The Cyborgs Among Us
“People are experimenting with robotic implants, with some surprising results.”

by June Campbell

It's such a drag to stand in the pouring rain searching for your house key, all the while juggling your bags of groceries and hoping your apples won't go rolling down the driveway.

It doesn't have to be that way. If you're a tech aficionado and are skilled at using hand tools like soldering irons and drills, you might want to follow the lead of Amal Graafstra and his girlfriend, Jennifer Tomblin, of Bellingham, Washington. The subject of considerable media coverage, this couple unlocks their house and car doors via radio frequency identification (RFID) chips implanted in their hands. A casual wave of one hand unlocks the door and car; a wave of the other hand gains them access to their computer without needing to remember a password.

On his Web site (, Graafstra describes having a cosmetic surgeon implant a 3x13mm EM4102 glass RFID tag in his left hand. Later, a family physician implanted a chip in the right hand using an Avid injector kit, like the ones veterinarians use for pet identification. The right hand contains a 2mm Philips HITAG 2048 S implant with crypto-security features and 255 bytes of read/write memory storage space.

Graafstra reported that the well-known pet-identification program, with its system of chips and readers, inspired the idea. After looking around to find suitable equipment, he modified the house and car locks so they could be activated by a built-in reader, and then had the miniscule chips implanted in his hands. The reader came from Phidgets USA (, although the company's CEO issued a disclaimer saying that the ampoule tags are not sanitized and are not intended for medical use.

Don't look to buy this setup at Radio Shack anytime soon, but if you have the skills, the nerve, and a willing doctor, you too can wow your friends with your bionic hands. Graafstra tells all in his book, RFID Toys: 11 Cool Projects for Home, Office and Entertainment, available online at and at Barnes and Noble.

Graafstra and Tomblin meet the Wikipedia definition of "cyborg"—a man or woman with robotic implants. Although cyborgs abound in science fiction, real-life cyborgs are a small—but growing—group. Graafstra's online forum ( displays posts, images and videos from approximately 20 people who are experimenting with RFID implants.

Who's on First?

Graafstra may well have attracted the most recent media attention, but he is not the first cyborg to walk in our midst. However, it's far from clear who was really the first cyborg. Over time, the media has attributed the honor to various individuals.

Jesse Sullivan of Tennessee, an electrician, is among those described as the first non-fictional cyborg. Sullivan operates a fully robotic limb through a nerve-muscle graft, controlling the limb through thought.

Sullivan's story began in 2001. Following an electrical accident, Sullivan had both arms amputated at the shoulder. A few weeks later, surgeons at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC) implanted matching bionic prostheses. The procedure involved taking Sullivan's nerves and grafting them to a healthy muscle. When Sullivan's shoulder muscles initially rejected the grafts, surgeons dissected the shoulder nerves and transferred them to muscles in the chest. Sullivan's thoughts (e.g., "pick up fishing rod") generate nerve impulses, which are sensed by surface electrodes on the muscles, and are then sent to the bionic arm, which moves as instructed.

This prototype limb provides Sullivan with considerably more control and a more natural movement than is possible with conventional prostheses. The procedure has significant implications for amputees and people with spinal cord injuries.

Another cyborg, Canada's "mad scientist," Steve Mann from the University of Toronto, has a number of electronic implants, done for research purposes. Some consider Mann to be the founder of wearable computing, based on his work in personal imaging. More recently, he also attracted the title of "first cyborg."

Mann's most highly publicized incident occurred following the attacks of September 11. In March of 2002, security personnel at a Canadian airport detained Mann as he prepared to board an Air Canada flight. Security strip-searched Mann and forcibly removed his electronic implants, some of which he had had for many years. This action caused sufficient disorientation that the scientist had to use a wheelchair. According to Mann, his physicians had advised him that separation from the implants could lead to brain damage. (Does anyone remember Star Trek's Seven of Nine and the difficulties she encountered getting her Borg implants removed? But I digress.) The value of Mann's lost equipment was estimated at $56,800. Read more at Mann's Web site (

In 1997, in yet another first, performance artist Eduardo Kac of Brazil staged a work called "Time Capsule" (, in which he implanted an identification microchip with nine digits and registered himself with a databank in the United States via the Internet. The microchip's location (in his ankle) is symbolic, since the ankle is a body part that traditionally has been chained or branded.

"Time Capsule" incorporated various elements, including a physician; a simulated hospital room; a waiting ambulance; and computers that scanned the microchip via the Internet, accessed the U.S. database, and webcasted the event to global Internet audiences. The next day, the artist added an X-ray showing the microchip's position to the Web site. Kac's performance attracted considerably more attention than the artist had anticipated, including heated debate from scientists, philosophers and ethicists.

Then we have Captain Cyborg, a.k.a. Kevin Warwick ( A professor at the University of Reading in England, Warwick's best-known work is called Project Cyborg. The scientist implanted a chip into his arm, with the sole aim of "becoming a cyborg." He hoped to learn how much the body would tolerate and how easy it would be to receive a signal from the chip.

In stage one of Project Cyborg (1998), Warwick had an RFID transmitter implanted that could control doors, lights, heaters and various other computer-controlled items. Stage two (2002) involved implanting a far more complex chip, an electrode array containing 100 electrodes, which interfaced with Warwick's nervous system. This proved sufficiently successful that Warwick's colleague developed a robot arm that could mimic Warwick's arm movements.

Later, in an experiment that proved that some women are more accommodating than others, Warwick implanted a chip in his wife to see if some form of telepathy could be communicated over the Internet. This experiment was reported as moderately successful.

While Warwick believes that his work has implications for medical advancements, his critics have postulated that the work was little more than a publicity stunt, and dubbed him Captain Cyborg. Warwick is apparently well known for his ability to attract media attention.

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Look to hear a lot more about cyborg research in the years to come, as scientists search for ways to interface man and machine—or, in some cases, animal and machine. Groups around the world, including the U.S. military, have received ethical approval to develop implants that monitor animal behavior—including that of sharks, tuna, rats and monkeys. For more information, check out Cyberblog (

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