This profile of Rich Lee is part of our Not Impossible Now series of profiles into people modifying their bodies by an integration of technologies that enable them to lead a more sensory fulfilling existence.
Rich Lee is a "grinder," part of a movement of "bio-hackers," and representative of a growing group that believes the tools of science and knowledge belong to everyone.
For the record, the major difference between grinders and other bio-hackers is that grinders implement functional (and sometimes extreme) forms of body modification, using their own bodies as a platform for experimentation.
Lee, a vocal member of that community, started out as simply intrigued by the non-traditional social and technical ideas behind the movement. But, when Lee began to lose his vision, he was circumstantially inspired to explore alternate ways to sense, and exist in, the world around him.
In doing so, Lee became a cyborg.
Rich Lee escorts us through the current map of the biohacker communities,, and his personal journey toward a real-life sixth sense.
NIN: Tell us a bit about the community with which you’re involved.
Rich Lee: It’s pretty countercultural. It’s definitely gaining popularity. The community is made of people from all different backgrounds, and we all kind of fall under the umbrella of the term biohacker. Essentially, people are trying to overcome biological limitations, or get around them, or just augment them. Because we come from all different backgrounds, it makes people really irreverent towards other disciplines. So you’ll have programmers that are discussing biology, and it’s not done with the reverence that an academic biologist might expect that it be done with.
This is good, though, because nothing’s sacred or taboo, and anything can be discussed. We talk about everything and discuss all options.
What would you say really drives the community experiment with biotechnology?
RL: It depends on the realm of the experiment, but the basis is in sensory enhancement and sensory augmentation.
Most people in our community start with a magnetic finger implant. That’s kind of the rite of passage. You insert a special bioproof magnet in your fingertip and the nerves regrow around the magnet. After that, every time you pass your hand through a magnetic field, the magnet will vibrate in response, which lets you feel magnetic fields. So that’s kind of where it starts, and from there, we get into other sensory enhancements and all kinds of different projects and implants.
Once you get the magnetic finger implant and you can sense the magnetic fields, all of a sudden you realize there is an otherwise invisible world that you can reach out and actually feel. It gets you thinking, what else is going on, and how come we can’t perceive these things, and is there anything valuable happening in other areas of the spectrum that we can’t see?
Humans can perceive such a small fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum. For example, if the electromagnetic spectrum was a road that went from San Francisco to New York, the amount of visible light that we see is a couple nanometers, and just with that couple nanometers of visible light, we’ve been able to construct really advanced theories of things we can’t see that are going around us, like x-rays, and gamma rays, and radio.
How far could humanity go if we could see those things, instead of having to guess? When you can see something, you gain intuitive knowledge about those areas. So, sensory enhancement and expansion has always been one of those things that to me is a no-brainer, because if you enhance the amount that you can see and experience, it’s just going to add to your view of what reality is, and what the world is like around you. That’s been our pursuit, I guess.
Which brings up the question, why?
RL: The answer would be just limitations in general. We’re at the point where we can objectively look at ourselves and say we understand our bodies pretty well now. We’re intelligent. We have the technology to alter our biological destinies, which is an advantage our ancestors didn’t have. There are 100 billion people that walk the earth and we’re the first generation that can really stop and say, “You know what, let’s question everything about ourselves biologically, and maybe we can make some progress towards eliminating our needs.” Obviously we have certain limitations. We need food, water, air, but pretty much everything on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, in terms of our physiological needs, are problems that we can address and tackle. So from that standpoint, I’ve been pursuing things like implants that would extract water from the air to supply fresh water, just as you breathe.
How real are experiments like these? For example, right now in California we’re in a terrible drought, so I’m imagining the potential here.
RL: If you’re in a third world country, and all your well water is polluted, it’s got a huge potential to change the world. Have you ever seen a dehumidifier? It’s the same thing. It just grabs water from the air, and you’ve got to empty your bucket. Basically it repels water so that if water hits a surface it will just bead up on that surface and keep it from soaking into the material. I’ve constructed something that will cycle air in and then moisture in the air will get sucked in and drip down, like water collects on the leaves of plants in the morning, and drip down to the roots. Anyway that’s one of them. That’s probably not my most immediate pursuit at the moment.
Do you reach out to people in academia? Kevin Warwick, for example, is in academia but has been working in this realm.
RL: Kevin’s a bit of an academic rebel. There is a student of his right now that we are working with who is pursuing his PhD, who has been doing some experiments with the assistance of the community. Kevin has been really supportive and answers questions on occasion.
I also plague people with emails all the time. I see something cool, and I’m just like, “Hey, I’ve seen you’ve done this article.” One thing I’m not afraid to do is ask questions. I don’t really care if I sound dumb or don’t know what I’m doing - because honestly I don’t know. My background was business before this. I know it’s not my world, it’s not my realm, but I’m not afraid to ask questions. And I get all kinds of help. People generally respond about 90% of the time.
What are some examples of various communities experimenting with these kinds of projects?
Rich: In my community, we’re grinders, a term that comes from video games. In gaming, grinding is where you methodically improve your character. After hours of play, you grab skills or powers. We got stuck with that name because it resembles the approach we take: constant, methodical grinding to make implants and figure things out.
There is also the DIY bio community, which is huge. They are doing some awesome things, and we intersect with them a lot. All the movements have different attitudes. There’s the quantified self movement. That’s huge too. All this wearable technology you see for fitness and things like that, a lot of it has been inspired by the quantified self movement, which is people who keep track of themselves, either how much they can lift, or run, or dietary needs. They’re hacking all kinds of information off themselves, actually looking under microscopes, getting people to engage in biology.
Their attitude about biohacking is the approach that, “We’re taking this away from the ivory tower; this should all be open source; we should get community people involved.” They attract people from a lot of different angles. Some people just want to kill a fungus that’s in their lawn, so the community will teach the person how to look at it under a microscope and how to identify it, and they’ll find the anti-fungal for it.
Or more advanced things. There are biohackers that are making things like lab-grown skin. Also, in our community and in the DIY community (not officially in the DIY bio community), people are taking yogurt and producing different drugs – for example, you can produce Prozac, using yogurt. With yeast, you can make THC. Yogurt can also make MDNA.
You don’t leave everything up to academia or the medical community. You’re questioning what else is out there and who is experimenting and how it’s being done.
RL: We do self-experimentation, which is our other big thing. For some biohackers, that’s a big no-no. Some people consider it dangerous or reckless. But we have people pursing genetic modification, such as gene doping. There’s an inhibitor gene that people have been pursuing for years, and I think they’ve almost got it. Basically this thing will make you buff. And the mod that they’re making would prestate the elasticity of the tissues of the muscles so that those muscles can grow with those limits without ripping the tissue. Your endurance is vastly increased. You drop body fat like crazy. Some people are born this way, naturally without this gene. You may have seen some of these pictures of kids that look like body builders. It’s amazing. These people were just born that way. You know their muscle mass is just a lot more than their body fat.
Like phenomenal athletes, there’s got to be something genetic, like fast-twitch muscles, where there’s just something they have that the average person doesn’t have.
RL: It’s old school thinking that you get whatever you are born with and you try to make the most of it. You work hard, you train hard, but in reality, there are certain people that are born with obvious genetic advantages, and why deny that? And why wouldn’t you offer somebody the right or the opportunity to experiment with those things, too? Now that we can actually change our own genetics, we’ve got that technology, why not? Why not try it out?
People are born with all kinds of different advantages. People are born with the advantage of wealth over poverty and we give the impoverished the right to strive to wealth, and support that as a society. When it comes to genetics, we have apprehension.
Is gene doping and genetic modification illegal?
RL: Yeah, I believe it is.
Depending on which drugs you’re using?
RL: Yes, in fact, mostly what they rely on are viruses. So you take a virus and then insert the gene you want on it and program that cell and then insert it back into the gene. And in this case it’s the lack of the gene, or the deletion of it.
That would raise the question whether, if someone created that mutation, there is an ethical responsibility to the rest of the world. For example, what would it mean if you’re intentionally modifying the gene, but then you have kids and your kids are born with that modification? It's a conscious act, which differs from natural evolution.
RL: Evolution is just a crap-shoot, really. There have been at least two occasions that the human race would not have survived if it weren’t for a certain gene. We can trace our linage back to one woman, they call her a genetic Eve. We all have a common mother, but really that person’s genes were the ones that survived these catastrophic events, and the other ones just died out. Biodiversity is very important, and at the same time there are a lot of genes that are destined for fatality. If you have them you know you are going to get cancer, and it will be fatal. So why would we choose to keep those forever?
Isn’t that what medical science is doing? Trying to find the cure?
RL: I think medical science is more interested in creating inventions that are used to treat a disease after it happens, so not really preventing it. That’s because the technology is just now getting there.
And that brings us back to you. I know that you are having problems with your vision. Is that how you got into this community, or were you interested in it beforehand?
RL: I was interested in it beforehand. The implant is something I probably would’ve done regardless, but losing my vision was a big motivator. My doctor told me I needed a cornea transplant to be able to see. I’ve got one that went bad. I woke up one day, and my eye was blurry. And it didn’t go away. The doctor said the only thing that would correct it was a transplant. I had to go on a list to get that procedure, and I couldn’t afford it. He said also that my other eye could go at any time, and then I’d be legally blind. It would leave my family in a difficult situation. My wife would have to go back to work and I’d be home blind, trying to take care of kids, which would not end well.
I wanted to start echo-locating, like a bat, so I could navigate. I wanted to create a device that wouldn’t annoy people around me, but could help me navigate, so I could be proactive and learn to do these things now, instead of when I’m blind. So I got the implants, and it turned out they wouldn’t help me with the echo-location.
I still have a million other things I’ve been doing with the ear implant anyway. I did a thing on NPR, and I had this retired professor from Harvard call me up and say, “Hey, I heard your thing on NPR and I did this echo-location experiment in the ‘80s that I’ve got to tell you about.” He bombarded me with this info that was just fascinating, and based on that info, I was able to create a device that would help me navigate.
And I’m still making improvements. It’s kind of like this Quixote-esque endeavor, where nothing’s ever good enough, I’m constantly making modifications. And I’m on a limited budget, so it’s slow-going sometimes. I learned things from the ground up because I didn’t really know electronics or audiology or biology before. So I’ve got to get basic foundations of knowledge, and that takes me awhile, but I enjoy it. I really enjoy it.
Is there just one device you're continuously working on, or do you now have several devices and names for them?
RL: Someone jokingly called my audio device the Ear Lord, and that name kind of stuck. If it ever became a final product, it wouldn’t be the name, for sure. Marketing would strike that down!
More recently I’m working on an implant that is an RF, radio frequency transmitter detector, which would allow you to find hidden cameras and microphones. Around two million dollars in covert surveillance equipment is sold every year, into civilian hands.
The RF is the size of a half dollar, and I’ll just put it in my forearm. I’m not really paranoid about hidden cameras or anything like that but I just thought it would be really a cool cyber punk thing to do with the tech transmission.
Right now you’ve got your audio device in. When did you put that in? How has it been working for you?
RL: I implanted it in June (2014), and it’s been really good, but I see room for improvement. One drawback is that I go through power really fast, so I’m going through a lot of batteries. I’ve also got this coil that I want to get rid of altogether and just have the implant. The next step is to take a coil, kind of like a bluetooth, where I can just send it by a signal to a coil that’s implanted as well, to drive that. That will reduce my power consumption. From there I can do a million other things with it.
For example, heat detection. I’d like to take a sensor and run it though a program so it’ll make a hissing noise, like a general hissing noise, so I can detect heat from far away. You can put it into all kinds of different sensors. I’d like to have something like IBM’s Watson (the AI program that was on Jeopardy).
Kind of like Google Glass but this would actually be inside you?
RL: Right. It would have an external mike and you’d just talk to it. Eventually what I’d like to do is have a vocal mike implant, maybe near my throat, that doesn’t require me to actually talk, but to just make the motions like I’m talking. There’s electro-larynx for people who’ve had tracheotomies. There’s a type of device that uses an ultrasonic sound to produce sound. If you had a mike and ear implants, then you could make telephone calls. If somebody else had the implant and mike, and you’re not using your mouth to actually talk, and there’s no audible sound coming out of you but it picks it up - it’s kind of a hard thing to explain - it would look like telepathy. You’d be talking to somebody else over phone signals. That’s not impossible for sure.
It seems like these are things of interest for the sight-impaired community, too.
RL: Mostly I’ve had inquiries from people with tinnitus. And they said, “It’s helped me.” I guess a lot of people suffer from tinnitus, and they are really desperate to get any relief. I didn’t realize how debilitating it was to some people. A lot of people with regular hearing aids say, “I’m just so unhappy with my regular hearing aid, there’s no directionality.” A lot of people want to hack their own hearing aids and customize them, but the company won’t disclose the design because it’s proprietary. But actually, I don't think any blind people have contacted me.
That was the first thing I thought of. But perhaps the blind community have relied more on cochlear implants recently.
RL: I think the location device is something that would really improve the quality of life for a blind person, and it’s something that’s pretty easy to create, at least for an engineer. It wouldn’t bother people either, because it would reduce ultra-sonic [hertz], which would be converted into something audible that they could hear, like headphones or something like that, but the sensation is really rich. I remember having it on and someone opened up a door behind me, and as soon as the door was open I just had this instinctive sense and knew exactly the size of the room. It just integrates with your hearing so fast, that it’s a really rich sensation.
That’s different than the audio device. So what’s the echo-location?
RL: I got the implants thinking that I could use the echo-location, but the problem is that my implants are mono. I need rich stereo, so I can discern what’s to the right, what’s to the left. So even though the implants didn’t work out for that, it wasn’t a big deal, because the Harvard professor who contacted me walked me through this experiment that he had done. And then based on that I was able to create a device, which is separate, basically some headphones and with a little speaker that can be implanted. I’ve got that on my list of dream augmentations.
RL: Humans do have it, and we use it all the time. It’s something that we have going on at all times, that we kind of take for granted. Blind people really develop this sense, but you don’t have to be blind to do so. There are people who have vision who’ve developed it, where they clicking noises with their mouth to hear the sounds ping off objects and return. Based on that, they know how far away something is. And blind people actually develop something where they don’t even click. After a while the sound of a passing car is enough to give them a really rich sensation.
There’s one blind guy who rides a bicycle. He’s completely blind, and he echo-locates. And he can tell you where objects are just by the audio that bounces off of them - that’s a phone booth, and that’s a pole, and that’s a tree. This device that I made would take all that practice time away, where you could just put it on and have this sense.
Does it look like something visually? Or is it something where you are only processing that against something you see when your eyes are closed?
RL: It’s so hard to explain, but it really feels like a new sense. It’s like a spatial awareness, and you just know where things are. And if you’re moving with the thing, it’s like a Doppler, where you can detect motion by the rate that the waves come back.
This seems to me like something that people would be interested in, as a marketable device. Is that something that you’ve thought of? Creating this to be something that you could sell?
RL: Absolutely. I would love to do something like that. I started the biohacking thing as a hobby, or like a pursuit, and I didn’t really want to mix it with business. But I’ve kind of changed my mind. I think it’s something that’s absolutely marketable. It’s just a matter of money and a team.
Would the grinder community frown upon that, if you took some of these devices and made them mass marketable?
RL: Yes and no. They definitely have to be open source - if you want to make it yourself, here’s the program for it, here’s how to do it yourself - but I’d really be taking that approach of, here’s the value I offer, you don’t have to do this stuff yourself. It’s done. You just buy it and go, which is totally acceptable in the grinder community.
You’d keep it open for other people to utilize in the way that they see fit, but you think there are going to be plenty of people who want to buy it off the shelf.
RL: Yeah, totally. I’d buy all kinds of things like this if they were just available on the shelf.