Transhumanist Rich Lee currently has five implants in his body meant to enhance the way he experiences and interacts with the world. While they may have added to his life, they may now also be taking something away: his kids. We talked with the body modifier to find out more.
In April 2013, a member known as Saumanahaii posted on the biohack.me forum: "I'm going to have a couple of magnets implanted into my skull in a few months. Then a magnetic transducer will go on top, sending sound directly to my middle ear."
This inspired transhumanist and biohacking proponent Rich Lee to experiment with his own sound-conducting implants. What he wound up with is a system that consists of magnets implanted into each of his traguses (the small cartilage tab at the front of the ear), along with an amplifier and a magnetic copper wire necklace he wears around his neck.
"I wanted something completely integrated into my body so I could live with the new sense 24/7," Lee tells us. "I wanted a permanent new sense that could be used in the shower, driving, or whenever."
Lee can now put an audio device of his choice into the 1/8-inch jack attached to his system. The audio current then travels to the coil around his neck, which interacts with the magnets embedded in his head, and allows him to hear the vibrations as sound. He compares the quality to a set of cheap earbud headphones.
Lee says that he spontaneously lost the vision in his right eye a few years before his implant and might soon be deemed legally blind, so one use for his implant might be to attach it to an ultrasonic rangefinder that would allow him to sense the distance and shapes of various objects and allow him to navigate his world using echolocation, like a dolphin or bat.
Gains and losses
The ear implants might have been the first high-profile body hack by Lee, but are certainly not the only one. He tells us that he has five implants in total: two magnetic implants in his fingers; an NFC chip in his hand; the two ear implants; and a biotherm chip in his forearm that allows him to read his body temperature with a separate scanner.
While those implants stay true to the transhumanist ethos of altering one's body to improve its capabilities, there are two implants Lee doesn't have any more that may wind up having the biggest impact of all on his life: metal plates he sewed up beneath the skin on his shins to see how much they would protect his bones. It was the procedure that pushed his ex-wife over the edge.
"There was a small video clip of me getting the procedure done and there was not a lot of context in there and she kind of freaked out about it," he says. "She called me and said: 'Oh hey, I want to take the kids while you recover.'" Lee told her he was fine despite some vascular damage from the procedure that gave him a little pain and a "pins-and-needles" sensation whenever he stood up. "She kept pushing me for it and then she took the kids out for dinner one night and said she was going to have them back at a certain time. She didn't show up and she sent me a text saying that I was never going to see them again."
Lee says that before the incident, there was never a problem between his alternative lifestyle and interactions with his children. "In fact, it was kind of a source of pride," he says. "I'd go get them from school and they'd bring their friends up to me and be like: 'Hey, meet my cyborg dad. Check him out!'"
The couple had divorced in 2015 largely over Lee's biohacking activities, which his wife is now alleging amounts to self mutilation, making him an unfit father to look after their children. The case has been working its way through the local courts in St. George, Utah where Lee lives, and is due to be ruled upon in the coming months.
While a ruling on the status of Lee's biohacking activities could set a precedent for a world that is increasingly seeing more human/machine fusions, Lee says he believes the judge won't render an opinion on that aspect of the case but will, instead, take it into account as one component in an attempt to assess Lee's fitness to have access to his children.
Lee points to a similar situation in which fellow biohacker Tim Cannon from Grindhouse Wetware was involved in a custody case. "Biohacking came up in his court case, but the judge kind of shook his head and didn't really care about it," he says. "It just wasn't an issue for him, because there was so much other stuff going on in the court case that the judge said it was irrelevant."
"A body doesn't dictate how much empathy someone deserves or let you judge the content of their character," he says on a GoFundMe page he's set up to help with the legal costs of his fight. "I have friends from all races, some with tattoos, piercings, and other body mods. I have trans friends, skinny friends, fat friends, amputee friends, and friends who need dental work. I strongly believe that one's body is theirs to what they want with. I choose to customize mine through various technological interventions. That does not make me an unfit parent and shouldn't make my kids love me less. I fear that the court system in my small conservative town will not understand that parents being into body modification and biohacking ARE NOT FORMS OF CHILD ABUSE."
One thing that may not help Lee's case is the next project he's working on: a pubic implant known as the Lovetron9000. The implant would go above a man's penis and produce a vibrating sensation that is meant to be pleasurable for women during sex. We asked Lee if he felt that developing such a device might not be wise in light of the pending charges against him and also how he would explain such a body mod to his children should they find out about it.
"It's something that I don't discuss with them necessarily and they don't know about, but if they did question me about it, I would just have a mature conversation about it," he tells us. "We already have very mature conversations about sex and things like that because if a parent doesn't do that in this day and age, they will learn about it in school groups and in the school yard. If it does come up, I'll just tell them there are implants that people get for sexual purposes, like women have been getting different birth control implants for a long time – primarily for their men a lot of times – so this is not so different."
Lee says he will get the implant done on himself first to try it out. He will use a body modification artist to do the surgery, as using a regular doctor would require the device to go through FDA approval, a step he's not interested in taking due to the complicated process involved. Also, in the biohacking community, self modification or using a body modification artist to do minor surgeries is something of a point of pride.
"Basically these guys are skilled," he says. "They know what to look for and they already implant stuff in that region anyway. There are some nerves you want to watch out for in that area and they are already cautious of it. I mean they are already piercing genitals and stuff so they kind of know what to look out for. They do a lot of work downstairs."
As for whether Lee would consider giving up biohacking to keep his kids, it doesn't look likely, because he says such a court order would likely be unenforceable.
"Basically, I want my cake and I want to eat it too; I am not going to be satisfied unless I get both things," he says. "I won't expose my kids to any procedures or anything like that. In fact, if I have implants they are probably going to know about those or see them, but the procedure itself is kind of gory, so why would I expose them to that? I have no problem with that part, but if it's like 'oh yeah, you are involved in self-mutilation' and if that's the case the court makes, and they see it that way, then I will appeal because I understand that it's weird, but it's not something that I should be prevented from doing. I mean, there are people with tattoos and body modifications that look very extreme; their bodies are very extreme."
The dawn of man
While Lee's case is certainly one of the first of its kind, with men like Elon Musk stepping into the arena of man-machine melding, it's certainly not going to be the last. In fact, another cyborg, Neil Harbisson, is being proactive in this arena though his Cyborg Foundation, which was created, in part, to advocate for individuals who choose to enhance their bodies with technology. Harbisson once mentioned that he was denied entry to a movie theater because his implant, which helps him overcome his black-and-white-based vision by translating colors to sounds, was suspected to be a recording device.
It's a bit of a paradox in a society where people who have technology embedded into their bodies, such as pacemakers and hearing aids, do not face discrimination. The same holds true, for the most part, when it comes to plastic surgery procedures. Yet those in the transhumanist camp, who seek to enhance their abilities with technology rather than use it exclusively to overcome deficits, are still considered fringe elements.
Still, another transhumanist, Mark Gasson, believes biohacking will eventually become widely accepted.
Gasson is known as "the first human to be infected with a computer virus." He earned his title when, in 2010, he transferred a computer virus to an RFID chip that he'd implanted in his hand a year earlier. After his chip was infected, he then allowed the virus to bounce back to the main system with which the chip communicated.
"I think we'll absolutely get there," Gasson says about the willful enhancement of our bodies with technology. "It's a fundamental characteristic of being human. We want to evolve and change and make things better, and harnessing the power of technology is something we've been doing pretty much since the dawn of man. I don't see that changing."