Around 10,000 people across the globe have had a computer chip implanted into their body in a practice known as ‘biohacking’, and in the vanguard of this futuristic new movement, curiously enough, is Sweden. One of the scene’s biggest champions is Hannes Sjoblad. I meet him at Epicenter, a hub for innovation and technology in the centre of Stockholm, where he works as Chief Disruption Officer. He’s the guy who dreamed up ‘chip parties’, where people meet up to chat, drink beer and pay €100 to get a microchip inserted into their hand.
‘When I talk about biohacking, I’m talking about the broad idea of digitising a human being,’ Hannes explains. ‘So, you could have a wearable device that monitors your exercise activity or you could log what you eat and measure your progress on a phone – or you could simply get a microchip implanted in your hand and let it take care of all of that for you.’
The chips, which are about the size of a grain of rice, make use of NFC (near-field communication) – the technology that enables contactless payments and keycard access into buildings. It’s also utilised in the latest generation of Audi’s connect key, which allows drivers to lock, unlock and start their car via their smartphone. Hannes finds he’s using his chip every day – to get into his apartment, the gym and, of course, Epicenter, where employees use their implants to enter the building and internal rooms and to operate the printers. After working with him, the Swedish rail network, SJ, has even begun accepting train tickets on chip implants.
But it’s the health-tracking aspect of biohacking that most enthusiasts get excited about – and where the potential gains cannot be ignored. After all, how many people are alive or simply experience an easier existence today, thanks to technology – be that a pacemaker, hip replacement or contact lenses. An implant that measures blood-sugar levels for diabetics already exists, so it’s not hard to imagine additional biomarkers being built in to a new generation of chip, one that could monitor the user’s overall health, sending notifications to his or her phone, and using artificial intelligence to warn – even predict – if something is wrong.
This potential definitely excites Jowan Österlund, who has not one but four chip implants. He worked in body modification and piercing for over 15 years, so, of course, he implanted his first chip – and, I suspect, all three subsequent ones – himself. ‘I sterilised the first and it broke, but I didn’t notice until it was too late, so I learnt how to implant a chip and then remove a chip, all in about two minutes!’ he says. Despite this, Jowan realised he was onto something, and he founded his company, Biohax International, just a couple of days later. Like Hannes, he spends a lot of his time travelling around the world to talk about biohacking, and has helped spread the chip-party concept all over Europe, the US and beyond, implanting more than 4,000 people in the process.
And a chip party is precisely what brings us back to the Epicenter on a Friday evening. Groups of fashionable-looking people are hanging out in the centre’s terrace, chatting about their week and making their way to and from the bar. Eventually, we all drift towards a table set up in the middle of the room, where Jowan is seated, his hands concealed in black latex gloves.
Data scientist and PhD student John Lamb is first up. ‘I know it sounds strange, but I’ve really been looking forward to this!’ he says. ‘My friend got his ages ago, and I’ve been waiting for the next chip party so I could get one, too.’ With that, Jowan asks John to breathe in as he pinches the skin between his thumb and forefinger, whips the plastic cover from the needle, and plunges it in and out of the loose skin. ‘I barely felt a thing,’ says John.
Jowan pops his gloves, needle and plastic table cover into a steri-bin, and begins setting up with clean equipment. ‘OK!’ Hannes says, beaming and looking me right in the eye. ‘So, who else is ready to upgrade?’