World's first cyborg is part human, part seeing machine

World's first cyborg is part human, part seeing machine

CultureOctober 20, 2017 By Reilly Capps

Neil Harbisson thinks of himself as a cyborg — part human, part machine. The human part of him is a 33-year-old performance artist in Barcelona who was born totally colorblind. The machine part of him is a sensor screwed into his skull which, starting in 2003, allows him perceive color.

To some people, he just looks strange — like an insect, or "Futurama's" Bender. To others, he's a visionary paving the way for humans to become attached to technology, not just with pacemakers and insulin pumps, but to technology that actually helps them see better, hear better and feel more of the world. However, few believe he's a dangerous man, and that implanting technology in human bodies is the beginning of the end of humanity as we know it.

But what's really interesting is that the British government thinks of him as a cyborg, too.

See, when Harbisson was going for his passport photo, the UK government ordered him to remove his color sensor. But he couldn’t; he argued that removing it would be like removing his arm. He sent letters from his doctor and university that he uses the sensor 24 hours a day.

In the end, the passport office relented and he won. In his photo, he looks like an alien. But a happy one.

"I felt free," he says via Skype from Barcelona, where Harbisson lives. Though there's no official British category for "half-human," he describes the passport photo as the first time a government anywhere in the world recognized someone as a cyborg. Now, advancing cyborg rights is his mission, for which he co-founded the Cyborg Foundation.

The antenna, by the way, is a camera. It sees the frequency of the light — a.k.a colors — and vibrates inside of Harbisson's skull with a unique sonic tone for each. B-minor, for example, is turquoise, purple and orange. It basically gives him synesthesia — which is where the brain gets its signals crossed, and people taste colors or smell feelings. Kanye and Pharrell, for example, claim to see musical notes as different colors. Harbisson's brain adapted to this new sense, and so now he can tell you the color of the room, or the color of the face in front of him, just by hearing the sound. Humans of all races, he says, aren't so much black, white or brown — we're all shades of orange.

[Neil hears yellow, and all colors, as a distinct sound. It's how he navigates the world. Photo by Lars Norgaard, courtesy of Neil Harbisson.]

Beyond that, he can perceive ultraviolet and infrared light. His sense of color is super-human. This is something he wants for all humankind. He says he wants us to be able to choose "which species we want to be."

Since he got the implant 13 years ago, he's seen attitudes drastically change.

"At the beginning of the century, most people would see this as extremely weird," says Harbisson. "They thought I was joking with them. They don't think it's a joke anymore."

Of course, not everybody thinks this is a great idea.

"I have gotten death threats from people who think I should be stopped," he adds. "They think I'm against God, that I am asking people to change the works of God, because God designed them perfect." Some opponents even formed an organization, Stop the Cyborgs, to challenge the ways the tentacles of technology are wrapping themselves around society.

The conflicts over the antenna are a new version of an old question: Does the ability to change and create life belong only to the grand architect of the universe? Or can humans have a hand in it?

When babies were first conceived in test tubes, the Pope protested; when we genetically engineered fish that glow in the dark and tomatoes that don't rot, critics howled; when scientists created a synthetic genome, manifestos were written against it.

Harbisson is an agnostic, he says, "But I truly believe that, if God exists, that this is a collaboration with God."

However history teaches us that, after the protests die down, technology tends to roll forward.

Outside of the controversy, though, he's inspired others to join him. In 2013, Harbisson's artistic partner and friend-since-childhood Moon Ribas implanted a vibrating sensor in her elbow which shakes whenever there's an earthquake anywhere on Earth. It shakes harder for more intense earthquakes. For performance art, she dances to the rhythm of the Earth's shifting plates. And while you might worry cyborgism will turn us into unfeeling robots, Riba says her implant connects her more to nature by connecting her to the Earth.

[Moon Riba's elbow vibrates when there's an earthquake anywhere on the planet. Photo by Lars Norgaard, courtesy of Neil Harbisson.]

Riba plans another implant in the future; this one in her feet, that will vibrate when there is a moonquake — a moonquake is, of course, the moon's version of an earthquake. "I will sort of have my feet on the moon," she says via Skype. "The first woman!" she adds.

And their friend Manel Muňoz, 20, a photographer, plans to attach a barometer to his body so he can sense when storms are coming in. He'll feel the weather changing in his neck. 

While the options are now pretty limited for cyborgs, Harbisson predicts more senses are coming. And there could be big advantages. If we saw in the dark, you wouldn't need streetlights. If we saw carbon dioxide, we'd see climate change. If we had X-ray vision, we could see through walls. (And see people in the shower.)

It's all a big inquiry into the limits of humanity. Harbisson calls himself transhuman, which is like transgender, but instead of going from male to female, it's male to cyborg. "Cyborgs are today facing problems similar to the ones transsexuals were facing in the 1950s," he writes on his website. For instance, most doctors won't do surgery to implant technology — just like doctors decades ago wouldn't do sex reassignment surgeries.

At the moment, it's a bit lonely to be one of the world's only cyborgs. "But I have so much hope," he says. "There will be more of us."

Regardless of what anyone else does, he plans to have his antenna the rest of his life. "To remove it," he says, "would be like removing part of my skeleton. Unthinkable."

And why would anyone — God, human or cyborg — want to take away a helpful sensor, and deprive anyone the red of a flower, the yellow of a finch? If that was done, all of Harbisson's world would turn to gray. Which might actually slow down the evolution of our species. And might make the world a little less colorful for the rest of us, too.