Neil Harbisson is a cyborg.
Protruding from his skull is an electronic eye that allows Harbisson, a 30-year-old who was born color-blind, to listen to color. For the past 10 years, the cybernetic device, which Harbisson calls his “antenna,” has converted light into higher or lower-pitched tones that Harbisson hears through bone conduction.
In a 2012 TED talk, Harbisson explained that going to an art gallery is like going to a concert and he looks at food in a whole new way: "Now I can display the food on a plate, so I can eat my favorite song."
Harbisson, an artist and co-founder of the Cyborg Foundation, argues that technology can endow humans with an endless number of new senses and abilities that expand what they feel and, consequently, what they know about the world. While some speculate about the possibility of a sixth sense, Harbisson dreams of helping us attain a 13th or a 14th sense. “We don’t depend on natural evolution anymore,” Harbisson explained. “We can evolve during our lifetime and we can evolve in the way we wish.”
For HuffPost's "Life As" series, Harbisson discussed whether Google Glass will make cyborgs of us all, the “end of using our hands” and why he wants to light up his mouth.
What makes someone a cyborg? To me, being a cyborg is defined by the feeling that a cybernetic device is no longer a device, but part of the body. When I first started using the electronic eye, I didn’t feel like cyborg. It was only once I had the sense there was no difference between the software and my brain did I feel like a cyborg.
When people say tech is distracting us, it’s because we’re using it now as a tool, not as a part of our body.
How do you see people’s senses and abilities being transformed by technology? We should find inspiration in the senses that already exist and try to copy them and apply them to us. If we compare our senses to the senses of other animals and species that we don’t have, we can get ideas for new abilities that we can adapt to humans by applying cybernetics to the body.
I can perceive ultraviolet, which is a color many birds and insects already perceive. And I can hear through bone conduction, which dolphins already do. We could acquire senses that let us perceive where north is, like sharks, or improve our sense of smell, just like a dog’s.
Do you consider Google Glass a form of cybernetics that’s helping to bring the cyborg movement to the masses? Google Glass will extend our abilities, but I’m not sure it will extend our senses. I’m also not sure whether Glass will block our vision or enhance our sense of sight.
When I got my electric eye, one of the things I didn’t want to do was to block a sense. So instead of blocking my ability to hear, I decided to hear colors through bone conduction, which was an entirely new sense for me.
Why should we pursue cybernetics and cyborgism? If we extend our senses, then, consequently, we will extend our knowledge. It’s really very basic. If we could all perceive reality at the level of other animal species, then I’m sure we’d learn so much because knowledge comes from our senses.
What does a cyborg future look like? What will this technology look like in five or 10 years’ time? I think it’ll mean the end of using our hands. It’s really not practical to walk around with mobile devices we use with our hands and fingers. In five or 10 years’ time, when it’s normal not to use our fingers, we’ll start accepting the use of technology as a permanent part of the body and we’ll stop using it as a tool.
I think the next real change will come when we can have software in our genes and we can modify ourselves by changing our genes.
What developments in the world of cybernetics are you most excited about? We receive many emails from children who say they want to become cyborgs. These kids tell us about the robots they’re creating and the senses they’re giving their robots, and I know how interested they are in incorporating those senses into their own bodies, not a robot’s.
It’s strange that we create tech and then we apply it to machines, when we could apply it to ourselves. Cars can now detect if something is behind them, but we don’t have this ability. Why are we applying such a simple sense to a car when we could apply it to ourselves? Kids are really inspired to not just apply senses to robots and machines, but to try them on themselves.
What concerns you most about the cyborg movement? It would be good to have cyborg hospitals. Right now, there isn’t enough collaboration between computer scientists, psychologists, neurologists and doctors. In my case, if I can’t perceive a color well, I don’t really know where I should go. Should I go see an optician? An otolaryngologist? A software developer? What do you enjoy most about being a cyborg? The sense that there’s never an end. There are no limits.
I had this feeling that I would never perceive color and now I feel I can perceive as much color as I wish and more that I ever could have perceived. It’s exciting to know there are other senses I can continue to extend.
What’s next? My next step is not only to continue extending my color perception and also to extend my hearing through bone conduction.
I’d even like to do something simple like having a light in my mouth. If one of my teeth fell out, I feel like it’d be useless to have it replaced with a normal tooth when I could have an artificial tooth with light in it.
So you could just open up your mouth to read at night? Yes, exactly. But I’d need to think of a way of turning it on and off because when I eat, I don’t want to have light going on and off in my mouth.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.