Because Cyborgs Can Dream, Too
It is unspectacular for us to use tools to correct weak eyesight in order to reinstate the human capacity of seeing. These have even become very personal items, both fashionable and intimately connected to individuality. And as technology progresses, we even find more creative ways to complete our human senses to something very abstract: a standard.
Neil Harbisson was born in London, England, and is the first officially acknowledged cyborg in the history of mankind. Neil has an inborn inability to perceive colours (achromatopsia), and spent the first part of his life experiencing his environment in shades of grey. He began early to live the life of an artist, composing piano pieces at the age of eleven, dressing in black and white according to his perception of the world – a world that contains no colour. In October 2003, he was inspired to finally attempt to “see” colour. He developed the so-called eyeborg, a device that transposes light frequencies of 360 different shades of colour into 360 different sound frequencies, which Neil is now able to distinguish by hearing. With the help of his new device, he started creating sound portraits of faces and images of famous speeches or symphonies (see slideshow).
“At the beginning I just found it chaotic because there is colour everywhere. I heard so many different sounds and had to memorise the name that you give to each colour by the sound I heard.” – Neil Harbisson, re:publica13
According to neuroscientists, the brain is constantly changing due to our everyday experiences, each of which is accompanied by a physical alteration at the microcellular level, transforming the existent nerve cells into a new configuration, reshaping in accordance with the new stimuli it is exposed to. In short: a genuine and new experience, different from both visual and auditory perceptions.
“After some time, this information became a perception, it was automatic. And after some time, this perception became a feeling. I started dreaming colours. I started to hear colours in my dreams.” – Neil Harbisson, re:publica13
This was the sentence that helped me understand the relevance of Neil’s invention. During our interview Neil revealed that the new prototype just arrived and was ready for implant onto his skull, transporting the sound waves of the eyeborg through bone conduction to his inner ear.
Neil sees himself as a proper cyborg. Together with his close friend, the photographer and choreographer Moon Ribas, he founded the Cyborg Foundation to publically strive for the recognition of cyborg rights, and to develop a series of other cybernetic extensions to the human senses. By creating the eyeborg software and instructions on how to build your own eyeborg device – using simple components available from the internet – the Cyborg Foundation invites others to extend their own senses in order to share in the experience of being a cyborg.
On a hot August summer’s day in Barcelona, we speak with Neil Harbisson and Moon Ribas.
Neil, you are wearing your eyeborg right now. How do I sound?
Neil: Your hair is between G and F-sharp. Take off your glasses and show me your eyes. They are C to C-sharp. Your lips are E and your skin is F-sharp.
I bet you get asked that question quite a lot?
Neil: Pretty often, yes.
I would like to know more about your invention. In one of your interviews you said that what you got from your eyeborg-enhancement at first were mere sounds. You still weren’t able to see colour, but you started to perceive it.
Neil: Yes, but colour perception does not need to be visual. It can be perceived through sound, so I do not conceive it like you do. I perceive colour through bone conduction to my inner ear. It is specifying a new sense – a bone conducted sense. This is how dolphins perceive sound in water.
How does the cybernetic extension affect your dreams?
Neil: In my dreams my brain creates the same perception that I have during the day. During the day it is the chip that creates this perception, but at night it is my brain.
That’s exciting and scary at the same time.
Neil: It is exciting and the opposite of scary: it is good (laughs).
I see my antenna as a musical instruments, it creates a new shape of my brain. A new brain. I will exhibit an MRI scan of my brain. I feel my brain has moulded into something else now.
How might one imagine what this feels like?
Neil: Imagine a tuning fork: it sounds like that. Strike a tuning fork and put it on your head. Also, we have created an app that turns your phone into an eyeborg device.
Moon, what is your cybernetic extension? Does it also impact your life as Neil’s does on his?
Moon: I am connected to seismic sensors all over the planet by wearing a vibrating device that transmits the intensity of earthquakes to my body. According to the amplitude on the Richter scale, the stimulation is more intense.
How does this affect your experience?
Moon: I am more connected to the earth. I get a deeper feeling of the earth as a living and dynamic thing. There is an earthquake every few of minutes. I feel that.
Neil: Sometimes, when there is a strong earthquake somewhere far, Moon wakes up at night due to the strong stimulus coming from the device.
To me, this sounds as though you are less human than I am. You have called yourself a cyborg – that is what I am not.
Neil: It is more human to be a cyborg than to be a human.
I’m sorry – I don’t follow.
Neil: As cyborgs, we (referring to Moon and himself) are closer to animals than to robots. We have extended our perception closer to what some animals perceive. It brings us much closer to nature. With the eyeborg we extended the scale of the visual sense to infrared and ultraviolet. Through extension to the lower frequencies, I can perceive people’s heat auras. Every person has a different skin temperature. I can perceive the frequency, telling their state of mind, if they are angry or sad. This is like perceiving their energy.
So, one can say this is a new step for humanity?
Neil: Yes (they both laugh). It is a huge step, a new moment in history, I suppose. It is a very experimental state we are in right now, and a very interesting one.
In other words, you’re another species?
Neil: A new species? Difficult to answer.
But admittedly, I feel alone. I cannot share my experience with other people. This doesn’t make me feel special – it just makes me feel alone.
What are the most interesting projects you have been invited to cooperate on?
Neil: We have received a lot of emails from people asking us to develop devices for other senses. Here is our Top 3 list:
1. People wanting to perceive smells. Those who don’t have the sense of smell are unable to detect rotten food or fire or gas.
2. People wanting to extend the physical parts of their body. This is rather bionic, which is not our purpose; we focus on the extension of the senses.
3. Memory. People wanting to extend their capacity to memorise and remember.
As a cyclist, I would love to be able to know what is going on behind me. Could you fix me up?
Neil: Sure, we could implant a movement detecting infrared sensor to the back of your head. You could feel the cars behind you by using your skull as a conductor of the signals of the sensor. After some time you would develop a 360° sense of your surroundings.
You have used the eyeborg to help blind people detect colour.
Neil: Yes – that was emotional. When they became aware that there was a certain object of a certain colour in front of them, they began to remember what the colour looked like. It was amazing.
Thank you Moon and Neil, for sharing your ideas and experiences with us.
Cyborg Foundation: www.eyeborg.wix.com/cyborg
Moon Ribas, waiting for earthquakes.