Cyborg activist Neil Harbisson is back in the news this week after giving a presentation at Curtin University in Perth, Australia, about the latest updates to his permanently-attached antenna that allows this color-blind human to hear colors. Cyborg activist? Hear colors? Wait, what?
Neil Harbisson was born in 1982 with an extreme form of color blindness called achromatopsia that limits his vision to black, white and grayscale – a severe restriction for someone who wants to become an artist. In 2003, Harbisson and cybernetics student Adam Montandon designed a sensor that converted color frequencies into sound frequencies. An engineer expanded the range to 360 color microtones and adjusted the volume levels to help Harbisson discern color saturation levels.
An anonymous (due to the controversial nature of the project) team of doctors connected the camera-plus-sensor antenna via osseointegration (a direct connection between implant and bone used for dental implants and joint replacements) to the occipital bone at the back of his skull. Harbisson memorized the tones and was now able to hear colors, including infrareds and ultraviolets.
Harbisson calls himself a cyborg because the antenna gives him not just a variation on seeing but an entirely new sense.
For me, color is this new sense — it's not a visual element, it's not a audio element. It's a vibration in my skull, it is an independent sense.
That sense also has a Bluetooth connection that allows him to receive color images from cell phones. Five people around there world have his cell phone number and can send pictures directly to his head. Let’s hope he’s careful not to get Donald Trump mad at him or everyone in the world will know it.
I don't use technology and I don't wear technology. I am technology, and it's this feeling of being technology that also makes me feel like a cyborg.
As a cyborg, Harbisson had to get a special passport that allowed the permanent antenna to be in his picture.
He co-founded the Cyborg Foundation in 2010 to promote cyborgism as a social and artistic movement. More on his story can be seen and heard (but not felt – unless you’re a cyborg too) in the newly-released short documentary, “The Man Who Hears Color.”
The next phase in his cyborgism is to permanently connect his antenna to satellites so he can receive colors from space. Harbisson says the link is intermittent right now, which probably makes it frustrating to download an entire season of “Game of Thrones.”
Is it time to bring up cyborg rights in the next presidential debate?