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Health-tracking implants can create bionic cows. Are humans next?

Meet the 'grinders,' who embed tech devices inside themselves

By Alex Pearlman

In April 2018, veterinary medicine experts at Utah State University, working in a part-barn, part-lab, implanted an electronic device under the skin of a white-and-black-spotted cow. The cow was nicknamed Top Hat, for the tuft of hair that stood straight up on top of his head. The device was called the EmbediVet. The size of a pack of gum, it would collect data about Top Hat’s heart rate, temperature, and activity level. The information would be passed to a server, then to an app, and, finally, to a farmer.

The EmbediVet’s creators say their device could transform agriculture and protect the food supply by turning herds of cows into monitored cyborgs. A trackable implant, they say, would allow experienced farmers to make immediate decisions about their cows at the first sign of health trouble, before a major problem occurs — such as whether to change a cow’s diet, decrease activity for an animal about to give birth, or quarantine an animal who might become sick.

But in truth, they have even bigger plans: They see the device as a test drive for health-tracking implants in humans.

The EmbediVet is manufactured by Livestock Labs, an Australian-based research and product manufacturer run by a small band of so-called “biohackers” — amateur scientists who work outside the biomedical research establishment. The biohacker movement has grown in the past decade to include thousands of independent scientists around the world. Some work in community labs on projects like glow-in-the-dark beer. Others, known as “grinders,” experiment with technology to augment their own bodies: an antenna that allows a person to “hear” colors, implanted chips that can unlock doors to homes or pay for public transit, a product called the PegLeg that turned one biohacker into a walking wifi hotspot.

This kind of work is experimental and unregulated, and has unearthed a whole new set of concerns about who has the power or authority to govern this technology — and who sets its ethical rules. Livestock Labs’ founders believe that a product for animals, developed with university researchers, could garner legitimacy and official recognition for such projects, thus paving the way for mainstream biohacking work on humans. Today, that feels faraway and far-fetched, but grinders believe it’s inevitable.


The EmbediVet has its origins in a human implant that Livestock Labs co-founder and CEO Tim Cannon co-developed with a Pittsburgh-based grinder collective called Grindhouse Wetware. Called the Circadia, it’s a computer about the size of a pack of cigarettes, which operates as a large thermometer with a Bluetooth connection. In 2013, in a well-publicized stunt that he intended as a proof of concept for biohacking, Cannon implanted the Circadia into his left forearm.

Neither the Circadia nor its successor implants really took off. There wasn’t enough interest in human implants to form a company. So when an Australian biohacker friend of Cannon’s suggested farmers might be interested in Circadia-like implants for their cows, the team moved across the globe and turned its work to the agriculture sector.

“If this isn’t something you’d want to put in a human, it’s something you wouldn’t want to put in an animal.”

Amanda Plimpton, chief operating officer of Livestock Labs

“Farmers aren’t technophobic,” says Cannon. “They are technologically sophisticated. As long as [a product] works and it doesn’t cause any more work… they’ve always been early adopters.”

The product is different from anything farmers have access to now, says Amanda Plimpton, Livestock Labs’ chief operating officer. “When I look at the competitive landscape, there aren’t any other implants going on,” she says. “There are certainly other companies out there doing livestock monitoring, but they do it with collars and ankle bracelets.”

Plimpton, like Cannon, is a true believer in the future of cybernetic implants. One of the few female leaders in the grinder movement — who often goes by her biohacker handle, Cyberlass — she has 10 magnets and microchip implants in her hands and arm, from a chip that can be used as a personal ID to an implanted temperature monitor.

Despite her self-experimentation, Plimpton thinks early commercial traction is more likely to happen with animals. Livestock Labs has so far collaborated on two trials of the EmbediVet, with Utah State University and the University of New England in New South Wales, Australia. The company has also made deals with private farmers in the U.S. and Australia who are interested in experimenting. Livestock Labs has ambitions to move on to pigs and sheep, and to develop an applicator so that any farmhand could insert the device without the need for a veterinarian.

Eventually, the team also hopes to put a human version of the EmbediVet on the market. Company leaders imagine that people will accept implants in their own bodies for purposes similar to the livestock devices: to track biological data, such as blood pressure, blood glucose, and hormone levels. They see it as preventive medicine: a person could use the data to correct bad habits and optimize health decisions, or to unearth patterns that indicate potential health problems — hypoglycemia, prediabetes, even anxiety — before symptoms emerge.

“To have an implant that would actually give us the data about what our body is doing would be immensely useful,” Plimpton says.

Still, it’s unclear how many consumers would be interested. Luba Greenwood, a lecturer in digital health at Harvard University and a health care venture capitalist, is skeptical. Why, she asks, would anyone want an implant — which requires surgery and could biodegrade — when personal data trackers, such as the Fitbit, already exist? “In humans, the market is super-over-saturated,” she says.

The notion of a human health-tracking implant raises regulatory questions as well. Would the U.S. Food and Drug Administration need to approve it? Would a licensed body modification expert insert it, or a doctor? Would it be dispensed in a place regulated like a tattoo parlor, or like a medical marijuana facility?

“This technology will pose this question to FDA: is it a device at all?” says Patti Zettler, a professor at The Ohio State University School of Law who studies regulatory issues and the ethics of self-experimentation. A human EmbediVet, she says, could force the FDA to define implantable wellness trackers, and even lead to a regulatory framework for other human implants.

To some grinders, that’s reason enough to pursue the EmbediVet. Despite their renegade spirit, many biohacking enthusiasts have, for years, been eager for regulation. With no government guidance, leaders in the movement have been developing their own unofficial guidelines; in August 2019, they developed a draft Code of Ethics for Human Augmentation, which includes ideas about informed consent, autonomy, and transparency of data. (Disclosure: In my capacity as a bioethics scholar, I offered comments on the Code of Ethics at an August 2019 dinner of biohackers and medical ethics experts.)

Drawing governments into that conversation could help bring biohacking into the mainstream, says Jacob Boss, a doctoral student in religious studies at Indiana University who researches human augmentation. As for the grinders, Boss says, “I perceive their turn toward products for the market, like EmbediVet, as part of their complicated negotiation with being punks in capitalism.”

And Boss agrees that cows could be a start. Indeed, as Livestock Labs explores how to roll out its agricultural product in the U.S., it’s already facing thorny questions about regulation. Would the device fall under the authority of the FDA, which oversees veterinary products, or the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which inspects food and regulates the care of cattle?

Australian authorities were never able to answer similar questions, Plimpton says. So the company studied standards that could apply to its product, such as medical device regulations, and attempted to live up to them — or exceed them.

“We are trying to set a standard,” she says. “If this isn’t something you’d want to put in a human, it’s something you wouldn’t want to put in an animal.”

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Alex Pearlman is a writer and bioethicist in Los Angeles.

 

Illustration by iStock

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