Man implants ear in his arm so the world can eavesdrop on his life

An artist has a structure resembling a human ear surgically implanted in his forearm, and plans to turn it into an Internet-connected mic so anyone anywhere can hear what he hears.

Leslie Katz Former Culture Editor
Leslie Katz led a team that explored the intersection of tech and culture, plus all manner of awe-inspiring science, from space to AI and archaeology. When she's not smithing words, she's probably playing online word games, tending to her garden or referring to herself in the third person.
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Leslie Katz
4 min read

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The man with the ear in his arm. Nina Sellars

Some people would say they have eyes in the back of their head. A performance artist who goes by the single name Stelarc can say he has an ear in the inside of his arm -- and means it quite literally.

Stelarc, director of the Alternate Anatomies Lab at Australia's Curtin University, has long dreamed of turning himself into a remote listening device that continuously transmits what he hears to people around the world. Two surgeries have brought him closer to that vision, with an Internet-enabled appendage in the shape of a human left ear growing out of his very human left arm.

The first surgery involved placing a subcutaneous kidney-shaped implant in Stelarc's inner forearm that would, once saline solution was injected into it, form a pocket of excess skin that could later be used to surgically construct an ear.

During a second operation, an international team of doctors inserted a scaffold, made from biocompatible material commonly used in plastic surgery, that could be shaped into several parts and sutured together to form the ear's shape. Within six months of that surgery, tissue and blood vessels had developed around the structure, essentially integrating it into Stelarc's body and also holding the scaffolding in place.

"The ear is pretty much now a part of my arm," he told ABC News Australia, which published a story and a somewhat graphic video on Stelarc this week. "It's fixed to my arm and it has its own blood supply."

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The scaffold that went inside Stelarc's arm as the architectural structure for his artificial ear. Stelarc

Stelarc -- born Stelios Arcadiou on the island of Cyprus -- has been working on his full-size arm-ear for 12 years now, and even showcased it as part of gallery exhibitions. It's definitely a work in progress that's taken much creative strategizing and scientific experimentation.

"The inner forearm was anatomically a good site for the ear construction," Stelarc says on his website. "The skin is thin and smooth there, and ergonomically locating it on the inner forearm minimizes the inadvertent knocking or scraping of the ear."

The next step will be lifting the ear up off the arm to give it a more three-dimensional look and growing an earlobe from Stelarc's stem cells to add to the ear's realism. Such a procedure isn't legal in the US, so it will be done in Europe, Stelarc says.

"It's still somewhat experimental with no guarantee that the stem cells will grow evenly and smoothly, but it does provide the opportunity of sculpturally growing more parts of the ear," Stelarc says on his site.

Can you hear me now?

From there, it is hoped, a miniature microphone will be inserted that can wirelessly connect to the Internet, making it possible for anyone who's interested to listen in to the artist's life 24-7.

Stelarc is part of a growing movement of so-called biohackers who believe the human body can be engineered to be better, stronger and more efficient -- and who undergo elective medical augmentation procedures with that aim in mind.

His is one of the more extreme examples of biohacking we've seen, but it's far from the only one.

There's the "DIY cyborg" who had a Bluetooth chip implanted that reads his body temperature and delivers the data to a mobile device. The guy who had a Wi-Fi-enabled device implanted in his skull that lets him hear colors. The one who had magnetic speakers implanted in his ears for an unusually convenient music-listening setup.

One man had a digital camera implanted in the back of his head to take photos of what's going on behind his back (he later had the camera taken out, because...headaches). Another put magnets in his arm to hold his iPod Nano (remember those?) in place.

Such practices, of course, raise a host of complex questions related to medical ethics and safety, not to mention their potential ick factor.

Stelarc's early skin expansion process led to necrosis, or the death of cells. Later, he got a serious infection after having a mini microphone implanted inside his arm-ear, and the mic had to be removed. The procedure he's waiting to undergo will involve reimplanting a mic to enable a wireless Internet connection and make the ear an always-on remote listening device.

"For example, someone in Venice could listen to what my ear is hearing in Melbourne," he says.

His past works have involved him performing with a six-legged walking robot and being suspended from the ceiling with multiple hooks in his skin.

If you're screaming "What??" right about now, Stelarc has heard such reactions to his art before, loud and clear, with the ears on the sides of his head.

His arm -- with the lengths he has gone to to make it what it is -- provokes strong reactions. Some people are revolted by it. Others no doubt see it and start plotting how they can turn their own neck into a speaker or their own knee into a smartphone case.

"This project has been about replicating a bodily structure, relocating it and now rewiring it for alternate functions," Stelarc says. "It manifests both a desire to deconstruct our evolutionary architecture and to integrate microminiaturized electronics inside the body."

Hear, hear?