The World's First Cyborg Can Listen to Color

Tuesday, 02 September 2014 - 4:36PM
Weird Science
Neuroscience
Tuesday, 02 September 2014 - 4:36PM
The World's First Cyborg Can Listen to Color

Meet Neil Harbisson, the world's first legally recognized cybernetic organism. The colorblind artist has an antenna implanted into his skull that allows him to hear color.

 

The technology, called the "eyeborg," essentially simulates synesthesia, the neurological condition that conflates different senses and allows people to perform feats such as feeling sounds or seeing the color of numbers. Harbisson and computer scientist Adam Montandon developed the eyeborg, which is an antenna connected to a small computer, to allow Harbisson to convert colors into sound waves that he can hear through headphones. With this technology, he can hear 360 different sound waves. He has not only restored his ability to differentiate color to normal levels, but superhuman levels, as the eyeborg allows him to differentiate between colors that are outside the spectrum of human vision, like infrared and ultraviolet.

 

Harbisson, who has perfected the technology over the last ten years in order to make it minimally invasive, claimed that the eyeborg has changed his everyday life. He now chooses clothes based on his emotional reaction to the music they elicit. If he's feeling sad, then he'll choose clothes that are purple, orange, or turquoise, which are all connected to B-minor. If he's feeling happy, then he'll choose clothes that are pink, yellow, and blue, which are all linked to C-major.

 

He also explained how his newfound sense of color impacted his view of race: "I thought black people were black, but they're not. They're very very dark orange and people who say they're white are very very light orange."

 

Harbisson is also responsible for the creation of the Cyborg Foundation, a non-profit which aims to advance cybernetic technology and reduce the stigma surrounding cyborgs. "We want to make people understand why we find it normal and natural to have technology in me," said Harbisson, who calls himself a "cyborg activist." "I feel closer to insects who also have an antenna, to animals who can sense ultraviolet and infrared color. It's natural. We want to normalize the word 'cyborg' and show it's not about sci-fi."

 

Although he is the first to be legally recognized, Harbisson is not really the world's first cyborg. He is part of a larger movement known as "bio-hacking" that is gaining devotees all the time. Zoe Quinn, a prominent gaming developer and the subject of an ugly, misogynistic gaming controversy this past week, became one of these bio-hackers when she had magnets inserted into her fingertips. "Being a cyborg is just who I am now," Quinn told NBC News. "To get [the magnet or chip] removed would be like losing a sense at this point, losing part of me."

 

Artist Isa Gordon, who considers herself an "academic of the cyborg movement," believes that everyone became cyborgs long ago, as a result of our increasing dependence on everyday technology: "It's not necessary to hack into the body to become a cyborg; we are all cyborgs already. When you send an email, you are engaged in a system of control of communication between man and machine. That is the definition of cybernetics. It's very clearly in the present day.

 

"Technology is changing our world drastically, and the body has to become something new in order to navigate that new landscape," Gordon said. "Will it be a monster, or a thing of great beauty?"

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