Cyborgs Walk Among Us

By: Emilio Herce

It was science fiction author Aurthur C. Clarke who famously stated, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Considering this, what’s the last time you were sufficiently amazed by a new advance in technology? Sure, we bemoan the lack of levitating skateboards (it is 2014, after all), but we also overlook things that might have blown minds not 20 years ago. Say the mobile phone, a device that has become almost an extension of ourselves. Maybe the reason that this technology does not inspire a sense of awe is that you can clearly trace the evolution of the smartphone, from the first camera, to web integration and streaming video, to where we are now. I had all but given up hope on ever having that magical, awe-inspiring moment until I read about Neil Harbisson, a true to life cyborg (this status even being recognized by the UK since 2004), who has literally been using technology as an extension of himself.

BORN WITHOUT COLOR

Neil Harbisson was born with a rare disorder called achromatopsia, a condition that does not allow him to see in color. He lives life in grey scale. At first Harbisson attempted to disengage himself from all things colorful. He dressed solely in black and white, and while studying fine art at the Institut Alexandre Satorras, painted in only these hues. This was until 2003 when he met Adam Montandon, a cybernetics expert, and together they developed the first prototype of what would become his “Eyeborg,” a device that translates color into electronic sound frequencies he can hear. For example, he perceives the color red as the musical note F, yellow as G, and green as A.

This initial Eyeborg prototype was rather rudimentary and required him to lug around an 11-pound backpack at all times. The apparatus has been upgraded several times since. In 2007 Harbisson was able to detect color concentration as well as hues; more vibrant colors were translated as a louder tone, and by 2009, with the help of Matias Lizana, a student from Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya, his Eyeborg was miniaturized into a chip and color sensor antenna that was implanted directly onto his optical bone. Beyond Human Since then, Harbisson has surpassed even the limits of human perception. He can now detect both infrared and ultraviolet light and receive phone calls directly into his head. The device is even Bluetooth enabled. Harbisson wore this device for eight years before considering himself a cyborg. Initially the Eyeborg simply fed him information, which he had to decipher. Eventually the input became part of his perception, but it was not until Harbisson began to dream in color, that he began to think of himself as a cyborg. Harbisson’s body had come to accept this artificial input as an extra sense, and the technology had become part of him.

Like many inventive people, Harbisson developed his Eyeborg partially out of necessity, but also with the desire to understand an unknowable, the ability to perceive color, an ability which we all but take for granted. With this newfound capacity, Harbisson has furthered his career as an artist, painting visualizations of songs (listening to Mozart is a very yellow experience), even listening to faces (Nicole Kidman apparently sounds very good), and while Harbisson has a very practical and artistic use for his implant, the mind spins with possible applications. In a recent TEDx talk, Harbisson pulled examples from the animal kingdom.

“If we compare ourselves with other animal species, human senses are not very developed. If we compare ourselves with a dog, the dog can hear and smell much better than us. Some birds can perceive ultra-violet. Sharks can perceive electromagnetic fields. Dolphins can hear through the bone, so really if we compare ourselves with other animals we can see that we have a lot still to develop, so I think we should not stop creating our own senses.” 

Consider again your cell phone, a device that at its inception could do little more than send and receive calls. You probably wouldn’t be able to fathom its current functionality. That’s where we stand now in the field of cybernetics. Personally, I wouldn’t mind an implant which vibrated every time I faced north, and that might just be the beginning.

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