The voice coming down the telephone line is faintly robotic. It’s unexpected, even though I’m talking to one of the world’s first cyborgs, a colourblind European artist who has increasingly blurred the line between human and technology.
I’d stumbled across Neil Harbisson during a film festival in Barcelona, the Spanish city in which he spends most of his time. Three local uni students had cobbled together a short film about his remarkable life, and though amateur at best, the documentary left me itching to know what drove this unusual young man. This was someone who had wholeheartedly shed our society’s customary suspicion towards bodily augmentation and instead embraced it as key to his identity. But why?
The metamorphosis of Neil Harbisson began with a disability, of sorts. Born with a rare condition called achromatopsia, Harbisson’s world was black and white until, in 2004, he and a tech-savvy fellow university student developed an electronic eye capable of translating colour frequencies into sound frequencies. Harbisson could now literally listen to colour.
It works like this. The colour wheel is broken into 360 hues, each of which is assigned an audible frequency. As Harbisson’s miniature camera-eye rolls over colours, sound vibrations from this 360-note octave are transmitted to his inner ear, allowing him to hear and thus perceive all the subtle differences in hue, though his eyes see only shades of grey.
With this bizarre-looking “eyeborg” antenna constantly strapped to his head, Harbisson gained almost superhuman powers. He began to perceive colours beyond the normal human range, like infrared and ultraviolet, and distinguish hues and saturation with far greater accuracy than the ordinary person. His greyscale world was filled with sound; the lurid colours of cleaning products at his local supermarket transposed into rave music inside his head. His perception of music changed too, as everyday sounds became associated with colours. The symphonies of Mozart and Bach, for example, are predominately yellow for Harbisson, while Beethoven is more purpley-blue.
“My ears can detect so many different sounds,” he says. “Music is only twelve notes in an octave, whereas this is 360 notes in an octave. For example between F and F-sharp there’s no note on a piano – but I have thirty notes.”
Of course, none of this affects his speech in any way. It’s just that Harbisson, who is half Spanish, half British, grew up in Catalonia. His native tongue is Catalan, and his English has a clipped, almost mechanical edge. The accent adds to the intrigue of a man who, last December, finally found a doctor willing to drill straight through his skull to permanently implant a little piece of technology beneath his occipital bone.
“I was awake during the surgery,” Harbisson says of his latest technological leap forward. “I could feel the drilling and they could talk to me. It took three hours. The skull was drilled three times for three different entries - two for the antenna and one for an audio entry so I would have sound directly into the skull.”
Harbisson kept the operation secret for three months. The bone took longer than expected to heal around the implant and he needed time to adjust to the strange and unexpected realisation that he could actually feel the antenna, like an extension of his body. It even affected his balance. “It’s so difficult to describe. I don’t know if anyone has ever sensed this before.” He pauses, groping for an accurate description. “If I close my eyes and someone touches the antenna, I feel it. Maybe it’s like a long nail … this is a very ugly comparison. Or a very long tooth. If you had a long tooth and someone hit the tooth, that’s more or less what it’s like.”
I find myself oohing and aahing along to the conversation like an astonished child. Harbisson is describing a heightened physicality that is almost impossible to imagine, even slightly terrifying. The mere thought of undergoing non-essential brain surgery while fully conscious seems like a barrier I could never cross. Yet I am goggle-eyed with wonder, and perhaps even a little envious of Harbisson’s magnified perception of reality, the door to which surely remains locked without technology’s help.
Harbisson now perceives the sounds of colour via bone conduction. But it’s far more than that. His upgraded eyeborg contains a doorway to a whole new cybernetic world: wireless connections. Using Bluetooth, he can receive phone calls directly to his head and perceive images without ever actually seeing them. “I no longer need to perceive the colours that are in front of me,” he says. “I can perceive the colours that someone else is seeing. We demonstrated it in the first talk I did about this, in March. Someone in New York sent me images to my head direct from Times Square and I was able to sense all the different colours that she was Skyping.” He’s developed an app that allows strangers to send colours from their mobile phone to the antenna, meaning that Harbisson can – for example – perceive the colours of a sunset photograph sent from Australia while sitting in a Barcelona office.
Having a wireless chip inside his skull does, Harbisson admits, leave him vulnerable to hacking.
Having a wireless chip inside his skull does, Harbisson admits, leave him vulnerable to hacking. “That’s why I don’t give my phone number to anyone, almost. People could start just calling my head and that would be annoying.” He knows that, like any other computer system or network, when he’s connected to the internet there’s always a threat of malicious attack. But Harbisson’s not worried. “The solution is I just shut it down. If I just use the closed circuit there’s no way anyone could hack into my senses.”
Harbisson is a walking example of the rapid technological advances seen over the past decade. His body initially rejected the first clunky webcam, which required headphones and a five kilogram computer he wore inside a backpack. “My ears blocked and I had backaches,” he says. With time, that cumbersome computer morphed into a small, almost weightless chip.
In 2007, while Harbisson was hitchhiking around Slovenia, he chanced a lift with a Peter Keše, a computer scientist specialising in art and colour. “It was a magic moment, an incredible coincidence,” Harbisson says. Keše developed software allowing Harbisson to perceive colour saturation through changes in volume; amplified sounds indicate vivid colours, while lower volumes denote dull shades.
Harbisson’s world invites a comparison with natural synaesthesia, in which some people experience sounds as colours. Indeed, the development of his eyeborg was inspired by the synaesthesia’s hints that visual and auditory senses can overlap in the brain. But Harbisson insists his experience is wholly different to that of synaesthetes. For one, he can never see colour. And then there’s the extension of his senses, which allows him to “see beyond the normal”, much like a seventh sense.
The next logical step, Harbisson predicts, is extending his hearing with a microphone attached to the back of his head. “I could sense infrasounds or ultrasounds, sounds that go beyond our normal hearing,” he says. Each technological advancement takes Harbisson a little further away from where he began ten years ago, attempting to compensate for a rare condition that robbed his world of colour, and a little closer to augmentations that go beyond natural human abilities.
Harbisson’s peculiar life has not gone unnoticed. He makes a living creating incredible art installations that merge sight and sound, such as musical portraits composed from the sounds of people’s faces. (Oddly, Prince Charles sounds surprisingly similar to Nicole Kidman.) He calls himself a cyborg activist and has become something of a celebrity, roaming the globe to tell his story and showcase his art. But with each technological evolution, Harbisson attracts more adversaries. Some question the wisdom of uniting humans and technology, worried that blurring the line between man and machine will lead us toward some sort of Terminator-style dystopia. “They worry about the future of humans and what the consequences might be,” he says.
There are some who believe humans are in a “transitional” period before we reach the next “posthuman” stage of experience. Known as “transhumanism”, the movement studies the benefits and dangers of overcoming human limitations with technology, and speculates that we’re on our way to creating a technologised, possibly even immortal, super-intelligence. It’s an idea backed by American inventor Ray Kurzweil, who believes technology will soon enable us to live forever, and that within three decades we’ll have millions of tiny nanobots swarming around our bloodstreams, fighting disease and making us smarter.
Somewhat frighteningly, Kurzweil also looks forward to a future where he can bring back his dead father by downloading his consciousness to a computer, based on surviving snippets of videos and photos and memories. It strikes me as terribly sad, the grand aim of a lost little boy still mourning for the father he lost when he was twenty-two. But Kurzweil’s not some loony: as director of engineering at Google, he’s probably better placed than most to make this astonishing dream a reality. Kurzweil does, however, acknowledge that such developments raise philosophical issues that cannot be solved scientifically.
This is the point where Harbisson, too, has run into trouble. Doctors baulked at wading into this ethical quagmire, concerned about the moral implications of conducting invasive, non-essential surgery. Harbisson searched for two years before finding a doctor willing to drill through his skull. That doctor has asked to remain anonymous. Harbisson likens the ethical debate surrounding cyborgs to early objections against sex change operations, which were considered “something weird and experimental that should be done underground”.
“Being cyborg is feeling that you are not using technology or wearing technology, it’s this profound feeling that you are technology,” he says. “It’s very similar with people who are born with the body of the man and feel that they are a woman.” He has also argued the surgical technique could be used on other people, like the blind. Harbisson has in fact signed collaboration deals with officials in both Ecuador and Brazil, under which he will create new eyeborgs and sensory extensions that would allow the blind to hear colour, just as he does.
In 2010, Harbisson and his partner, Moon Ribas, created the Cyborg Foundation to “help humans become cyborgs”. The foundation freely distributes the software that translates colour into sound, reflecting its argument that cybernetic extensions should be treated as body parts and never sold. It also advocates for cyborg rights, a platform Harbisson considers especially important after he fought – and won – a battle with the UK government to allow the eyeborg in his passport photo.
Harbisson says living with technology permanently implanted inside his skull makes him feel more animal than machine or robot.
Harbisson says living with technology permanently implanted inside his skull makes him feel more animal than machine or robot. He feels an affinity with species like dolphins, which hear through bone conduction, or insects with antennas. It’s totally unexpected, this idea that embracing man-made technology could bring us closer to the animal kingdom, for it seems exactly the reverse has occurred over the past century. Rapid industrialisation has been responsible for vast destruction of the natural environment, and technologies aimed at producing the highest output at the lowest cost have inflicted untold cruelty on millions of animals.
But this particular advancement does seem different. It is intensely personal, a stepping within. There’s a certain metaphysical element to Harbisson’s transformation, one that goes beyond anything humans have attempted in the past. At some point after our conversation it strikes me that this eyeborg of his hovers over exactly the point on one’s forehead where the mystical third eye is believed to be located – that supposed gate to inner realms and spaces of higher consciousness, to perception beyond ordinary sight. Heck, Harbisson even calls the camera his “third eye”. Is it possible that the enlightenment we so often seek can be found in this tiny piece of technology, I wonder? Or does the very fact that we continue to seek wisdom beyond our own flesh and blood reveal just how disconnected we’ve become from ourselves?
Where I am unsure, Harbisson is unequivocal. “People tell me that they find this very inhuman or unnatural,” he says. “I just completely disagree, because technology is a human creation, so I feel that extending human senses with human creations is completely human.” He believes the augmentation of human senses is crucial to our perception of our world and our understanding of reality. “We decide how we want to look, how we want to dress, how we want to be or behave,” he says. “Why can we not also decide how we want to perceive life? How we want to sense things?”
Koren Helbig is an Australian freelance journalist living in Spain. She has written for publications including New Internationalist, Frankie, Kill Your Darlings, GlobalPost and The Adelaide Review, and in a former life covered the colourful world of Queensland politics for The Courier-Mail. She blogs about sustainable living at The Little Green House and tweets from @korenhelbig.