I Surgically Implanted Earbuds Under My Skin

Rich Lee is part of a new generation of bio-hackers, hobbyists who exchange designs online in the hopes of creating a hyper-diverse, sensorially-enhanced human race. Forget headphones, implant your earbuds.

The human body doesn't do upgrades. Take poor care of your machinery, and there's no reboot, no system overhaul, no virus software that can come to your aid. In terms of the basic sensory apparatus and what it offers, you're pretty much stuck with the equipment you're born with. At least, until now.

Rich Lee is a grinder, which is to say he's part of a small but robust community of body hackers, open-source transhumanists, and body modification nuts who have decided not to take nature's limitations sitting down. He received waves of attention in the press last month for being the first person to surgically implant neodymium magnets into his ears; paired with a small apparatus around his neck, Lee can use his ear magnets as built-in headphones. That's right: headphones built into his head. Lee received this unregulated surgery without anesthesia, based on a concept modified from an online Instructable. Like hundreds of other grinders all around the world, he dreams of a future when this–and many other strange physiological adjustments–might be made with the same ease that we now get tattoos or haircuts.

What follows: an interview with your everyday basement biohacker. Read closely. People like Lee will outnumber the rest of us someday, touching hidden magnetic fields, listening to music inside their own heads, and sensing an invisible world.

How did you get started Grinding?

Rich Lee: I inherited this tub of magazines from my grandmother, a ton of magazines from the 1950s, 60s, 70s. Out of habit, I'd flip to the sections about science and technology, to get a kick out of all the stuff they were excited about way back when. And it freaked me out, it really did. A lot of it was: you're going to have flying cars before you're dead. So that was my moment, where I thought: man, I might not make it.

So you became disillusioned with the way the future was presented to us, and you just had to take hold of it yourself?

That's probably the best way to say it. I'm going to steal that.

Where does this do-it-yourself ethos come from?

Actually, I'm horrible with the DIY stuff. I really am. I'm just learning. I totally dove into biology, the Maker thing. Because I was stupid and went into business, I have this bad attitude: I tell someone, hey I want this, build it for me. And I get mad at them until it's done. You can do that now. Back when I had money, I was contacting medical implant companies, saying, "hey, I want you to engineer me something, I have this idea, and it's kind of crazy, and I'm probably the only one who wants it, but tell me what it would cost to get it engineered. And don't worry about FDA approval, because I just need a prototype." They were suspicious, and a lot of them shot me down, saying they weren't interested unless they got paid on the manufacturing end, or, "we don't like that idea, we don't want it our name on it." Anyway, I still have a really hard time. From time to time I ask people, "hey, are you open to making me this device?" I get a lot of resistance.

Do you have a magnet implanted in your finger?

It's kind of a rite of passage. As soon as I found out about them, I went out and got one. The magnet thing is underwhelming a little, but it's a good way to break into it. You have it in and you totally forget it's even there. It's always going. You take it for granted after a while.

You have additional senses and expanded capacity to perceive the world. Does it ever feel lonely, not being able to share that with other people?

You know, that might be one reason why there's such a strong bond among grinders. When we get together, when we meet each other, we're just "oh yeah! did you pass by this? did you check this out? come feel this!" We get really giddy about exploring. And I'd say, yeah, I get a little bit lonely.

Do you want to see Grinding go mainstream?

You know, I think some of the things might go mainstream someday. I can see this ear implant maybe going mainstream for some people, for the military, but it's not going to be for everybody. The finger magnet isn't for everybody. I think a lot of people are really excited for wearables and gadgets in the future. If it does mainstream, by the time it does, we'll still remain on the fringe. We will create the new fringe.

Let's talk about your headphone implant.

It was done by Steve Haworth. I've talked to him a lot. He implanted my magnet, I've hooked him up with other people to implant their magnets, we met in LA–he was selling magnets at a futurist convention where I spoke. I know him, and I bounce ideas off him all the time. When I thought about this idea, I just told him, "those same magnets you put in people's fingers, I need you to stick them in my ears." I saw the concept online, somebody had done it. I thought, I can build this, I can make it. So I put everything together, even though I'm pretty terrible at assembling things, at soldering things. But I still try, I try my little heart out. Everything I've learned, I've learned since I've started grinding.

You're a businessman. Do you see this as a business opportunity?

No. In fact, I don't think that I can, to be honest with you. Legally, you can't implant anything, besides these magnets, which have grandfathered materials, as far as the FDA is concerned. The next implant I get done, which will be in conjunction with the magnets–I'm gonna remove the whole coil thing and just go wireless. I'm gonna get a bluetooth module, hook it up to a coil, and a small power supply, and just implant it near my magnet so that when I get something through bluetooth, it'll just make the magnet buzz. When I have to recharge, then I've got something figured out for that too. I think I’m one of the only transhumanists that doesn’t have a huge science fiction collection. I don’t even watch Star Trek.

Does your headphone implant sound good?

It sounds surprisingly good. First off, I had really low expectations. I thought it would be really muffled. I didn't even know if it was going to work. I thought if the skin was stretched over this magnet, it wouldn't have room to vibrate. But when I got the music going, it sounded good. Like a cheap set of headphones, one of those dollar headphones. That's probably the best description.

You may soon be legally blind. Does this condition influence your desire to enhance your body?

I'm definitely trying to outdo nature. Nature's great, but it only takes you so far. It only gives you so much. I didn't ever see this as a fix to blindness at all, and I haven't resigned myself to blindness.

You may soon be legally blind. Does this condition influence your desire to enhance your body?

I'm definitely trying to outdo nature. Nature's great, but it only takes you so far. It only gives you so much. I didn't ever see this as a fix to blindness at all, and I haven't resigned myself to blindness.

Do you believe that grinding is a process that can ever be finished? In one of your articles, you talk about "wanting out" of the human race. What does that actually mean, pragmatically?

Honestly, when I close my eyes, if somebody were to ask me about the future…well, there's really two types of people: the majority of people will say that they hope humans...all evolve together, that everybody's the same within a certain degree. I'm really hoping for hyper-diversity. Where we can go so many different directions, and we just sort of shake hands and walk away, or, say, hey–you're an intelligent being, you look completely different than me, we can have a conversation, that's great. I'm hoping for that hyper-diversity, where we're just freaks all over the place. In my end game, geez, I'd just keep adding on. I'd love to breathe underwater. I'd love to do this and that. I've got a list of over a hundred things, projects I would love to see completed, that some grinders are working on.

Is there a point at which you think that the human body can be modified so much that it's no longer human?

I guess, first, you have to define human. There's a lot of different ways to do that, but I partly define human as being subject to Maslow's hierarchy of needs–if you're subject to those things, you have to eat, breathe, sleep, that's part of what makes you human.

But those are mostly biological constraints. If you transcend all those biological needs, are you still human?

I don't know. That's the thing, I'm still an intelligent being, hopefully, if this hasn't destroyed my mind. I think that's a question society will ask. I think they're the ones that are going to say, "is he still human?" To me, it doesn't matter if I'm human or not. If you can have a conversation with something…as crazy as it sounds, if I have a conversation with a cat–which I've done before, but if it really talked back to me–and it was intelligent somehow, I'd treat that creature as I would a human, probably. So I don't know. The kind of change that I want is pretty radical. I think it would probably take me out of the gene pool at some point.

Do you see that as a possibility in your lifetime?

I do. I think it's really close.

Can you be a transhumanist without being a grinder?

There's the transhuman philosophy, right? And there's the act of becoming a posthuman–that form of transhumanism. For me, doing things to make yourself posthuman or transhuman–that's what I'm focused on. A lot of people would much rather it be a club, or some kind of high society thing, or a philosophy. A place where they can sit around and talk about these things, or stomp around and say, "hey, we want this philosophy recognized by everyone in the world." But I'm just going to take it. I didn't come into transhumanism wanting a social club. Or wanting friends. Stimulating conversation is great, but I want my fucking jetpack. You know what I mean? To me, if you are really going to call yourself a transhumanist, you should get involved, you should take steps towards it.

So it's a philosophy of action.

Grinding is definitely a philosophy of action.

Are you afraid of death?

I see it as a challenge. I guess I am afraid of it too. I'm more afraid of pain.

Do you read science fiction?

I think I'm one of the only transhumanists that doesn't have a huge science fiction collection. I don't even watch Star Trek.

Are there any modifications or implants that you wish you could have?

If I was funds unlimited, I seriously have got a huge list of things. There's a genetic modification that I would love to have…

Genetic?

See, that's the thing with grinders–most of us are into the cyborg thing and the mutant thing, for lack of better terminology. There's a few different levels. Genetic modification would mean you're actually changing your own genes, which is very dangerous. it's something you can't take lightly. There are people working on some gene therapies right now where pretty much you take a virus, put a new gene on this virus, bombard your body with it, and it goes into your cells, reprograms your cells. After that these cells express this new gene. There's going to be some version of Nancy Reagan in 5-10 years: instead of crack, it's going to be gene doping.

Has that been done by grinders?

I don't know that I should comment on that. I know that there are a lot of gene therapies in the grinding community that are being worked on right now, for night-vision, tetrachromacy, strength, and endurance.

Obviously, this level of grinding involves scientists who have access to labs and materials. How?

Yes. That's our thing: Anon Science. It's not just Citizen Science, it's Anon Science. There's IRC Channels right now going crazy, people saying "hey, did you get this vector? Can I get the specs on that device"? All kinds of crazy things that are probably going to be illegal–that are technically already illegal. There's going to be some version of Nancy Reagan in 5-10 years: instead of crack, it's going to be gene doping, or digital doping.

Do you encounter a lot of resistance?

Absolutely. My wife doesn't get it. I just quit trying to explain. I still don't have the words for it. The closest I can come is, after I got my finger magnet implant, and I experienced this other world that's there–I tell people that if I lost it, I'd be heartbroken. I'd be so mad. It'd be like losing an eye. I tell people, do you like being able to hear? If you couldn't hear, you'd be pretty upset, right? Well, now that I know there's other stuff out there, I feel like I'm blind.

Rich Lee is not alone in his quest for biological improvement through technology. As with a great deal of science fact, it is inspired by science fiction. An avid sci-fi film fan, Rich particularly relates to films where transhumanism is a core element of the plot or storyline. 

Transhumanism in Film

There will be a time when the human experience will transform from what it is today. Integrated with science and technology, it’s quite possible that the future will look like a scene straight from a science-fiction movie. Whether it's blue humanoids protecting their land or a mentally altered man who participates in an experiment, the main characters from 10 of the best transhumanist movies ever filmed show what it means to be considered a transhumanist. Transhumanism is defined as philosophies that seek the continuation and acceleration of the evolution of intelligent life beyond its currently human form and human limitations by means of science and technology. While the ideas might seem a bit far-fetched at times, 10 of the best transhumanist movies that boast record-breaking sales prove that we love it. And as long as movies keep exploring it, we will continue to support them and what the ideas of what the future can become.

Avatar

Considered one of the best political sci-fi movies, James Cameron’s Avatar became the highest-grossing film of all time even though the script was started nearly 15 years before its release. The film was expected to be released in 1999, just two years after the release of his widely successful love story and tragedy, Titanic. However, according to Cameron, the necessary technology was not yet available to achieve his vision of the film. Avatar, which is set in the mid-22nd century, depicts the struggle of power that occurs as humans are trying to colonize Pandora who hope to mine for a room-temperature superconductor. The problem is, it’s inhabited by the Na’vi, a humanoid species indigenous to Pandora. The main characters include Zoe Saldana, Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver, and Michelle Rodriguez. Avatar was the first movie to gross more than $2 billion.

Robocop

Set in the city of Detroit, this 1987 action film highlights a dystopia in 2029. The city is bankrupt and overrun with crime leaving the local police force to be not only vigilant but creative in their pursuits to take over the city. The film takes an interesting turn when Alex Murphy, a police officer, and his partner tail a gang of bank robbers. His partner is incapacitated and he is nearly killed by the gang. Though the ER trauma team does everything in their power to resuscitate him, they fail. His body is then taken into a lab and rebuilt as Robocop, which spurred the movie’s tagline “Part Man, Part Machine, All Cop.” Robocop was given three traditional orders for anybody in law enforcement and one secret order. The successful movie was positively received earning more than a $40 million profit. It also resulted in two sequels, a television show, video games, and even comic books.

The Terminator

This 1984 science-fiction action film revolves around a cyborg assassin who is sent from the year 2029 to 1984 to assassinate Sarah Connor. It is believed that her son will one day become the leader against machines in a post apocalyptic future. The same day that The Terminator, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, was sent to Los Angeles to complete his mission, Kyle Reese was sent to protect Connor. Though the movie was not expected to do well in the box office, it catapulted the career of James Cameron and Schwarzenegger. The film grossed $78 million and was followed up by two sequels, a television series, novels, and comic books.

Elysium

The film takes place in 2154 on Earth that is now ravaged, overpopulated and polluted. The citizens are poor and are about to starve to death with little technology and medical care. However, the more fortunate live a different life on an advanced space habitat in Earth’s orbit called Elysium. Max Da Costa who is played by Matt Damon is a former car thief who has been injected with radiation poisoning and told he has five days to live. Desperate, he turns to a friend to help him seek out a known human smuggler to get to Elysium. Jodie Foster played alongside Damon. The movie grossed $286 million.

Jupiter Ascending

This space opera revolves around the life of Jupiter Jones, who was named after her father’s favorite planet. During the movie, Jones discusses how her father, Maximilian Jones met her mother. After her father’s death, the family moves to Chicago where Jones cleans the home of wealthy people. Jones is attacked, which results in her memory getting erased before Caine Wise, who is played by Channing Tatum, saves her. The movie was praised for its special effects, but it did poorly in the box office earning just $7 million dollars more than the $176 million budget.

eXistenZ

eXistenZ is a mind blowing alternate reality movie that revolves around the world’s preeminent game designer, Atenna Research. The company is set to release a new game eXistenZ when something goes horribly wrong. Allegra Gellar who is played by Jennifer Jason Leigh learns that the only copy of the game may have been damaged. The only way to know would be to hook up to the game through her a bio-port that is inserted into her spine. While she is in the game with her trusted friend, reality become more distorted making it harder to distinguish if they are among real citizens again. It grossed more than $2 million.

Blade Runner

This 1982 science fiction film depicts a dystopian Los Angeles in 2019. Genetically engineered replicants, which are indistinguishable from adult humans, are being manufactured by mega-corporations around the world. The problem is the use of replicants is banned on Earth and are hunted down and killed by police operatives named Blade Runners. The movie specifically surrounds the journey of burnt-out Rick Deckard who is played Harrison Ford and escaped replicants who are hiding in the City of Angels. The movie earned $33 million in the box offices.

Bicentennial Man

Bicentennial Man is about a unique NDR series robot named Andrew who is played by Robin Williams, and is considered one of the best artificial intelligence movies. While he was brought to the Martin Family to perform housekeeping and maintenance duties, it becomes clear that Andrew is not like any other robot. When he breaks a figurine and carves another out of wood for the youngest member of the family, Martin inquires with his boss if all the NDR series robots are like Andrew. His boss saw it as a problem with hopes to trash Andrew until Martin agrees to keep him with his family. During that time, he gives Andrew the opportunity to learn the humanities for himself. Later, he also frees Andrew so that he can live the life he wants to lead. It is on Martin’s death bed that the two see one another again.

Lawnmower Man

When Dr. Angelo’s chimpanzee escapes using the warfare tactics that he was being taught, he must find another specimen. This time, Dr. Angelo wants a human and finds a young lawnmower named Jobe. After befriending Jobe, he informs him that the experiment would make him smarter, which it does. Jobe is able to learn Latin in two hours and also displays telepathic, telekinetic, and pyrokinetic powers. Despite Dr. Angelo’s program being shut down, Jobe sneaks in with his girlfriend and things take an interesting turn. Jobe’s girlfriend Marine's mind is attacked through the game. As a result, Jobe becomes angry taking revenge on those who harmed him when he was “dumb” and sets out for his final stage of evolution. Lawnmower Man earned $32 million in the box office.

Ghost in the Shell

This anime science-fiction film surrounds the hunting of a mysterious hacker known as the Puppet Master, and is known as one of the best sci-fi anime films. The story takes place in 2029 in a world that interconnected by electronic network. In addition, most of humanity has access to the network through cybernetic bodies or “shells.” The shells possess their consciousness and give them superhuman abilities. Major Motoko Kusanagi, an assault team leader is tasked with finding the Puppet Master in Public Security Section, but is drawn into a complex sequence of political intrigue. The Japanese anime film earned $2 million. The American version of Ghost in the Shell, starring Scarlet Johansson, received backlash after the news broke of a Japanese character being played by a white actress.

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