Researcher infects self with computer virus

It’s called body hacking—the practice of adding a magnetic chip or computer chip to your body—and a UK researcher recently became the first person to deliberately infect a computer chip he’d previously inserted into his body. From the news item on Nanowerk,

Dr Mark Gasson, from the School of Systems Engineering [University of Reading], contaminated a computer chip which had been inserted into his hand as part of research into human enhancement and the potential risks of implantable devices.

These results could have huge implications for implantable computing technologies used medically to improve health, such as heart pacemakers and cochlear implants, and as new applications are found to enhance healthy humans.

Dr. Gasson goes a little further than pacemakers and the like in his speculations,

“I believe it is necessary to acknowledge that our next evolutionary step may well mean that we all become part machine as we look to enhance ourselves. Indeed we may find that there are significant social pressures to have implantable technologies, either because it becomes as much of a social norm as say mobile phones, or because we’ll be disadvantaged if we do not. However we must be mindful of the new threats this step brings.” [emphases mine]

An interesting contrast to last week’s discussion of synthetic biology (on the occasion of Craig Venter’s May.20.10 announcement) where the focus is on creating new life forms, this more closely resembles the biotech discussion with its emphasis on genetic modifications and transgenic organisms although in this case, it’s not two biological organisms which are being grafted together but a biological organism and a machine.

I first came across body hacking last year in Tracy Picha’s article in Flare magazine’s August 2009 issue (blog entry here and here in my series on human enhancement and robots) but was focused on related questions.

This time after doing a little research about body hacking specifically, I found the queen of body hackers, Quinn Norton who is an early adopter (she hacked herself in 2005), a journalist, and a public speaker on the phenomenon. There’s a 2007 article by Cory Doctorow in Boing,  Boing (here) which leads you to a slide show put together by Norton, there’s a YouTube clip (here) of a talk Norton gave at the 23rd  (2007?) Chaos Communication Congress (Wikipedia entry about this hacker’s conference). If you’re squeamish (I am), you may not want to view Norton’s slide show or talk as she mentions there’s blood. From the 23rd Chaos Communication Congress webpage about Norton’s presentation,

What happens when we leave behind cosmetics and start to modify our bodies and minds to enhance who we are and what we can do? In this talk, journalist Quinn Norton explores how technology and flesh are coming together.

She’ll explain what’s possible and what people are doing, inside the established medical system and in the growing grey and black markets of body hacking. She’ll touch on her own experiences and talk about what’s coming next- and the ethical questions we will soon face as people choose to become something post human.

In September of 2005 journalist Quinn Norton began to explore the world of functional body modification with an implanted rare earth magnet that gave her a sense for Electro-Magnetic fields- until it began to go wrong. Since then she’s research the edges of what’s currently possible and what’s likely to become possible in the near term. Technology that was the traditional purview of the medical establishment is migrating into the hands of body hackers, and the medical establishment itself is finding ways to enhance humans, not just cure disease, and faces a new dilemma about whether and who should be enhanced. All of these advancements come with health dangers and unanticipated possibilities, as well as an ethical debate about what it means to be human. This talk will touch on the latest medical advances in neurological understanding and interface as well as physical enhancements in sports and prosthetics. But more time will be given to how the body hackers and renegades of the world are likely to go forward with or without societal permission. Quinn will touch on sensory extension, home surgery, medical tourism, nervous system interfaces, and controlling parts of our bodies and minds once thought to be nature’s fate for us.

How society is likely to react to enhancement technologies or enhanced humans? Early adopters face dangers including pain, disfigurement, and death- how will that shape progress? Technology and flesh are going to come together, but will they come together in you? Bring your own stories of modification, and you own ideas about what constitutes post human- and whether that’s a good or bad thing.

I don’t know if a practice that was transgressive in 2005 has become ‘normalized’ in 2010 such that an academic, Dr. Mark Gasson, can choose to study a hacked body (his own) as part of his research but it seems to have been rapidly adopted. Even Vancouver (which I consider to be a bit of a backwater) had body hackers by January 2006 as Gillian Shaw of the Vancouver Sun notes in her article,

Amal Graafstra and his girlfriend Jennifer Tomblin never have to worry about forgetting the keys to her Vancouver home or locking themselves out of Graafstra’s Volkswagen GT.

They can simply walk up to the door and, with a wave of a hand, the lock will open. Ditto for the computer. No more struggling to remember complicated passwords and no more lost keys.

As Graafstra puts it, he could be buck naked and still be carrying the virtual keys to unlock his home.

“I did it for the very real function of replacing keys. …

Think of the tiny ampoule that your vet implants under the skin of your dog or cat for identification if the animal is lost. All it takes is a special reader flashed over the skin and Fido can be on his way home.

Graafstra did much the same, only the three-by-13 millimetre chip was put under the skin of his left hand by a surgeon. A second one, measuring two-by-12 millimetres, is in his right hand.

Using his computer skills, Graafstra was able to modify the locks on his car and his house so they would be activated by a built-in reader.

There is a picture that goes with the story if you want to see what Graafstra’s ‘chipped’ hand looks like.

Dr. Mark Gasson’s chip, like Graafstra’s, gives building access but also includes mobile phone access and allows Gasson to be tracked and profiled. As for what happened when Gasson’s chip was infected—two things,

Once infected, the chip corrupted the main system used to communicate with it. Should other devices have been connected to the system, the virus would have been passed on.


While it is exciting to be the first person to become infected by a computer virus in this way, I found it a surprisingly violating experience because the implant is so intimately connected to me but the situation is potentially out of my control. [emphasis mine]

If you want to know more about the experience, Gasson will be presenting at the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] International Symposium on Technology and Society in Australia next month (June 2010).

ETA May 28, 2010: Amal Graafstra will be at the IEEE meeting (aka ISTAS 2010) to offer his thoughts about it all. I’m not sure if he’s presenting or if this will be done on a more informal basis. If you want a preview, you can read this posting on the Amal Graafstra blog.

On a related note, I have previously posted on the idea of implanting devices in the brain:

Stephen Fry, Cambridge University, and nanotechnology (read the part about the video and Mark Welland’s speculations about a telephone in your brain)

Nano devices in your brain (a device that could melt into your brain)

4 thoughts on “Researcher infects self with computer virus

  1. admin

    Hi! Thanks for dropping by and leaving the link to your blog posting on the matter. I look forward to reading more about ISTAS in future postings on your blog. Regards, Maryse

  2. Pingback: Human enhancement movie: Fixed « FrogHeart

  3. Pingback: Blood, memristors, cyborgs plus brain-controlled computers, prosthetics, and art « FrogHeart

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