Wearable Sensor Turns Color-Blind Man Into 'Cyborg'

Jan 11, 2014
Originally published on January 11, 2014 12:53 pm
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Neil Harbisson is an artist who was born with total colorblindness. That means he sees only in shades of black and white. But a sensor attached to his head has expanded his world by translating colors into sound frequencies. And for this reason, Mr. Harbisson considers himself to be a cyborg. Neil Harbisson joins us now from the studios of the BBC in London. Thanks so much for being with us.


SIMON: Why do you consider yourself a cyborg and not just a guy who wears a device?

HARBISSON: Well, at the beginning, I felt that I was wearing a device but slowly the software started to feel more and more as an extension of my senses. And there was a point where I couldn't differentiate the software from my brain. I started to dream in color so my brain was reproducing the sound of the software. And I started to feel that the antenna was no longer a device that I was wearing but a part of my body.

SIMON: Well, let me get you to explain that device, if you could. This is something that's actually been implanted.

HARBISSON: Yes. So, first of all, in 2004, this was attached to my head, so it was a camera and headphones and a computer that I was wearing 24 hours a day and the antenna was attached on the surface of my head. Then I started to use a pressure to my bones so that I could hear colors through bone conduction. And then a couple of months ago, this was actually drilled inside the bone.

SIMON: So, how has hearing color affected your life?

HARBISSON: Well, it's changed many, many things - color's absolutely everywhere. So, wherever I look there's music now. Going to the museum now, I can listen to an Andy Warhol, I can listen to a Picasso. And when I listen to music, it happens the other way around. I feel color, so it's changed the way they perceive not only (unintelligible). So, daily places, such as supermarkets, 'cause there's many, many colors there.

SIMON: Mr. Harbisson, you co-founded the Cyborg Foundation. What do you do and what do you mean when you list one of the goals of the organization to defend cyborg rights?

HARBISSON: Well, now, cyborgs are a minority group. There are no laws defending the right to use technology as a part of the body. And then we want to defend the right of anyone who feels their right of wearing technology as part of the body has been in danger. In cases like not being allowed into a shop, for example, or not being allowed in a cinema, 'cause they think that they might be doing something illegal, or just the simple fact of being able to appear on your passport photo with your cybernetic extension if it appears on your head.

SIMON: Now, I gather you can now appear that way on your passport photo?

HARBISSON: Yes, but it took quite a long time to convince them that I felt that this was a part of my body and it should be allowed on the passport photo.

SIMON: I don't want to anticipate a lot of arguments that may or may not be made or that may or may not amount to anything, but where do you draw the line between someone like you who feels that they need that device to participate fully in the world and, you know, and some guy who never takes the ear buds out of his ears?

HARBISSON: I think it's, there's a difference between wearing technology and feeling that you are technology. That's, I think, the difference.

SIMON: I mean, on the one hand, if it helps people who can't walk walk or people, for example, like you who have some sort of visual impairment, if it helps them see the world more fully. But isn't there a concern - and maybe science fiction films fuel some of this too - that we would be on the verge of inventing some kind of super-strong human beings with, you know, arms as strong as machine pistons that could do ill in the world?

HARBISSON: Well, I think we should all have this wish to extend our senses and our perception 'cause I personally am comparing myself with other animal species and perceiving sound through bone conduction, which is what I have now. It's also very normal in nature. There's dolphins that can perceive through bone conduction, having an antenna attached to the head is something many animals have. So, I think that we can learn a lot from other senses that already exist in nature and we can apply them to humans.

SIMON: And does that make us human beings with some enhanced component parts or does it make us robots with some human parts?

HARBISSON: I think it makes us human. I think this is something extremely human, to create technology and then apply it to ourselves is something only humans can do so. I feel much more human now that I have technology in me.

SIMON: Neil Harbisson is an artist and co-founder of the Cyborg Foundation. Thanks very much for being with us, sir.

HARBISSON: Thank you.

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