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Neil Harbisson, the world’s first legally-recognised cyborg, talks to Roshni Nair about the untapped potential of cybernetics and the need to make technology more intrinsic
Neil-Harbisson-cyborg Alec Baldwin looks on as Harbisson wears a head-mounted apparatus to make a sound portrait of the actor in New York
The story of Neil Harbisson is one for the ages. Born with a rare vision disorder called achromatopsia, this British-born, Barcelona resident saw the world only in black and white.
That was until 2003, when he collaborated with Adam Montandon, Associate Professor of Innovation at Denmark’s Erhvervsakademiet Lillebælt institute. Together, they created a revolutionary device called the ‘eyeborg’. Fixed on the wearer’s head, the eyeborg converts light waves (colour) into sound waves. This effectively gives one the ability to hear colour.
To say Harbisson’s life changed thereafter would be a trivialisation. Once fully colour blind, Harbisson now perceived the world like no one could. “Art galleries became sound galleries,” he says. “I was suddenly able to listen to a Picasso or a Rothko, and supermarkets became orchestras of sound.”
A year later, in 2004, Harbisson became the only person in the world allowed to wear a head-mounted apparatus for his passport photo. This made him the world’s first legally-recognised cyborg.
Today, this contemporary artist, who creates ‘sound portraits’ of people, is a champion for cyborg rights. His Cyborg Foundation, established in 2010, is dedicated to creating awareness and promoting cybernetics as a way of life. In this interview, Harbisson talks about his vision for the future. Edited excerpts:
You’ve said that you were teased in school because of your disorder. Was achromatopsia something that always made you feel out of place?
Since colour is everywhere, weren’t you bombarded by too much noise when you first wore the eyeborg?
Yes. When I first started hearing colour, it was too much information because it’s all around us. My brain was being remapped, so I’d get headaches and feel really tired. It took around five weeks for me to get used to it. Other than that, I also had to get used to my new height, because the eyeborg antenna made me 7cm taller. So I’d bump into doors or branches (laughs).
You once said that Renaissance art ‘disturbed’ you as compared to modern art because the latter had ‘less noise’…
I like abstract and minimalist art because you can hear the notes clearly. Traditional and classic paintings are more detailed, so you hear more notes, and that can become very chaotic. Simple paintings sound much better — you can concentrate on specific notes. Paintings by Mondrian, for example, have clear separation of colours. Paintings with complex shapes and shades are complex to listen to.
As a cyborg, do you have any dietary or lifestyle restrictions?
Electricity is part of my diet because apart from food and drink, I need to charge myself. I had to plug myself in a power source, but don’t need to anymore. My eyeborg is now battery-powered, and it lasts for about 4-5 weeks.
But my ultimate aim is to draw energy from my own body instead of depending on an external source. Energy from blood vessels, our breath, and even brain energy.
Have you ever faced opposition for being a cyborg?
Oh yes. Some very religious people think our bodies shouldn’t be modified. There are bioethicists who feel technology shouldn’t be merged with humans. So doctors refuse to perform cyborg operations. It’s extremely difficult to convince ethical committees about such procedures. Which is why the doctor who implanted the eyeborg on me remains anonymous. Many believe the union between humans and technology is unnatural, unhealthy or dangerous. That it will bring about a new kind of ‘species’ that will be dangerous to the world. This reminds me of the time people thought sex change operations shouldn’t be performed. But this attitude is slowly changing.
Why do you think that bioethicists have a grouse with cybernetics when devices like pacemakers and microchips have saved lives?
The difference is that I can hear infrared (IR) and ultraviolet (UV) – colours the naked eye can’t perceive. This goes beyond the realm of the normal and acceptable. Any implant that goes beyond traditional senses or perceptions is an issue for bioethical committees.
Also, having an antenna implanted means you’re not replacing a body part – you’re creating one. Some people believe humans aren’t supposed to perceive UV and IR. Some believe we shouldn’t have antennae. But I disagree. I think it’s only natural to sense IR and UV because these are colours other animal species can perceive.
If anything, being a cyborg brings you closer to nature, not the other way around. Having a new sense changes your outlook, because you see the world in a new way. It’s a new reality. The more senses you apply to your body, the more connected you feel to this planet.
There are concerns about cybernetics being used ‘idly’ instead of limiting it to rectifying a medical problem or disorder. Can you comment on that.
Anyone should be allowed to become a cyborg. We have the right to expand our perceptions of reality. I was never interested in seeing colour. I wanted to perceive it differently. In the same way I’ve decided to extend my senses, someone else too should be able to. There are people who are blind but have no interest in extending their sight. There are those who’re deaf and not interested in hearing ever. I believe there are two groups of people: one that doesn’t want to extend the senses, and one that does. We should be able to explore such an option.
Do you think people in developing countries can have access to affordable cybernetics in the near future?
Absolutely. Computers and mobile phones were exclusive at one time, but now they’re accessible to everyone. The same will happen with cybernetics. Cybernetics will actually be cheaper, because technology will be merged with the body in some way. There’s no external product. When you are a cyborg, you are technology. We’ve developed very affordable technologies, but the problem is that doctors aren’t willing to implant them. It’s more a social issue, not a monetary one.
Can you tell us more about these technologies?
We’ve worked on an infrared sensor called 360º Perception, which extends senses in all directions. This is to be attached to the back of the head. So you’ll feel a vibration whenever there’s movement behind you. There’s also something akin to an inbuilt compass that vibrates when you face north. This provides a sense of orientation and is also very cheap.
Such technologies can save lives. Like in my case, perceiving UV rays helps me avoid radiation. Moon Ribas, who co-founded Cyborg Foundation with me, has the Seismic Sensor in her elbow that allows her to detect earthquakes. If you can pick up tremors anywhere on earth, you can alert people that very moment. Similarly, if you can sense what’s behind you, you become more aware of your surroundings and can better protect yourself in a dangerous situation.
The possibilities of cybernetics are endless. You could have night vision instead of turning on the lights at night. That would save so much electricity. We could live in a world where artificial light is not necessary.
Does Cyborg Foundation get a lot of communique by people who want to become cyborgs?
Yes, thousands have contacted us. We try to reply to all of them, but it’s not always possible. More and more people want to stop using external technology and start becoming technology. They want to apply the technology that machines have to their own bodies. It’s strange that we give senses to cars and mobile phones, but we don’t give these senses to ourselves.
Cyborg Foundation will continue promoting cyborgism as an art and social movement. We want to work with people who wish to express themselves in other ways, with the help of other senses. We will also push for the creation of clinics and hospitals that can perform cyborg operations. Places like New York, Mexico, Ecuador and Germany are more open to cyborgism than others.
But there are privacy and security concerns about having technology merged with your body…
All technology applied to the body can be private and closed circuit. You can choose whether or not to connect your senses to the internet or a company. In fact, I encourage people to create their own cybernetic extensions. The Cyborg Foundation’s projects are open-source. So anyone can create their own antennae, Seismic Sense, or 360º Perception. Only you should have a hand in the creation of your sense, because at the end of the day, it’s personal. It’s not something you can buy.
So there’s no question of cybernetics becoming commercialised since sense expansion will be custom-based?
Yes. People can create their own senses and body parts. There are 11-year-old children who create robots at home. When it comes to cybernetics, you just need to find a doctor who’ll implant a device in your body. That’s the difficult part.
What impact does being a cyborg have on your personal and social life?
Well there aren’t many cyborgs in the world (laughs) so I do feel alone sometimes. If there were more cyborgs, we’d be able to share mutual thoughts and experiences. Being a cyborg at this juncture is quite isolating. It can be difficult to have a relationship with someone who doesn’t think or feel the same way about technology as you do. Sometimes, there’s a social gap between cyborgs and other people. Some people laugh when they see my antenna. But I’m used to it. I have been for 10 years.