Becoming Magneto

Jonathan Strickland

© TEK Image/Science Photo Library/Corbis
© TEK Image/Science Photo Library/Corbis

Human augmentation is one of those topics that fascinates me while at the same time making me feel a bit uneasy. I guess there's nothing surprising about that -- altering what we are can be both exciting and unsettling. It's a feeling I've had many times, including this morning when I read about hackers getting magnetic implants.

Why on earth would you want a magnetic implant? Are these hackers going to form their own Brotherhood of Evil Mutants? Will we soon see them dressed in ridiculous costumes pulling bridges apart with grand, arm-sweeping gestures? Well, no. But you might see them move paperclips around by waving a finger over them.

So why would anyone want a magnetic implant? One thing it would let you do is sense magnetic fields. It augments your sense of touch -- you'd feel the implant react as you moved in and out of a magnetic field. You'd also be able to tell at a touch if a metal is made of ferrous material or not. It's all about increasing the spectrum of our awareness.

In fact, this form of body modification has been going on for a while among a pretty small population of biohackers. But today, we're seeing hackers build devices that extend the usefulness of such implants by combining hardware that will allow you to use the magnet like an actuator. You hook up sensors to detect a particular metric -- such as the temperature outside -- and slip a device over your finger that has a receiver and transmitter. When the sensor detects a change, it sends a signal to the device on your finger, which then causes the magnet to vibrate, alerting you to the change.

You might think that's a pretty circuitous way to find out information you could access through your other senses. But the biohackers are really interested in expanding our ability to detect and make sense of the world around us in ways we didn't have access to before. Feeling that you're near a fluctuating magnetic field might not be necessary but it's pretty darn cool.

The hackers aren't installing powerful magnets all over their bodies -- that could end up creating some weird situations where you find your buddy in an awkward embrace with your refrigerator. Instead, most are using a fairly weak magnet and are implanting them on the ring finger of their non-dominant hand. Why that finger? Well, if something goes wrong, it's pretty much the least useful of all the fingers. Yikes.

Would I get a magnetic implant? Probably not. I like that there are people out there pushing the frontiers of augmentation because in the future I bet we'll see some pretty amazing implementations. But for now, I think I'll skip it. I have too many other concerns. For example, what happens if I need to get an MRI scan? Seems like that could lead to a problem.

What do you think? Would you get a magnetic body implant?