Chen Man photographer 1

Editor’s Note: Photographer and artist Chen Man was a CNN Style guest editor. She commissioned a series of features on visual language and imagining the future. Beauty is a new section of CNN Style.

CNN  — 

From tribal piercings to the figurative tattoos of prehistory, humans have been modifying their bodies for millennia. But advances in prosthetics, implants and bioengineering are allowing us to alter ourselves in new and unprecedented ways – not only to beautify or overcome deficiencies, but to enhance and exceed our current capabilities.

Below, bionic artist Viktoria Modesta, bio-hacker Amal Graafstra and the world’s first recognized cyborg, Neil Harbisson, describe, in their words, how and why they’ve chosen to transform their bodies.

All three defy categorization and eschew the widely-used term “body-hacker.” But whatever the title – bio-hackers, neuro-hackers, futurists or otherwise – this ever-growing community is challenging the very notion of what it means to be human.

Viktoria Modesta, bionic pop artist, futurist

Viktoria Modesta is a “bionic artist” whose work explores the intersection of art, science, music, technology and design. She is a fellow at MIT Media Lab and has performed at museums, festivals, fashion weeks and the London Paralympic Games. Her work, which includes the viral hit “Prototype,” challenges our notions of ability and identity.

Viktoria Modesta, wearing her prosthetic limb, "Spike."

When I underwent a voluntary leg amputation at the age of 20, I was shocked to learn that doctors felt it was more acceptable for me to be in constant pain and for my whole body to suffer, than it was to have my damaged leg removed and replaced with an artificial one. That process highlighted an unhealthy obsession with how we value the biological body.

We identify with our bodies as what defines who we are. But going through the decision to amputate gave me a deeper sense of self. It made me curious about how we can transcend this rigid view – to approach the body in a creative way and take more care with the things we create.

My main motivation has always been about raising the bar on standards and expectations, which I have always found offensively low for women – especially those with disabilities. As a kid, adults looked at me as if I was destined for nothing, which I found really puzzling. I felt strong and imaginative, and I never identified with that image of being incapable.

My view of prosthetics has undergone an evolution.

At one point, I saw it as a form of salvation – and a form of feminism – to be able to take charge of my body and choose what my leg looks like. After my first few prosthetics, it became all about how they can be an art form and a statement of expression and fashion.

"My main motivation has always been about raising the bar on standards and expectations, which I have always found offensively low for women -- especially those with disabilities."

Most of the artificial art limbs I own result from a collaboration with the Alternative Limb Project. Crystal, a prosthetic encrusted with Swarovski crystals, was created for the Paralympic Games’ closing ceremony; Spike, a black lacquered, geometric prosthetic; and Light which contains LEDs, both featured in my viral music video “Prototype.” By working with tech-facing artists and designers, I am now developing many conceptual projects fusing prosthetics, fashion, musical instruments and emerging technologies.

Nowadays it seems that the prosthetics space is changing from a basic medical industry to a consumer one, and it’s being infiltrated by designers and engineers from other fields.

Medical assistive devices are becoming more like any other aesthetic and technological features found in our lives. From the things I have seen in development, it may be increasingly common to have internal sensors that can project data from inside the body, uniting all forms of tech wearables.

Whether it’s clothing that monitors your health, bionic limbs controlled by the power of thought, or robotic attire that responds to the environment, we are heading for a neuro-connected, expressive future where technology will be an intimate extension of our selves.

We are all interfacing with technology. It might be for different purposes like medicine, lifestyle, art or simply a manifesto, but this segregation is just one of those human illusions.

It doesn’t matter whether you identify as a cyborg or transhumanist, or if you’re an amputee, gamer, or older person kitted out with medical tech inside your body. Technologically advanced human bodies are the future, and the future is already here.

For me, fusing my body with technology feels like a philosophical exploration of humanity. It is art.

Neil Harbisson, cyborg and designer of artificial senses

Neil Harbisson is the world’s first legally recognized cyborg. He has an antenna implanted in his skull which transposes colors into audible vibrations. Since 2010, Harbisson has run Cyborg Foundation, an online platform dedicated to researching and developing artificial senses, promoting cyborg art and defending cyborg rights.

Neil Harbisson is the world's first legally recognized cyborg.

I define what I do as neuro-hacking rather than “biohacking” or “bodyhacking” because my ultimate aim is to change the mind. But, in order to do so, I have to change my body.

During my studies at art college, I became interested in sensing things that I couldn’t otherwise sense – which meant color (I was diagnosed with achromatopsia, or complete color-blindness, as a child).

Using technology, I co-created an antenna – that I have implanted to this day – which allows me to perceive colors. The antenna senses color frequencies, which reach me as different audible vibrations. It was chaotic at first because, as an artificial sense, it took longer for my brain to process. I couldn’t tell the colors apart, and it took me many months – and a lot of memorization – to actually understand and name the colors.

But slowly, after many months, the process became automatic. My brain began to transform sensory input into perception. My sense of what’s beautiful has changed too. Now, experiences that I normally wouldn’t have found stimulating – like walking down a supermarket aisle – are. In an aisle, there are lots of different vibrations of colors that, to me, are very flattering.

Neil Harbisson developed a sensor that could allow him to "hear" colors.

This project is artistic in intent. Because art has no rules, laws or boundaries, I feel like there is a lot of freedom when you contextualize a project in art. It allows me to think freely about what I want and how I want it. In this case, I’m not trying to solve a problem, I’m trying to explore alternate realities and solve my curiosity towards color.

The purpose of the Cyborg Foundation, which I co-founded in 2010, is to create senses and organs that aren’t traditionally human.

Whereas the medical field usually focuses on creating – recreating – pre-existing senses and body parts, the foundation focuses on innovating new ones. For example, my fellow co-founder, Moon Ribas, has implanted seismic sensors in her feet so that whenever there’s an earthquake in the world or a moonquake on the Moon, she feels it in her body.

Another artist, Manel Muñoz, has biometric ears that can perceive changes in weather. And then there is Kai Landre, who is developing a sensor that allows him to feel cosmic rays. By adding these new senses, we can reveal realities that already exist in nature, but that the human body or brain cannot yet perceive. The teams working on these projects all come from different backgrounds. There are artists, designers, doctors, computer scientists – multiple fields collaborating to create new senses.

Most people think these creations aren’t necessary for us to function. That’s because for thousands of years we, as a species, have been changing the planet rather than our bodies in order to survive. But I think that’s the wrong approach.

People might say they don’t need more senses, but at night they turn on the lights. But if humans actually had night vision, we wouldn’t have to create artificial light. Instead of using air conditioning when it’s hot, or heaters when it’s cold, couldn’t we just adjust the temperature of our bodies? We should look to designing and changing ourselves.

Amal Graafstra, invisible bio-hacker

Since 2005, Amal Graafstra has had multiple chips, RFID tags and even a magnet implanted into his hands, arms and upper body. He is the founder of Dangerous Things, a bio-hacking firm, and VivoKey, a digital identity platform aiming to make secure implants accessible to everyday consumers.

None of Amal Graafstra's implants are visible. An implant in his left hand allows him to unlock passwords.

I’ve always been fascinated by technology. When I started doing IT for a medical clinic, I began to see the healthcare system’s inner workings – how doctors are just mechanics, and in terms of how we diagnose, treat and fix it, the body is just a machine.

This experience removed the mystique of medicine. It also eroded the idea that the skin was some sort of sacred barrier. Even though chip implants are safer than ear piercings, people tend to have an “ick” reaction to them, while tooth fillings and breast implants are totally acceptable. The difference has nothing to do with the device or implant procedure, it’s applications that drive adoption.

“Bio-hacking” is an umbrella term meaning anything from DNA hacking to bionics to simple lifestyle changes. The term “hack” has a negative connotation, but it’s powerful when you understand that it really means an unconventional approach or solution. All good, efficient hacks become mundane – they’re no longer a hack, they’re just how things are done.

If an implant is designed well – in other words, it’s frictionless, management-less and you give it as much thought as you do your kidneys (in other words, none at all) – then it’s part of you. It’s not a tool that you’ve picked up like a smartphone, it’s actually changing your capabilities as a human. That’s philosophically, fundamentally and, as I’m sure we’re destined to see, legally different from any tool.

An x-ray of Amal Graafstra's hands reveal his implants. One of them helps him unlock doors without keys.

Fear of technology is rampant. The fact that my augmentations are internal – they’re not visible – definitely helps in terms of my daily interactions. I don’t typically have to worry about stigma or prejudice from the un-augmented. The typical visual cues that would normally betray the fact I’m “different” are just not there. Most “bio-hackers” can choose to disclose their augmentations or decide to keep them private.

I think a synaptic brain-computer interface is kind of the holy grail. Imagine we had synthetic synapses that could dock and exchange neurotransmitter molecules with organic synapses. We could pay a digital neural service to fire up a hundred billion extra neurons to think through problems, then shut them down once we’re done. It would intellectually free us, as a species, from the confines of biology.

The constant struggle to enhance our capabilities is the very definition of humanity. When we’re literally able to digitally expand our minds, we will begin transcending the human condition.

Top photo by Chen Man. Interviews, as told to CNN’s Stephy Chung and Oscar Holland, were edited for length and clarity.