While science fiction may have familiarized us with the concept of cyborgs, one wouldn’t expect to come face to face via Skype with a living person blurring the line between man and machine.
Thirty-one-year-old Neil Harbisson calls himself a cyborg. The artist from the Catalonia region in Spain is thin with a small frame and wears his bleached hair combed forward to match the angle of his antenna, a machine that protrudes from the back of his skull and hovers over his head at brow-level. Born with achromatopsia, a rare visual condition which prevented him from perceiving colour, Mr. Harbisson has cybernetically altered his body with the antenna so he can hear colour.
In 2013, he became the first person in the world to have an antenna osseointegrated to his skull (attached to the bone) allowing him to hear colours by way of bone conduction. This latest version of a device he calls an eyeborg, enables him to perceive colours outside the human spectrum and includes bluetooth, allowing him to receive phone calls directly through his skull.
Coined by Manfred Clynes and Nathan S. Kline in 1960, the term “cyborg” comes from blending the english words “cybernetic” and “organism.” When I refer to his eyeborg as a device, Mr. Harbisson is quick to correct me: “It’s no longer a device, it’s a body part” he explains. “It’s inside my skull.” When someone touches the eyeborg, Mr. Harbisson feels it the same as if someone was touching his arm. When he rotates the antenna from left to right he feels it in his body. He showers with it, sleeps with it, and it does not turn off. “I do not feel that I am wearing technology, but that I am technology,” he says.
On Tuesday, Mr. Harbisson will give a keynote address at Mesh, an annual two-day conference in Toronto focused on what’s new and next in digital. In the current moment when wearable technology is the craze, Mr. Harbisson provides a glimpse into a not-so-distant future where technology isn’t something we wear but something that’s under our skin.
Mr. Harbisson’s transition towards becoming a cybernetic organism didn’t happen all at once but instead occurred in waves.
“Colour has always been mystical to me,” he says. “As a child, I knew I was colour blind, but I didn’t know I was totally colour blind until the age of eleven.” While other children perceived colour, he memorized the grass is green and the sky is blue without having any real sense of it. The experience was alienating. “I felt socially disconnected,” he says.
In the early 2000s, Mr. Harbisson was studying music composition at Dartington College of Arts in England when he met Adam Montandon– founder of HMC Interactive, a digital production agency– who came to give a talk on cybernetics. “I approached [Montandon] and asked if we could start a project to extend my senses,” Mr. Harbisson tells me.
At age 21, he tried out the first collaboration with Montandon: a head-mounted camera that translated colours into sounds. This earlier iteration of the eyeborg required him to wear headphones and a computer with a battery pack, which he carried around in a backpack. This was not ideal, he tells me, because the headphones blocked an existing sense and the backpack–which weighed over 10 lbs – was taxing on his body.
In 2007, with the help of software developer Peter Kese, the eyeborg’s scope was extended so Mr. Harbisson was able to perceive hues and saturations outside the human spectrum. He can now hear ultraviolet and infrared. “Infrared is a bit lower [sounding] than red and ultraviolet goes up above violet.” As he speaks he marks the air with his left and right hands as if the colour/sound spectrum were spread out between us like a xylophone.
In 2010, the computer was converted into a chip which was installed in the back of his head, allowing him to hear colour through bone conduction. “At first it was mentally disturbing because there was constant input, so I had strong headaches,” he says.