any way."
"I have no intention of dying. That sounds like a horrible idea. That doesn't mean that it won't happen but I'm going to try to live forever. If I can't, then I'm sure I'll sow the seeds of immortality. The human race - we're just not going to ride these meat suits forever. It doesn't make sense."
How we test