How Biohackers Are Changing What It Means To Be ‘Human’

Biohacking made headlines this week, with self-identified biohacker Meow-Ludo Disco Gamma Meow-Meow (yes, that’s his real name) ordered to pay a fine for not having a valid train ticket. His response? The card was inside his hand the whole time. Literally. Meow-Meow, who has described himself as a ‘cyborg’, implanted a train card under his skin of his hand.

“This is a case where the law is behind the technology,” Meow-Meow told CNET. “And I think this is a good take-home message: the technology is moving in a certain direction, I’ve just moved quicker than the law in this case.”

What is biohacking?

Also known as ‘DIY biology’, biohacking is a cross between science and social movement. To ‘biohack’, people who are separate from traditional institutions study biology and life science independently. Much of the focus is on improving human capabilities (think: magnets in fingers and third eyes), and it can be done as a hobby, for the advancement of science, or even as a business.

One such business, Livestock Labs, was awarded a grant at last year’s #HWALAB. Meow-Meow, who was involved with the company at the time, pitched the winning idea. Livestock Labs design and build implantable technology for cattle that predicts the health state of animals, meaning attention can be given to prevent cattle suffering sickness or labour distress.

Why do people biohack their own bodies?

One of Livestock Labs’ mottos is “safe for cows, tested on humans”. The company’s CEO, Tim Cannon, says an online video he watched in 2011 was the catalyst for him to biohack his own body.

“I saw a video where someone said, ‘if you implant a magnet in your finger you’ll be able to feel electromagnetic fields’. And I thought, that’s insane. You can give yourself a whole other sense with this simple thing,” Tim says.

“So I called up a friend of mine who knew someone doing implants for artistic reasons, and found a lab supply company that sold magnets coated in a bio-safe substance. I purchased the magnets, talked to the piercer, and had them implanted in my finger.”

What was it like having magnets in his finger? Mind-blowing, he says.

“I was just completely enthralled. I was able to feel wires behind walls, my microwave working, my hard drive… finding myself just surrounded by these fields, all over the place. It was captivating to have this whole other sense where I could feel and sense something that other people couldn’t.”

“I was able to feel wires behind walls, my microwave working, my hard drive… finding myself just surrounded by these fields, all over the place… I could feel and sense something that other people couldn’t.”

Tim is now focused on bringing biology and the digital world together.

“In Europe, they spend one and a half trillion dollars on their healthcare system. And one trillion of that is on preventable diseases – which could be directly addressed by the solution that we’re going to be putting in cows.”

Is it ethical?

That’s up for debate. Some have questioned the ethics of biohacking. Others, like Tim, see biohacking as an inherently ethical pursuit.

“I have a deep passion for helping people control and command their body, and find biology to be cumbersome. The leading cause of death is birth,” he says.

“At the end of the day, I want to help the world through that sort of problem as best I can, and participate in the solutions that come up. And I think a big part of those solutions are going to be technological.”

This year’s #HybridWorldADL will take place in late July in the city of Adelaide. For more details about the event, click here.

Five Things You Didn’t Know About Douglas Adams

To celebrate Douglas Adams’ birthday last weekend (March 11th), we’ve delved into the life of the wondrous man who created The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, and uncovered some absolute gems.

1. He’s been involved with some of your favourite British icons

Of course, Hitchhiker’s. This wonderfully irreverent piece of sci-fi comedy gold has rooted itself into popular culture’s psyche, so much so that the series’ catchphrase “DON’T PANIC” was printed on the dashboard of the Falcon Heavy-launched Tesla Roadster in February of this year. The series’ other running joke—that of knowing exactly where one’s towel is—is celebrated every year on May 25th as “Towel Day”.

But that’s not all. Adams was also responsible for the fractionally lesser known Dirk Gently series—I say “fractionally lesser known” as nothing could ape the success or notoriety of Hitchhiker’s. Described by Adams as a “thumping good detective-ghost-horror-who dunnit-time travel-romantic-musical-comedy-epic”, this series of sci-fi detective novels have gone on to immense success, evidenced by the recent BBC America-Netflix adaptation.

At the same time as Hitchhiker’s was taking off, Adams was involved in another hugely popular British institution—Doctor Who. Originally scripting “The Pirate Planet” in 1978 for Tom Baker’s Doctor, he later went on to script edit the show’s seventeenth season in 1979, for which he contributed the serial with the highest ratings, “City of Death”.

And just to cap it all off, Adams played a surgeon and a pepper-pot on Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Fantastic.

2. Adams was the first person in Europe to buy an Apple Mac

The first Macintosh was released in Europe in 1984. Guess who was the first person there to buy one? You guessed it. Some sources claim Stephen Fry bought his first, though Fry himself has admitted Adams bought the very first Macintosh.

Adams’ Mac connections go further than that though. He was an “Apple Master”, part of a collection of celebrities that Apple invited to come and promote their products. His contribution included a rock video, made using the very first version of iMovie, that was made available on Adams’ .Mac homepage.

Prior to his untimely death, Adams had installed and used the first version of Mac OS X. His last post to his forum praised Mac OS X. He said it was “awesome…”—the last word he wrote here, and on his website.

3. He once wore a rhino suit up Mount Kilimanjaro

You can’t make these headings up.

Yes, in 1994 Adams participated in a charity climb of Mount Kilimanjaro for Save the Rhino International, a group designed to raise awareness of ever-diminishing rhinoceros numbers. Roughly 100,000 pounds (170,000 AUD) was raised for this effort, which saw Adams not only wear the suit for the entire climb up the mountain — he also wore it on the way there.

This makes sense though, when put into the context of Adams’ deep passion for animal conservation. He was a committed supporter for the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, ad consistently rallied for ongoing rhino conservation efforts.

This didn’t go unnoticed. Longtime friend Richard Dawkins, upon Adams’ death, wrote in his obituary for The Guardian that “Science has lost a friend, literature has lost a luminary, the mountain gorilla and the black rhino have lost a gallant defender.”

4. He is a computer game wizard

If you remember the 1986 fantasy extravaganza that is Labyrinth (and I really hope you do), you might also be aware of the Lucasfilm video game Labyrinth. It is a game where the player has to defeat David Bowie’s Jareth within 13 real-time hours. What makes the game extra special is that Douglas Adams was brought on board for a week-long brainstorming session.

It wasn’t a random hire; Adams had worked with Infocom to develop Hitchhikers’ 1984 video game adaptation. His next venture with Infocom was the hilarious Bureaucracy—you can imagine from that title alone, paired with Adams’ off-the-wall humour, what it might have entailed.

Adams was a founder-director and Chief Fantasist (a real job title) at The Digital Village (now defunct), with whom he created the seminal Starship Titanic, published by Simon & Schuster in 1998. This text-adventure game also developed a language processor to interpret any random player input appropriately. This was a huge step-up from standard text games at that point, which required specific inputs to get a response. the game was a huge success from an industry viewpoint, and it won a Codie Award in 1999.

5. You can visit Adams’ real life attempt at a Hitchhiker’s Guide (to the Earth)

Ever wanted to have your own version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? Adams knew, and was one step ahead of you.

In 1999, Adams kickstarted the h2g2 Collaborative Writing project, which was an experimental attempt at turning Hitchhikers into a real-world guide. Similar to Wikipedia, it was a collaborative project that allowed members to share information about their corners of the earth on all manner of topics.

Adams was involved with h2g2 from the start. His account name was DNA, and his user number was, appropriately, “42”. Though the site is still used extensively, Adams’ death in 2001 marred the enjoyment for many users, and his legacy is still felt through the site to this day.

This year’s #HybridWorldADL will take place in July in the city of Adelaide. For more details about the event, click here.

Five Women On Our Doorstep Worth Celebrating for #IWD2018

March 8 is International Women’s Day and we’re celebrating by looking at the achievements of five innovative Adelaide women who are pioneers in their respective fields. Check them out.

Flavia Nardini

Flavia is a rocket scientist. She’s the co-founder of Fleet Space Technologies, a company that aims to connect the world’s devices – yes, all of them – in an efficient, more affordable manner than ever before. Fleet Space plans to do this using a collection of tiny satellites.

Dr. Kristin Alford

Kristin is the director of MOD., a future-focused museum for young adults that connects technology, art and science. She was also the founding director of foresight agency Bridge8., which focuses on facilitating nanotechnology, water sustainability, health and other futures for corporations, government and not-for-profit organisations.

Dr. Michelle Fraser and Dr. Melinda Jasper 

At science-tech company RHS, Michelle and Melinda make products for testing single cells to ensure they have the right amount of DNA in them. That way, it can be determined if the cells have a genetic fault that causes disease. RHS is currently developing software for applications like prenatal or cancer diagnosis.

“I think that it’s great there are a lot of role models for STEM that are female. We’ve got more women at RHS than men, and it’s not unusual to find a lot of women in the health space. There’s a lot of women CEOs of listed biotech companies, particularly in South Australia,” says Michelle.

“We’re ASX listed, so a lot of the people that we meet with about investment decisions are male. So I’d love to see some more women in that, covering the health stocks,” she says.

Professor Tanya Monro

Tanya is renowned is in the field of photonics, having a range of patents to her name and publishing more than 500 scientific papers. She focuses on sensing, lasers and new classes of optical fibres. She is Deputy Vice Chancellor, Research and Innovation; and an ARC Georgina Sweet Laureate Fellow at the University of South Australia.

This year’s #HybridWorldADL will take place in July in the city of Adelaide. For more details about the event, click here.

Last year’s #HWALAB winners lead the way in the fight against cancer

Health science has come a long way, but there’s always room to improve the technology used. That’s the challenge tackled every day by science tech company RHS. Ltd, according to Dr. Michelle Fraser (CEO and Managing Director) and Dr. Melinda Jasper (Chief Scientific Officer).

“We’re a company that makes products for testing single cells, and whether they’ve got the right amount of DNA in them,” says Michelle. “So [we can tell] whether they’ve got a genetic fault that causes disease.”

Designing products to make scientists’ lives easier seemed like a natural step for both Melinda and Michelle. Both have been involved in the field for years, initially as research scientists themselves. RHS itself was borne out of The University of Adelaide’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology over a decade ago, where the tests being developed initially focused on screening pregnancies for Down syndrome, before moving to the testing of cells in developing embryos prior to an IVF cycle.

One of their ideas centred on software that analyses genetic data to the point you can zoom in on a single base change linked to disease. It won them first place and a share in $85,000 of SA Government grants at last year’s HWA Lab; an experience both speak highly of.

“I think it’s always good to get in front of an audience of people that don’t have the scientific background in your products, or the market space that you work in, and do a cold pitch to them. It makes sure that the message of who you are and what you do is relevant to everyone,” says Michelle. “It was good to receive the mentoring over the couple of days in the lead-up to the pitch, too, just to hone the messaging that comes out in that final 10 minute presentation.”

“I think it’s always good to get in front of an audience of people that don’t have the scientific background in your products, or the market space that you work in, and do a cold pitch to them.”

“It’s also really interesting to think about how the technology has applications outside of the immediate project that you’re working on,” Melinda adds.

RHS is launching its third product this year, and is using the grant to develop a modified version of the software for the IVF market and other applications, like prenatal or cancer diagnosis. “If we’ve got software that can underpin all of that, it opens up a whole platform of genetic tests that can be done on different cells. Not even just human cells – we can extend it beyond that,” says Michelle.

Developing the software is a difficult task, but the prospect of discovering something new is one that drives the team at RHS.

“Being in the laboratory, you’re often the first person to find something new out,” Melinda says.

“…it’s really exciting to think if your results answer a really important question or solve a problem, you’re the only person [in the world] who knows the answer. It’s rewarding and really inspiring.”

This year’s #HybridWorldADL will take place in late July in the city of Adelaide. For more details on the #HWALAB, and how to apply, click here.