If you want to get ahead, you can go for a promotion, stop procrastinating or simply stick your neck out an inch further. But if you want to get ahead of humanity, your menu of options gets a lot more mind-boggling: swallow nootropic brain pills to get smarter, wear superbionic boots to get faster or even don implants to live longer. The world of biohacking is abuzz. A crafty crowd of students, gamers, high-flying professionals and Silicon Valley whiz kids are experimenting with homegrown substances, Walter White–style, to pass exams, to stay up longer or to fly past the competition.
We caught up with one of them, Geoffrey Woo, who was fresh off a dragged-out 36-hour fast for “mental clarity” reasons. The 27-year-old Woo is the co-founder of Nootrobox, a startup that wants to hack your brain’s potential with drugs that enhance your learning and cognition. Your options include munching on chewable coffee cubes for a concentrated energy boost or popping a few multivitamins and fish oil pills to “master” your focus. It’s not all wine and roses, though. There are plenty of dubious, unregulated drugs on the black market that could do more harm than good, he says. The broader biohacking industry has a “Wild West” aura, he tells OZY, and we need “smarter regulation” to bring about safer, healthier forms of human enhancement — before something goes terribly, terribly wrong. And while he’s keen about the mind-blowing future of biohacking, he’s also got a scary premonition: Other countries will jet forward into our superhuman future while America gets left in the dust.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Why will 2017 be a watershed year for biohacking?
One of the biggest sources of anxiety in our society today is the notion that artificial intelligence and automation is deprecating the role of humans in the world. Cognition — that’s our only bragging rights in the world, as humans. We’re weaker than tigers. We’re slower than cheetahs. We suck physically. But our shining ability is our brains — and that dominance is being threatened by artificial intelligence and automation.
With AI and robots getting better and better, where do humans sit? My answer is that we need to be enhancing ourselves. Let’s arm humanity against this war, against artificial intelligence. Let’s make ourselves, humans, better. We’re spending all this time, energy, resources and venture capital to make computers better. We should have that same sort of zeal, investment and talent in making humans better.
Wait, people should do what to their bodies?
Human enhancement is a concept that triggers a plethora of images — droids, cognitive enhancement, physical enhancement, steroids, maybe even eugenics. This is where biohacking is building a lot of momentum. How do we think about humans from an engineering perspective? We can think of our system as a computer system. We have tons of inputs and we care about certain performance outputs — reaction time, being smarter, living longer, getting faster. Why not think about humanity in that same lens?
So, will humans all be weird, androgynous, sci-fi-like creatures one day?
People ask me, “Are we losing our humanity?” I would argue the opposite. I see more variation where we have our own choices of implants and what we choose to optimize. I might want a device that helps me breathe underwater. You might want a device that helps you see at night. We could have bionic arms, bionic legs, bionic eyeballs. We’ll see more dynamic people, not less dynamic people.
Why will America fall behind in the race to hack our bodies?
In the arc of history, progress doesn’t stop. It’s not a question of when human enhancement will occur, but if we’re going to do it responsibly. It’s imperative that we have these discussions at the highest level of government. Human enhancement is important for us to start defining legally. If we don’t have a good framework for how to do it or if we start blocking research in that space, there will be more pragmatic societies that will pursue biohacking — with government funding and their best minds. You can just imagine how some countries will enhance their IQs, enhance their physical performance, and I don’t want to see America be left behind, where we’re caught up in religious or dogmatic arguments. We need government buy-in as well.
What makes you most excited about the future of biohacking?
I’m excited about neural laces and inputs into the brain directly. These kinds of innovations are interesting because we’re currently restricted by input and output channels in how we communicate. But machines can communicate at the speed of light because they’re transmitting protons back and forth. What if I could just dump this entire interview into your brain instantly? How can I input these ideas into your brain in a more invasive or direct way? With biohacking, we would be able to increase the input and output of information that much more. We can start having faster, better ideas and quicker dialogue. That’s the promise of biohacking.