The Curious Leader of a New Kind of Human Evolution
Amal Graafstra has never been one to accept the status quo. He calls himself a “jack of all trades” who has “always been curious about everything.” His story tells much about what creativity can mean for a career, and he has developed a clear sense of how curiosity can spur innovation and success.
Biohacking and Being a “Cyborg”
Graafstra dropped out of his computer science program in the 1990s and started a dial-up internet access provider company. In 2005 though, while running a company that handled HIPPA compliance for clinics’ IT services, he got very frustrated by his door.
The door would lock behind him each time it opened, so he often found himself waiting outside for someone to unlock it. “I got frustrated with keys” he explains. “I wanted the door to just know it was me. Key and lock systems haven’t changed since like 700 BC; they’re fundamentally the same. I thought, this is just archaic, there’s got to be a way for the door to just know it’s me and let me in.”
From there, he rejected biometric systems as clunky and unreliable and decided that a card reader-type system would work best. But having a card to carry presented the same problem as the key. So he started looking into the transponder chips veterinarians have been injecting into pets for years to keep track of lost animals. After much research, Graafstra found a version he liked and in March of 2005 had one put in his left hand between his thumb and index finger and installed a reader in the door. Some have called him a “cyborg.”
“People ask if it was a tough decision to put this in your body,” he explains. “And really, I didn’t even think about it. To me it was very clear from the decades of pet use that this thing works fine.”
Now, Graafstra opens his front door, unlocks his phone and opens his car with his RFID (radio frequency identification) implants. The movement he is a part of is known as “biohacking” because, as he explains, “We’re augmenting humanity through direct implantation of devices. It’s a hack. It’s not conventional.“
Eleven years later and he runs a company, Dangerous Things, that sells safe and informative kits to do this yourself.
But he hasn’t stopped there. He asked more questions about the security of our digital identities. “I started thinking, what problem am I really solving here, other than keys? What’s a real problem we can solve with this?”
His answer? “There needs to be a bridge built between a person’s biological identity and their digital identity. Right now, it’s a nightmare scenario of usernames and passwords that are always getting compromised and hacked, and patients are being misidentified at the hospital. How do we ensure safety, privacy and security by bridging these identities?”
This is taking the form of something he calls the VivoKey: another implant in the outside of his right wrist that can decrypt and encrypt data. The implant and an accompanying Android app can take the place of the two-step verification process for websites and send and receive encrypted messages.
“If I need to log into a website or prove my identity in a medical facility, I can do that now in a secure way using a device that I can never lose and can never forget and is very, very difficult to steal,” he asserts. “It’s a fundamental change in how identity would be treated in the digital world.”
How Curiosity Makes it Happen
Graafstra’s career has obviously been characterized by creativity and challenging the status quo through his innate curiosity. He has a strong idea of how curiosity has played into his success:
“It’s curiosity that you rely on when you hit failure. It’s not curiosity that drives you to failure; it’s what saves you from failure. You have an idea, and you’re confident about it. You’re not curious about it anymore, and you dive into it. And then you fail and you’re like, well, this isn’t going to work at all. Your ambition is gone. Your tires are flat.”
“Curiosity is the thing that sparks interest again. It sparks things back up when the fire’s out. And then something changes and you ask, ‘Oh what if I did that? What about that?’
“That’s the curiosity kicking in and saying, ‘Hey, we’re not done yet. Let’s try some other things.’ It’s vital to have curiosity.”
According to Graafstra, curiosity functions in a cycle with ambition and assumptions.
“They work together. Curiosity is keeping the spark of innovation alive in the dark times. Then you build on that and you have new assumptions and new ambitions and you go follow them. Curiosity hands off like a baton race to blind ambition or whatever is driving you. But when you hit a wall, you need to go back. Curiosity takes that baton back, and that’s when you start thinking and brainstorming.”
“I kind of think of curiosity as a vacuum, pulling in inspiration and ideas, and then when you have that critical mass, you go after something and chase it, and that’s the outflow. Then if it fails, you have to come back to that curious place.”