STORYTELLERS INTERVIEW NO. 5: NEIL HARBISSON

December 5th, 2014

Alison’s interview with Neil Harbisson, the world’s first cyborg, was originally posted on Not Impossible Now to launch the site’s new Cyborg series.

Not Impossible’s Cyborg Series #1: Neil Harbisson

Unable to see color since his birth, Neil Harbisson implanted an antenna directly into his brain to correct his vision disorder, thus making him one of the most extreme and fascinating examples of voluntary cybernetic integration.  Humans have been pursuing the search for meaning since we first developed consciousness, seeking our place in the world and our relationship to it.

The paradox of what we can accomplish on a practical level, and what we should accomplish on a moral one, is debated by religions and philosophies alike across every society, through every century. And, even in this modern age, when all lands seem to have been conquered (and re-conquered) there is no consensus on what our limitations can and should be.

One particular group of people actively challenging the concept of what is humanly possible — if indeed they can be grouped, as they are more a massive international spread of somewhat like-minded individuals — are seeking to push past what is socially acceptable in the joining of science and our physical bodies. They call themselves by various names: transhumanists, grinders, biohackers, or, in a twist that seems more sci-fi than real, cyborgs.

Modern day cyborgs are people who deliberately and voluntarily incorporate technology into their bodies in order to expand the sensory capabilities of their physical consciousness. While some of these people are exploring ideas in theoretical or philosophical ways, such as those known as transhumanists, others, like the biohackers and grinders, are actively implementing and implanting technology into their bodies, without (for the most part) the aid or sanction of the medical and scientific worlds.

In this series, we will meet a few of the people who are challenging the notion of what it means to be human.

The Modern Cyborgs: Neil Harbisson and Moon Ribas

Neil Harbisson has an antenna sticking out of the back of his head. Made of a bendable metal that looks like an electrical wire, the antenna emits directly out of his skull, where it has been surgically embedded and attached to his occipital bone.

An artist, Neil had been limited by his complete lack of ability to see color, having been born with a rare condition called achromatopsia. Growing up in Barcelona together, childhood friend Moon Ribas would describe colors to Neil, the bright green of the leaves of a tree or the iridescence of a sunset. Over time, Neil became so adept at distinguishing the colors that he was able to describe the nuances even better than the color-sighted Moon could.

In college in England, Neil and Moon attended a seminar about cybernetics, and they realized that they could use technology to perceive the world in a different way. Their experimentation with technology in their art took them in various directions: Moon with dance, and Neil with color.

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In 2010, Neil and Moon started the Cyborg Foundation, in order to organize the inquiries from people around the world into what they realized had become a movement. The Foundation is a nonprofit organization that “aims to help people become cyborgs (extend their senses by applying cybernetics to the organism); defend cyborg rights; and promote the use of cybernetics in the arts.” They also pursue the development of embeddable technology, including the Eyeborg, the Speedborg, the Fingerborg, and 360° Sensory Extention.

If art, as so many have said, is the highest form of human expression, than Neil Harbisson and Moon Ribas are at the apex of the “why” behind the cyborg movement. Beyond mere sensory expansion, the doing of it just because we’ve got the technology so we can, there has to be a why, and Moon and Neil are actively engaged in providing the heart behind the movement.

What if, as Neil suggests, we are able to “sense all the ultraviolet in space that we can’t perceive or we don’t have names for yet?” What if, as Moon is exploring, we can implant a technology that allows us to know where and when an earthquake is happening within six degrees of the location of that terra-movement? Beyond the here-and-now shock value of an implanted antennae lies the question of what might happen if we explode beyond the capabilities that we have accepted as hard and fast physical limitations.

When meditation and yoga and chi have become so commonplace that science has begun accepting and studying the profound neurological changes that these sensory practices affect in our brains and body chemistry, what might happen to our bodies and brains if we began incorporating other heightened — or heretofore unknown — senses via technology?

The thought is both wondrous and scary. In this age of technology overload, where the lure of screen time seems to be pulling us away from the physical world, the thought of incorporating technology to the point where it becomes us and we become technology is daunting. Will we embody our collective fear of becoming a society of zoned out drones, no longer connecting with each other but instead living inside our heads, inside our senses, reflecting the world through an implanted virtual mental screen, a detached Google glass brain, dominated by corporate advertising?

Not if the future happens the way Neil and Moon envision it.

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Neil Harbisson: The World’s First Cyborg

In 2003, Neil attended a seminar on cybernetics, and a light went on. He approached the presenter with the suggestion that they start a project together, and thus the Eyeborg was born.

The original Eyeborg was a head-mounted sensor that allowed Neil to perceive colors through sound. Over time, the union between the software and his brain became seamless. His body and the technology became the same.

After several false starts and attempts by the medical community to prohibit it, Neil found a doctor who agreed, anonymously, to implant the antennae directly into his brain, thus making Neil one of the most extreme examples of voluntary cybernetic integration, and a subject of intense curiosity and worldwide scrutiny.

Neil has welcomed this attention, using it to create awareness of the cyborg movement through his art; through the Cyborg Foundation, his initiative with creative partner Moon Ribas; and through talks and lectures all over the world, including TED Global (provided at the bottom of this article).

Most importantly, Neil has gone where no one has gone before, exploring an entirely new sense within his own body via technology.

In an exclusive interview with Not Impossible Now, Neil explained why he wanted technology to be a “permanent” part of his body and the impact of cybernetics in society.

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How did you come to be interested in incorporating technology into your body?

My interest in cybernetics comes through art. When I was 20 years old I went to a lecture about experimental art, and I became interested in how technology can be used to extend our senses. I realized I wanted to do a project that involved incorporating technology into my body. I spoke to the guy who gave the talk, and that was my first step into the world of cybernetics.

All this started with wearable technology, which I have been experimenting with for many years. After a while, I wanted it to be an actual part of my body and life, not just something that I could take on and off. I wanted it to be permanent, and to have a new sense and body part. I had to convince a doctor to surgically implant the antenna, which was challenging because of bioethical communities challenging it. They said it was unnecessary and so it wouldn’t be approved. So I tried to convince a different doctor, who said yes, but remains anonymous. He conducted the operation in Barcelona.

It’s still just being done underground and not officially accepted by bioethical communities yet. I think it’s quite similar to back in the 1940s and 1950s, with sex change operations, which were not seen as necessary and were kept underground. After a few decades, doctors started to see that people truly felt they needed these surgeries. Some people feel that they are technology and want to have it implanted into them.

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How has the antenna changed your perception of color, and enhanced your senses?

The good thing about having a cyborg body part [antenna] is that technology is constantly evolving. It’s exciting because I can keep extending this new sense without limit. The older I will get, the more the senses will improve, because the better technology improves.

The antenna extends beyond human sight, so after a few years I could get more precise with the color spectrum. And then I started including infrared and ultraviolet, which go beyond human vision.

Now I can also connect to other devices, so I can hear colors that aren’t even in front of me. People in the world can send colors to me via mobile phones. Someone in California can connect directly to my head and send me the color of a sunset in California, while I’m in NYC. I can perceive colors that are way far away from me.

The next step is to connect to 5 different people in 5 different continents. And then to perceive colors in space, where there are so many more colors than on earth. I’m interested in sensing all the ultraviolet in space that we can’t perceive or that we don’t even have names for yet.

How does that technology happen, with transmitting the sunset? 

They send video. They connect the video camera on their phone and send me live images via a special phone number connected to my head. And I hear different frequencies. Depending on the colors I receive, I can feel what they are looking at.

In your TED talk video, you said that you had expected sunsets to be beautiful, but it turned out that more mundane things, like the aisles of products in a supermarket, were often more sonically interesting. 

Exactly. When you hear color, beauty has different canons. There are different places where color sounds really good, that I like the sound, but visually, it’s not very attractive. For example, rubbish can sound very good because there is lots of color. There’s not a correlation between the way it sounds, to how pleasant or harmonious it looks. Everything sounds quite different, from the supermarket to a sunset.

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Is the silence of black and white calming or disconcerting?

To me it’s calming. White is complete silence and it is harder to find. It’s easier to turn off the light and find lots of black, but actual pure white is difficult to find. People will say it is white, but usually it can be any unsaturated color, like a very pale yellow or something.

How does this differentiation of colors and sounds play into your artwork?

Today we are doing a first attempt at a painting experience. There will be a white canvas in Times Square, and passers-by will paint different colors on the canvas. There will be a camera sending images of the action to my head. I’ll be on stage at the Hyphen-Hub receiving the colors being transmitted to my head, and I’ll have a canvas, and I’ll be painting the exact painting at the same time in a different location.

Are there any physical limitations in your day-to-day life because of the device? For example, can you shower?

I do shower! It is not submergible yet so I can’t put my head under the water, but as it improves, we will be able to make the lens submergible and I will be able to hear colors under the ocean.

Can you record the sound you hear? 

No, I rejected having that because I didn’t want people to think they were being recorded or filmed. The antenna never stores sounds or images. But I use my brain to record colors, not the antennae itself.

I imagine you must find that people on the street may look at you strangely. Do people respond with curiosity, or discrimination, or enjoyment? 

The social reaction hasn’t changed much in 10 years. People react the same way when they see me, but it can vary depending on country and age. Teenagers usually laugh or say something insulting or make fun. Children point and stare. Young people just ask about it. Older people will also ask. And I think very old people don’t even see it.

In 2004, people thought it was a lamp or a reading light. In 2006, people thought it was microphone. In 2008, people thought it was a Bluetooth or a hands-free device. Then people thought it was a Go-Pro. Now they think it is Googleglass.

Can you talk about the Cyborg Foundation and what the mission is for the foundation? 

There has been a lot of interest because, unconsciously, I think people all want to become technology. But many people don’t accept that we are humans creating ourselves again with technology. Now people wear technology permanently, with pacemakers or robotics or phones. The next step is not to simply wear it, but to become technology, and to extend our sensory perceptions through our own creations.

The interest is increasing because there is a growing consciousness as we are realizing that we shouldn’t be afraid of technology. We’re slowly realizing that 20 century predictions about the negative or dangerous side of technology… people are seeing that it’s not true.

The Cyborg Foundation’s aim is to help people who are wanting to become cyborgs, to help them develop their senses, and find doctors, and help people to perceive it as an art movement. Then it will become a social movement. The Foundation also helps to defend the rights of people that want to become technology.

I would love to know what that is like, to hear color. 

You can! We have the mobile Eyeborg App, and it’s available for the Android now if you go to GooglePlay. You can put on headphones and walk down the street and use your phone to hear colors.

 

All photos by Scott McDermott for NotImpossibleNow.com.

Learn more about Neil Harbisson at the the Cyborg Foundation’s website. And you can take a look at Neil’s TED talk, here:

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