Biohacker Summit Helsinki

The State of Biohacking: Where we are

The Biohacker Summit in Helsinki on Wednesday, Dec. 10 showcased international biohacking leaders who extolled current products’ potential for fueling the future of the quantified self movement, of which some unique glimpses were revealed–including an astonishing minor surgical procedure performed on-stage.

After plying the audience with Guatemalan high altitude, single origin Warrior Coffee, summit organizers Teemu Arina and Mikko Ikola introduced the intellectually diverse group of experts they’d collected. Everyone illuminated the finer points of hackable mindfulness and wellness at multiple levels, and often through the prism of self-monitoring. Arina kicked things off by joining onstage his fellow Biohacker’s Handbook authors, Olli Sovijärvi and Jaakko Halmetoja. They got the audience doing jumping jacks before explaining that people have a misguided sense of health and nutrition. The old adage, “You are what you eat” is misinformed; in reality, they said, “You are what you absorb.” As such, they explained the necessity of knowing your body and metabolism down to even the genetic level, if possible, to fuel it with the macro and micronutrients your body will properly absorb.

Furthermore, understanding the mind-gut connection is essential for optimizing health and energy levels. There’s a bi-directional pathway between the brain and the digestive system. Nervousness in the brain begets butterflies in the stomach; likewise, an upset stomach affects the brain due to various factors, from the influence of gut permeability on inflammation via the brain-blood barrier, to screwing up the manufacturing process of certain hormones in the gut.

They offered a number of science-based nutrition hacks, from prioritizing fresh-ground coffee to eating more avocadoes, essentially the top nutritional choice if you were shipwrecked on an island. Hacks on stress and sleep were also suggested, from meditation and workplace get-off-your-butt ergonomics and breaks, to bettering sleep through improved indoor air quality or drinking coffee right before a 20 or 90-minute nap. Many of these hacks were augmented and accessed through biomonitoring devices, from wearable movement trackers to EEG (brainwave-sensing) monitors and brain stimulators, to sleep monitors.

Sleep is fundamental

Sleep featured prominently as an area of focus. Cognitive neuroscientist, Katri Saarikivi began her talk by blowing up the erroneous paranoia over humans slowly becoming overwhelmed by our technology. We aren’t in danger of fleeing Arnold Schwarzenegger and Skynet’s Terminator army. That’s because humans’ creative capacities will always lie beyond the grasp of the robotic mind. Therefore we must stay clear-headed as rested, energized minds better find innovative solutions to the questions our technology can bring us.

Sleep, she said, is  fundamental to memory and cognition. Chronic sleep deprivation is actually neurotoxic, scientific terminology for the fact that sleeping too little actually eats your brain tissue and makes you dumber. Paying attention to your sleep, prioritizing and monitoring it, makes you smarter and more creative and productive. Sleep is therefore a major piece in the man-harnessing-technology puzzle.

Rested workers = productive companies

The prioritization of sleep proved to be a common thread throughout the talks. Entrepreneur and creative director, Saku Tuominen said that his team from 925 Design had studied thousands of office workers and found that tiredness can figuratively and literally be a killer. Therefore, tuning workdays to employees’ optimal sleep schedules makes far more sense from a productivity standpoint than does the traditional factory-oriented, punch-in-punch-out approach, in which time is standardized and thus wasted by tired, unmotivated minds. This holds especially true in areas where creativity and thought are emphasized, as sleep deprivation is a functional vampire that drains people of their innovation-essential humors. Time, therefore, is less important than achievement; time in the office and the quantity of productivity—the number of bolts someone makes–is less important than the quality of their work .

“We know this, but we don’t institute it,” he said. “We are productivity crazy, but in a factory-based thinking way… one great idea is worth much more than a bunch of bolts you can make.”

Dutch consultant and author, Martijn Aslander expounded upon the concept of a workplace reconstituted to promote individuals’ creative energy in his Lifehacking for Executives talk. He’s found that with one-third of people preferring to work at 9 PM rather than 9 AM, it’s better to let people decide their own hours. Aslander was a highly engaging speaker. He drove home the importance of loving one’s work, of believing in one’s ideas enough to give them away so others would in turn give back to you. And believed that, likewise, it’s vital to monitor the health and energy levels of people and organizations to find the best biohacks.

Pekko Vehviläinen, known as “Finland’s most quantified man” for the 27 devices and 131 sensors that constantly monitor his bio levels, offered his own story of losing 10 kilos and getting leaner as a functional example of biohacking success. People, he said, can influence data when we start tracking it by seeing patterns. The patterns, he emphasized, are ultimately more important than the absolute, to-the-decimal accuracy of the tracking devices. For instance, he noted that even if a home sleep monitor can’t tell you with absolute precision what sleep stage you were in and for how long, identifying sleep patterns may be more beneficial to improving sleep. For that reason, he said that the sleep devices he continued to use –Beddit and Emfit, specifically—were “extremely useful” to his better-sleep goals, even though the devices’ data and scores had variance.

Implantable devices: The next frontier of biohacking?

But Vehviläinen decided to take his “most quantified man” title to the next level by becoming Finland’s first known chip implant recipient. With the help of chip implant pioneer, American Amaa Graafstra, Vehviläinen placed his arm on a tattoo-parlor like piercing setup, whereupon a professional piercer inserted a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chip into Vehviläinen’s hand. There was some wincing in the audience (Vehviläinen loosed a fake scream for dramatic effect), and the squeamish remained in another room. But Vehviläinen said it was utterly painless, a statement supported by his steady heart rate displayed in real-time on the screen throughout the procedure.

But what purpose does implantable tracking serve? What benefits, and dangers, exist in this next frontier of bio-monitoring?

Graafstra noted that implants, “the real future of biohacking,” involve risks outweighed by their potential. The implant movement he helped initiate is part of something he calls “transhumanism,” the idea of fundamentally transforming the human condition. He likens it as another link in the technological chain extending from early hominids using stone tools to engineers designing computers and mobile devices.

It’s far away from complete sci-fi. Chip implants for scientific and medical purposes in animals have been used for a long time. So have implanted medical devices in humans (pacemakers, Parkinson’s Disease and epilepsy-mitigating neuro-implants, cochlear hearing implants, drug eluting stents, are but a few examples). But putting technology voluntarily under one’s skin represents a cyber-frontier viewed with either excitement or dread, depending on who’s asked. Bioethicists and sci-fi fans might nod to ghoulish scenarios of hacked off limbs replacing stolen keys and ATM cards; religious folks might wave copies of Revelations. Biohackers point out potential boosts to airport security, access to money, improved transportation services as but a few pieces of myriad benefits.

Graafstra rolled into this technological frontier more or less on his own one-man wagon. It all started with a key. Staring at his keychain, he realized that we were lugging around the same technology to open doors since centuries before. Keys were obsolete. And so he set about transforming the way we view the boundaries between technology and humanity, skin and metal, first by getting the safety-OK from his general practice doctor, who implanted his first RFID chip with a pet injector kit.

Graafstra came up with the whole process and its application himself, from finding and injecting the right kind of chip to designing uses for it. With a few adjustments and hacks, he changed his technological environment so that he could open doors and access his office computers via RFID physical proximity, similar to keyless car door technologies. He’s working on novel applications for chip implants, along with others.

Perhaps due to a Wild West sense of possibility, the most concerning issues with implants Graafstra has seen have arisen from people ramming chips into themselves in dangerous, irresponsible ways. While there is no established guidebook or rulebook on injectable chips, he developed a company that paired up with piercers to inject the chips in the safest known ways. Since then, biohackers have treated implants a bit like early iPhone apps, developing their own uses for implantable technology: examples include wearable ankle bracelets that buzz you to improve your sense of direction; and ear implants that function as invisible headphones, sending audio directly to the ear from a coil necklace.

Vehviläinen and Graafstra weren’t the only ones with chip implants. At least two others speaking at the conference, Martijn Aslander and Marteen den Braber from the Netherlands, had RFID implants; den Braber got his the previous day.

Consolidated data: The future of biohacking

Biohacking’s future, most speakers agreed, will be defined by more than the diversity and accuracy of monitoring devices themselves: rather, the most important solutions will probably entail data interpretation and application. Marteen den Braber echoed other speakers’ views that we have reams of data comprising millions of data points from myriad devices but… so what? How do we consolidate all that data and make it speak to us, to identify issues or areas of improvement and develop guides that find us the best hacks? Developing algorithms and software that squeeze the most out of this data is paramount in realizing the potential of biohacking at both the micro and macro levels. If large organizations, for instance, could actually monitor their general employee stress and energy levels—and hold those levels up against worker productivity—wellness and productivity could be boosted by the corrective actions. Individuals, meanwhile, will eventually be able to assemble the scores from all their devices, measuring their sleep and nutrition and fitness and stress levels, to find unifying patterns that will arrive at the best holistic corrective approaches.

A brave new world biohacking world awaits. We’re just monitoring it. Mostly. For now.

Ruben HorbachComment