The creators of FOX’s new science-fiction buddy-cop show, Almost Human focuses the uncontrollable evolution of emerging tech. The solution is real cops need robot cop partners to help control crime. Bio-3D printers, DNA swipes, machines that prick your finger and dispense a pill with the nutrients your body needs, robotic policemen with synthetic souls. Stuff good science fiction is made of and that Hollywood knows how to exploit, usually in the wrong way.
But the long game of emerging technologies in science, doesn’t have to be influenced by Hollywood. Technology doesn’t make big leaps and bounds without tinkerers and risk-takers and today, those folks are affectionately known as entrepreneurs and more recently, hackers. But null
Much like any emerging tech field, as is the case with robotics, terms aren’t clearly defined. And biohacking clearly is not defined. But with labels come movements, and what was once considered a cloistered academic activity, biohacking is now starting to morph into its own persona.
The Internet has allowed citizen scientists to teach themselves how to do science — Ethan O. Perlstein, Indie Scientist
Before he started his own lab, Perlstein looked into the the Bay Area biology scene outside academia and industry to try and find a real community.
“At one end, you have the hardcore biohackers, like BioCurious, who tend not to be organized around a specific scientific mission rather than to democratize biological research,” said Perlstein. ”At the other end you have the professional incubator spaces, like the QB3 network, of which my lab is a member. Then you have hybrid structures in between, eg the hackubator, like Berkeley BioLabs.
Perlstein says he has no idea which model will prevail but would like to see a polyculture, because there is no singular model of biological research.
Even though hackers from the other world — the world of corporate sanctioned hack-a-thons — are all the rage today, they no longer have to lurk in dark corners. They’re taken straight to the front of the corporate glass (like coders) and brandished as the next great innovators to wake up sleepy corporate giants from their corporate lack of innovation slumbers, biohackers are not.
IT TAKES A COMMUNITY
One such community is a DIY Biology lab called HiveBio in Seattle, Washington. Founded in 2013 by two young scientists, its mission is teaching, discovery science and an affordable lab for scientists. They used a crowdsourced funding program to get off the ground, but already anything fringe makes the likes of Kickstarter and Indiegogo nervous. Case in point, the silent banning of Glowing Plants from the platform, despite their successful fundraising campaign.
The other heavyweights in the biohacking space hug both the East and West Coasts of the United States. For example, deep in the heart of Berkley lies Berkeley Bio Labs. In New York City, there’s Bio Hackers NYC. Each of these entities had to create their own community, their own incubators, their own funding.
But the community kept growing and shared community labs are making a big difference in helping to move the biohacking community forward. BIocurious (Sunnyvale), Genspace (NYC), Counter Culture Labs, LAB and Hive Bio have all helped create a biohacker DNA – and contributed to the surge of biohackers interested in doing interesting science.
Just like any other computer tech or innovation, the next step is commercialization and groups like Bio, Tech & Beyond in San Diego and Berkeley Bio Labs are the next step to make that happen.
“Professional trained biologists are used to working in a traditional, dare I say hidebound, cultural hierarchy, where there’s a single Principal Investigator leading a group of transient trainees and a few permanent staff positions,” adds Perlestein. “Biohackers tend to create flatter hierarchies, but that absence of executive function creates more chances for divergence.”
But if you ask Berkley Bio Labs CEO, Ryan Bethancourt, he’ll tell you proudly that biohacking is an evolution of the silicon valley hacker culture that includes the modification of life, from single cell microbes to multicellular plants and animals through the use of available tools, machines and molecular engineering, to create new forms of life or molecules/materials.
Berkley Bio Labs is sort of the epicenter for biohackers. It’s the largest hacker Biotech lab for both proto companies and individual scientists who want to get to their proof of concept quickly.
Biohacking could literally change the world as we know it — Ryan Bethancourt, CEO, Berkley Bio Lab
In modern terms, if we take the classic definition of a computer hacker from the 80s as our baseline, it was someone who tinkered with programs to create breakthrough security or make programs that did something besides what they were intended to do. Wikipedia says that biohacking is the practice of engaging biology with the hacker ethic.
Risa Wolf, a bio enthusiast with a particular fondness for neuroscience and endocrinology, says the term biohacking is hard to define because it’s a leaderless movement.
“When it comes to a definition of biohacking, I use the computer hacker model and can only apply that to the open-source GMO movement and the type of stem cell work that grew out of the need to not gather stem cells, but create them. That’s my definition,” adds Wolf.
But Wolf brings up another point about the term biohacking. She says the term is also applied to a general mode of self-improvement that allows one to “surpass” imagined boundaries.
“It’s taking “Lifehacker” to the physical body. I’m of the opinion that a definition of biohacking that would include parkour and embedding magnets in one’s fingertips would ALSO include the types of technologies that allow athletes to excel, would include prosthetics/disability tech,” adds Wolf.
Biohackers share a belief in the power of technology to enhance our beings – Dr. Kevin Curran, University of Ulster, IEEE member
“I see biohacking used in the context of things like parkour and the use of neurostimulation/neurofeedback to create new neuronal connections in one’s brain. Sure, someone with a limited view of biology could say our bodies aren’t supposed to do that, but they would be wrong,” adds Wolf. ”It’s merely using our natural biological plasticity to a different kind of advantage. But, I’ve not yet seen the biohacking term applied to tech developments like prosthetics for amputees or disabled folks that connect to a user’s brain or nerve impulses to allow them to manipulate the prosthetic.”
Wolf says take a look at the Genome Compiler app. She says it’s not just about sticking a luminescence gene into an organism that doesn’t have it yet, it’s also about learning how the composition of a genetic lattice can be affected by small changes.
“Biohacking means many things to many people, to me the simplest explanation is the increased accessibility of the tools of molecular engineering to a broader category of people out of the confines of the ivory tower and into the hands of citizen scientists,” adds Bethancourt.
BIOHACKER DNA AND ITS MARK ON HUMANITY
Bio hacking is indeed wide ranging. Let’s look at the bio-tattoo developed at the University of California-San Diego that monitors sweat for health indicators. It’s considered biohacking because the sensors, applied to the skin, can track an athlete’s chemical balance to gauge his physical activity.
Bethancourt thinks that’s a start.
“I’d likely argue that our leading biohackers are the elderly, a friend once told me that the elderly our pioneers in this brave new world of biotech, out of necessity, their entire bodies are being rebuilt or hacked from the cellular level up, hip replacements, pacemakers, insulin, stem cell therapies, the list of modifications that our elderly pioneers are making to their bodies makes the bio-tattoo pale in comparison!
Perlstein says he would define biohacking less by what kind of projects are being done and more by what kind of scientists/researchers are doing the work.
“null ,” adds Perlstein. “And I think biohackers attracted to particular kinds of projects, especially those involving fabrication and de novo design.”
Biohacking will also help people with less understanding of genetics understand that genes aren’t a one-stop shop - they do a lot of things and interact with one another – Risa Wolf, bioenthusiast
But the big question is what could biohacking lead to? We all know that penicillin was a life-saving accident.
“Biohacking could literally change the world as we know it. Biology can provide abundance in ways most people can’t yet comprehend,” says Bethancourt. “From algae biofuels, to novel (and non-toxic) methods of storing energy, growing robust GMO crops in otherwise unusable land to feed the world’s poor, therapies to fight not just disease and infections but also the diseases of old age, fixing the wear and tear of aging bodies, null,” said Bethancourt.
“There’s even speculation about the new types of materials that could be created by biohackers, from ultra tough and flexible spider silk to self organizing and building semi-conductors or molecular computers,” adds Bethancourt.
Wolf continues in Bethancourt’s vein and adds in climate change.
“null In the context of medicine, I believe it will accelerate the types of discoveries like the gene that is most likely responsible for spina bifida, and increase the understanding of possible options and treatments for genetic diseases,” says Wolf.
Dr. Kevin Curran, IEEE Senior Member and Head of the School of Computing and Intelligence Systems at the University of Ulster, brings perspective to any biohacking naysayers. He says the field itself varies greatly from the practice of inserting implants to gene sequencing and working with plants and bacteria to blood and electronic sensors. It’s truly wide ranging.
“The definitions claim that practitioners of ‘cyborg’ biohacking aspire to create superior being, but in reality they aspire to restore equilibrium (or healing/restoration of function) in the bodies of disabled people,” said Curran. “null There is a lot of publicity given to their ‘self mutilation’ or ‘reckless experimentation’ however doctors since time, have a tradition of self experimentation with new drugs or untested treatments.”
Look no further than the newest app craze, health apps. Smart watches, wearables that measure your heart rate, sleep quality and other bio data, and even Whistle to track the physical activity of your dog.
According to Curran, these are limited and subject to ‘glossy’ readings. So he asks, how much more accurate will sensors be which are ingested into our body either permanently or temporarily?
“null That is why there is growing interest in this sector – especially as sensors get smaller in size and more powerful in capabilities,” says Curran. “You see ultimately that is what we want. We want our devices to disappear into our surroundings and just ‘know’ what to do in order to make our lives more bearable. Where better to disappear than inside us?”
BACK TO THE FUTURE
But its Bethancourt who paints the future.
“null “There was once a time when science was the pursuit of hobbyists and many great and notable scientists who were at the time considered amateurs or self funded but yet revolutionized the way we understood the world around us, like Sir Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin and Charles Darwin.”
null That might, in their tiny underfunded labs, revolutionize the world around us for the better, in ways we can’t yet predict?
“null Biohacking is real, working molecular nanotechnology and once we have enough of an understanding on how to efficiently build with the building blocks of life, there’s no limit to the types of innovation that might be possible in food, energy, medicine and materials.”