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Neil Harbisson: The First Human Cyborg


Emma De Angelis

Cyborgs, cybernetic organisms combining organic and artificial parts, or human beings with robotic implants, are usually associated with science fiction or, at the most, technological and medical advances far into the future. Even when thinking of sophisticated prosthetic limbs, most would be hard-pressed to think of the people who wear them as cyborgs. And yet, in 2004, the British government officially recognised Neil Harbisson as the first human cyborg. He successfully argued that he be allowed to wear what Neil calls the ‘eyeborg’, a small device that transforms light waves into sounds to allow him to perceive colour, in his passport photo, as this was a part of him.

A Human Cyborg

Neil Harbisson is a British artist and campaigner who was born with the inability to see colour. Rather than being colourblind, he perceives everything in black and white – suffering from a condition diagnosed as achromotopsia when he was a pre-teen. Growing up, he looked for different ways of relating to and ‘understanding’ colour: yet it was not until Neil met cybernetics expert Adam Montandon that the possibility of ‘hearing colour’ became an option. Together, the two developed what they call an ‘eyeborg’ – a device made up of a small camera and a chip on the back of his head. This device uses digital inputs to enhance his senses and allows Harbisson to ‘hear’ light waves.

The Eyeborg

The eyeborg is a tiny camera that uses software to transpose light into sound, exploiting the fact that both light – and hence colour – and sound are waves. Human senses, however, cannot normally perceive light waves as sound, as they are far too high – they are however perceived by vision.

The software that Harbisson uses, however, does more than create a sound for each colour: the system actually creates a varied scale of frequencies, allowing its wearer to perceive 360 different hues. This creates what Neil Harbisson calls ‘sonochromatism’ – a new, different sense that links colour and sound, but is different from synesthesia because with this new sense the relationship between colour and sound does not vary from person to person but remains objective. This integration between the software and Harbisson’s brain has allowed him to call himself the first cyborg.

In fact, an increasing number of people now live with robotic parts integrated into their body. In 2002, a neuro-surgical implant into the arm of Kevin Warwick, professor of cybernetics at Reading University allowed him to experiment with linking his nervous system directly to a computer, and can thus effectively claim to be the first cyborg – but unlike Harbisson, Warwick’s implant had exclusively scientific purposes and was a key part of “Project Cyborg”. Yet, the two’s visions are similar in that both look at a future in which humans can be enhanced through the integration of man and machine.

A Cyborg World

Neil Harbisson has a strong commitment to using this unique condition to make art, communicate and campaign for the rights of others like him – human beings with integrated digital components. As a young man, he studied fine art and music, and as an artist, he builds on his unique perception and interpretation of colour and sound to introduce his audiences to unconventional ways of perceiving the world around them:

I do concerts where I plug myself into a set of speakers and play the colours of the audience back to them. The good thing is that if it sounds bad, it is their fault!

I also do portraits live by pointing at the different hues on the different parts of the face, so I can create the chord of a face.

But he also does the reverse, transforming the sounds he hears into colour:

“I started to paint using the sounds around me. I have made pictures of pieces by Vivaldi, Beethoven and Mozart among others.”

Interestingly enough, Neil says that his perception of art and beauty has changed after he started using the eyeborg: because he now perceives visual art in a different way, his reaction to it has changed too, and the way that the colours of a painting come together to produce different chords has a fundamental impact on what he perceives as beautiful. And the ability to hear colour has changed his experience of everyday life too, from walking down the street to picking what clothes to wear, his perceptions are now all shaped by the way sound and colour relate.

Neil Harbisson
Neil Harbisson

The Cyborg Foundation

In 2010, with choreographer Moon Ribas, Neil Harbisson co-founded the Cyborg Foundation, “to help humans become cyborgs, to promote the use of cybernetics as part of the human body and to defend cyborg rights”. The Foundation promotes projects related to extending and creating new senses through the meeting and integration between technology and the human body. Its underlying philosophy is that all human beings – not just those with disabilities – can benefit from the extension of their senses and perception, as human senses are much less developed than those of other species in the animal kingdom. Rather than natural evolution, Harbisson argues for evolution through technology as a way of enhancing the human body and humanity’s sensory experience.

Neil Harbisson
Neil Harbisson – Moon and Harbisson – Courtesy Raul Roncero
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