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In pictures: up close with transhumanists

They have many reasons for modifying their bodies, but transhumanists are united in their belief that technology can unlock a new way of being.

David Vintiner
February 24, 2021
Implanted in your hand, this RFID/NFC chip can be used to open locks or pay for things.

The human body is a marvel of evolutionary engineering. When it goes wrong, either from illness or from trauma, powerful technologies that we’ve developed can replace lost limbs, or restore the ability to walk. Occasionally, the repair can even go beyond a restoration, enhancing one’s natural abilities.

Photographer David Vintiner became fascinated with these and other sorts of body modifications carried out by proponents of transhumanism. Generally speaking, transhumanists believe that technology can be used as a tool to tweak and enhance the human body. In the photos that follow, we meet some of these people through Vintiner's lens.

The impetus for these body modifications sometimes comes from an accidenta man called James Young replaced his lost arm with a robotic one that’s something of a high-tech Swiss army knife. Other transhumanists simply want to see what is possible: to play with perception, the senses, and their own skin and bone in ways that can seem performative, and are sometimes deliberately so. Moon Ribas, for example, dances as a way of interpreting the vibrations she feels when the signals from earthquakes and moonquakes, registering on far-off seismographs, are beamed into implants in her feet. She and Neil Harbisson, who cofounded the advocacy group Cyborg Foundation, both identify as artists rather than technology researchers.

But while many cyborg projects are better described as curios than practical breakthroughs, they are nonetheless difficult to ignore. Modern consumer technology has, after all, already changed us in many strange and fascinating ways. Many people walk around with implants that regulate their heartbeat or insulin levels. And many more stare into the mirror each morning and carefully apply a thin, wet film to the surface of their eye to improve their vision. We may not all end up like Harbisson, who has a light-sensitive antenna sticking out of his skull. But who’s to say that he and others aren’t simply the first examples of a more advanced form of our species?

Neil Harbisson was born with achromatism, a rare disease that renders him color-blind.
DAVID VINTINER
The Eyesect helmet allows the wearer to experience independent eye movement.
DAVID VINTINER

Harbisson (above left) has been color-blind since birth. To augment his senses, he had an antenna implanted in his skull that turns the light it picks up into audible vibrations, allowing him to sense colors (and even infrared and ultraviolet light) as sound.

If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to detach your eyes and move them around independently, the Eyesect helmet (above right) is for you. Each “eye” camera pipes into your real eye. It may be a profound new sensory experience—or just a good way to break your brain.

DAVID VINTINER

James Young’s bionic arm (in the chair above) also has a USB charging port, a heart rate monitor, a flashlight, and a small drone.

The aim of the NeuroRex exoskeleton (bottom left) is to take a step beyond wheelchairs. NeuroRex uses a wearable electrode cap that reads a person’s brain waves and turns them into commands like “Walk forward,” “Turn,” “Step back,” or “Stop.” Its creators hope that people who’ve lost the ability to walk will one day be able to regain much of their mobility, including navigating stairs and uneven terrain.

Filmmaker Rob Spence (the guy with the red Terminator eye, inset) lost an eye in a childhood accident. In its place, he and a small team created a wearable wireless video camera that record footage from his point of view—complete with furtive glances and eye blinks.

The ears on Stelios Arcadiou’s head work just fine. But the artist, who goes by the name Stelarc, endured multiple surgeries, skin necrosis, and a dangerous infection to bring a third ear to life on his forearm (yep that's it, pictured above right). His dream is for it to house a small, internet-connected microphone so people all over the world can listen into what it’s hearing.

DAVID VINTINER
DAVID VINTINER

Researchers at University College London have used stem cells to grow body parts and surgically repair or replace damaged tissue, including tear ducts, windpipes, and blood vessels. More complex parts, like an ear or nose (pictured above), are next.

The “God helmet” (above right) started as an attempt to explain the roots of mystical experience in terms of brain activity. Subjects whose brains were stimulated using the helmet often reported feeling a divine presence (or their dead ancestors, or aliens). Neurohackers have co-opted it to see if it can help with mental health or improve concentration.