My aunt’s cat, Piglet, has exclusive access to her home. There’s no bouncer out front or PIN pad at the door. All Piglet has to do is stand near the cat flap and voilà, a sensor picks up the radio-frequency identification (RFID) from a microchip between her shoulder blades to unlock the latch.
Convenient as this keyless entry is, Piglet didn’t choose to be microchipped and it isn’t the chip’s primary purpose. Tagging has become routine around the world in order to match vaccination records, and track and identify pets. Pet door access came later.
At Epicenter, an office space in Stockholm, Sweden, many of the workers have chosen to be chipped, and they’ve done so mainly for convenience around the 86,000-square-foot facility. With RFID implants in their hands, Epicenter members can unlock doors, access printers, and pay at vending machines without having to fumble for cash or a card. Most of the nearly 1,000 members still use traditional means, but a healthy handful have opted in to the voluntary feature.
Epicenter is part of a movement to build the office space of the future. Members are encouraged to participate in over 100 annual events, from workshops on biohacking to concerts. Long distance calls can be taken through telepresence robots that roam around the corridors. A “robotic” vending machine makes fresh fruit smoothies on demand. There’s even a “biohacker breakfast” that consists of bulletproof coffee and a pair of boiled eggs.
“We’re trying to blur the distinction between electronic circuits and neural circuits.”
The idea is to make the workplace a place for play as well as productivity and experimentation. For well-known examples, look to startups and Silicon Valley, where offices sport things like nap pods, ping pong tables, and slides. However, for many Epicenter members, the goal isn’t just to kick back with yesteryear’s pleasures — it’s to push forward as early adopters of untested technology.
I met with Epicenter’s Chief Disruption Officer, Hannes Sjoblad, in the building’s atrium, which was alive with nomadic freelancers, corporate executives, and the atmospheric house music that’s become the muzak of the modern age. Within and without Epicenter, Sjoblad is a biohacking advocate, active in Stockholm’s maker spaces and online communities alike. The biohacker breakfast, he told me, was his idea.
“We have ambitions to take this way beyond a house where people work,” Sjoblad said. “We want to create magical experiences. Epicenter is founded by a group of guys who used to run big tech conferences, so one of our visions for epicenter is that it will be like a big tech conference everyday.”
Epicenter has an extended family of more than 300 companies — from Spotify to Microsoft — who are partnered with the space in one way or another. But a bunch of self-employed developers, designers, and creators of all kinds bump elbows in the atrium, cafe, and corridors, or at the center’s regular events.
Every month, Epicenter holds “Chip & Beer,” a meet-up where members can come get implants and sip libations. (Alcohol thins blood, so it’s best to start with the implant.)
“It’s really about the curiosity,” Sjoblad said, “and people accept the fact that we are early adopters. We think it is fun to try these things and don’t expect them to be products that will deliver a lot of value, but it’s fantastic to be part of a movement to explore uses for this tech.”
“A lot of what we do is highly experimental.”
Sjoblad acknowledged the privacy concerns associated with microchips and sensors around the workplace, and he stressed that the implant is strictly voluntary. And while France gives employees the right to disconnect as soon as they step out of the office, there’s something suspect about Epicenter members quite literally taking their work home with them, even though these chips can be used far beyond the office – as membership IDs for gym chains and supercenters, and to pay for goods at small shops all around Sweden .
It’s important, Sjoblad insisted, to have places like Epicenter where people willingly test new tech. It lets us know what we’re dealing with, while refining and ironing out the kinks before these devices become adopted by the masses. And what better place to be based than Stockholm, the capital of a country that’s as techno-progressive as any? Sweden is, in fact, so forward focused, it appointed a Minister of the Future a few years ago.
This May, Epicenter will host the Biohacker Summit, which will focus on health and productivity hacking with topics on mindfulness and nutrition, but Sjoblad said they won’t shy away from themes on the fringes. “I want to introduce some crazy elements as well,” he said, “such as sensory expanding wearables, and lab biohacking,” including making “personalized” yogurt from a person’s genital bacteria.
Personalized genital yogurt may be gimmicky, but it illustrates how biohackers are willing — even eager — to experiment in seemingly unsavory ways. And it shows how biohackers push boundaries and demarcate the comfort zones of people not actively involved in the community because, to them, this tech is fundamental to the future. Implantable tech has relatively limited functionality, but give it a few years and, like Piglet’s microchip, these devices will find new applications and become as commonplace as smartphones.
“If you want to know what is mainstream tomorrow, this is where it’s at,” the Biohacker Summit states on its website.
Epicenter is a case in point for how quickly this technology is entering the mainstream. And though you won’t find your own yogurt on the shelves of your local supermarket any time soon, your doctor will probably recommend a biometric implant in just a few years. At that point we can nod to biohackers like Sjoblad and crew for paving the way through experimentation. Meanwhile, they’ll be keen to stay at the forefront of the field.
“A lot of what we do is highly experimental,” Sjoblad said. “And I appreciate the opportunity to do that kind of stuff. The technology that makes me excited is not the stuff that you can buy in the standard shop. By then it’s already boring. Give me the stuff you only find on biohacker websites.”