Øredev and the world of biohacking

Inside Malmo Mässan during the Øredev conference. People are seated on beanbag-style chairs. A screen on the stage shows  the words "Deus ex Machine"

writer icon Iegor Bakhariev     Peter Steiner   |   Tech     🕐 22. Nov. 2018

On the morning of Monday 19th November, in the main hall at Malmö Mässan more than one thousand people gathered for the opening of the 14th Øredev.

The primary vision of this year’s Øredev, as Ben Ward, the host of the conference put it, was to understand what is going on in the future of biohacking technology. To give a reasonable response to the tricky question, the organisers have divided the conference into two parts.

During the first three days of the conference, more than a hundred experts in fields from privacy to software engineering gave speeches on relevant issues. For the remaining two days, the participants will join together at the workshops to closely engage in the topics brought up during the conference.

Digital biohacking - where are we?
In simple words, biohacking means the techniques implemented by people in order to manipulate biological systems. Such hacks can differ in nature and thus vary from chips implanted in a human body to organic substitutions to food.

Synthetic biologist Elsa Sotiriadis, Ph.D. stated in the opening talk “Hacking the World with Digital Biology”, that biohacking will become the next revolution. She demonstrated that biohacking has already been used as a technology to make a better human.

As biohacking is becoming distributed to the point where people are able to design and build artificial organisms in a cloud, now is the time for biohacking to become more accessible to the general public.

More than just wishful thinking
It might be hard to grasp a topic of such scale in an opening talk, however, it is clear that biohacking is more than just “crazy-talk” by futuristic scientists of today.

Even if Sotiriadis’ opening keynote could seem a bit scattered, leaving some with more questions than answers, her main message was clear – “biohacking is not something to be afraid of, as we are co-creators of the future.”

No statement should be blindly accepted. And while software developers and software engineers were loudly discussing the topics in the halls of Malmö Mässan, experts in the auditoriums tried to provide a clear picture of the state of technology.

A tiny bite for everyone
Except for Sotiriadis, who gave the opening statement on Monday, there were not many experts on bio-hacking per se. At times, one could even forget the topic of the conference.

However, as with any specific topic, it is important to understand that biohacking goes further than a particular chip installed into a human body. As the conference progressed, it became clear that all these topics are indirectly connected to the main theme.

Talks on such subjects as GDPR compliance for a datastore by Philipp Krenn or cognitive science decision for Virtual Reality by Az Balabanian, did not directly answer the question of where biohacking stands nowadays. It is when such things are analysed in context that they add up well.

Privacy matters will clearly occupy a space in a world where devices are able to store information inside the cells. Cognitive research with the help of VR devices will help to better understand hacking abilities on the visual and locomotor systems.

Security issues, as it was emphasised by Niall Merrigan, will also have to be addressed accordingly. Especially when every technological device potentially becomes the subject of an outside interference.

If this sounds far-fetched, many thought the same way in the 1980s before the first virus, Elk Cloner, appeared. Or in 2017, when ransomware hacked hospitals, causing health-care nightmares around the world.

From speeches on JavaScript and Blockchain to a more philosophical talk “Turning up the Good” by Woody Zuill, the team at Ørdev did a perfect job in covering almost every aspect of today’s technological discourse.

Make biohacking useful
During his speech on designing intuitive tools, Tylor Woolf made an important remark - “If you are making a tool, make sure it will be useful.” This statement is going to haunt a curious mind long after the conference ended.

People can create various things to hack life but how necessary are they? Before people accept such a scenario, it is important to understand what are the real reasons to hack biology.

If hacking, as it was claimed by Sotiriadis, will prevent global warming, or will help to create a habitable environment on Mars then, of course, such means are worth investing in. However, if biohacking will be used as a mere tool for installing chips into people’s hands in order to send tweets at a faster pace, then the usefulness and purposefulness of biohacks may be questioned.

In the end, it all comes to the question - is the core of such efforts to merely satisfy the needs of the rich and influential, or does it carry humanitarian purpose, and strive to improve life for everyone?

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