In the name of science, Rich Lee has done things to his body that most of us wouldn’t dare imagine. He’s implanted permanent earbuds in his ears that allow him to listen to music on the sly. He’s implanted magnets in his finger and experimented with eyedrops that would allow him to see in the dark. Most recently, he installed tubes of armor under the skin of his leg to act as a sort of built-in shin guard.
Lee is what’s known as a grinder, part of a community of biohackers that use their own bodies as laboratories to push the limits of the human form. The human body, they reason, is a machine that can be “hacked” for improvement in the same way you might add features to a computer or a car. Lee sees himself as a mad scientist, tinkering with his own physicality in search of perfection.
But to Lee’s ex-wife, his biohacking isn’t just an odd hobby—it’s a disturbing and potentially dangerous one that makes him a worse parent. She’s arguing in court that it poses such a hazard to their kids that Lee shouldn’t get custody of them.
When Lee divorced from his wife last November, they split the custody of their 9-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son. Then last month, after Lee’s shin surgery, his wife filed a motion to give her full custody, citing Lee’s biohacking as the primary reason.
“I stopped sharing joint physical custody,” the motion says, “because Rich has chosen to expose our children to his disturbing behavior of do-it-yourself surgeries and bio-hacking.”
His ex-wife did not respond to a request for comment through her attorney, but her court filings lay her position out clearly. “I am disturbed by Rich’s self-destructive behavior,” the motion reads, “and believe it has a negative impact on our children.”
Lee’s tinkering, in other words, isn’t self-improvement—it’s self-mutilation. Lee counts himself among the camp of hackers and scientists who don’t necessarily view the human body in its natural form as better. Their growing contingency, though, faces a stiff opposition from a majority of people who feel messing with nature is a slippery slope.
When he’s not playing mad scientist, Lee manages a warehouse for a packaging sales firm in southwestern Utah. He got into biohacking back in 2008. He was flipping through old magazines left behind by his recently deceased grandmother, and found himself upset by headlines from decades past promising things like the end of disease and eternal life.
“I was upset at futurism,” he told me. “All these predictions just never came true.”
If Lee wanted to live in a transhumanist utopia, he decided he was going to have to make it for himself.
He started small—a magnet in his finger, an RFID chip in his hand. Over the years, Lee’s experiments playing Frankenstein with his own body became increasingly extreme. He documented them on YouTube, turning him into a fixture of the grinder community. His latest project in development is the Lovetron9000, an implant he hopes will turn his man parts into a bionic, vibrating penis.