Interview: Neil Harbisson is a Cyborg

 Photo by James Duncan Davidson

Neil Harbisson is a cyborg who listens to colour via an antenna drilled into his skull. Seriously.

The 31-year-old, British-Spanish artist (pictured, above) has always lived a kinda weird life. He was born with anchromatopsia, a rare condition that limits his colour perception to black and white. So he and some freakishly talented university tech nerds developed an “eyeborg” capable of translating colour frequencies into sound frequencies. He started hearing colour.

After walking around for a decade with the eyeborg camera strapped to his head, Harbisson last December upped the ante and went under the knife to have the thing imbedded beneath his skull. Now he can actually feel the antenna, like an extension of his body. Oh, and thanks to Bluetooth, people can telephone his head.

Koren Helbig spoke to Harbisson about his latest technological leap forward.

Was it difficult as a child, not being able to differentiate between colours?
I noticed that it was difficult to differentiate colours but I just thought I was just colour blind. When I was 11 they saw that it was complete colour blindness and I realised that I wasn’t just confusing colours. But no, it wasn’t really difficult because if no one tells you then you don’t really know. You could think that you are seeing colour all your life but not actually see colour. Colour is such a creation in the mind of people.

What was the experience like, that first time you heard colour?
It was like a whole new world because suddenly there was sound and then I had to start learning the colours as if I was a four-year-old. It was like a new beginning. At the beginning I was just concentrating on adapting this new sense to my body. It was so much information because there’s colour everywhere that it actually took me some years to really get used to this new world. Then once I was used to this I started using this sense to express myself through music or through art.

Were you musical as a child? You must have a good ear for pitch, for example?
I was musical but I have been in constant training all the time because I have been using the electronic eye constantly since March 22, 2004. My ears can detect so many different sounds because I’m constantly training. It’s not because of music, I think. Music is only 12 notes in an octave whereas this is 360 notes in an octave. For example between F and F# there’s no note on a piano but I have 30 notes. So music doesn’t have so many microtones, so many notes.

You must be constantly experiencing sound then?
It was sound at the beginning but now it’s a different type of sound. At the beginning I was using my ears so it felt like hearing things but after some time I decided to stop using my ears and start using my bone to hear colour. When you hear things through bone it feels different. It’s not interfering with my sense of hearing. It’s like having a third ear. You can even sometimes feel sound physically, feel the vibrations.

Tell me about the operation to have the eyeborg technology drilled inside your skull.
It was implanted in Barcelona and, for now, this doctor would like to remain anonymous. Nowadays these surgeries related to uniting technology with humans seem to be a bit experimental. It’s like what was happening in the 1940s and 50s with transsexual operations, it was seen as something weird that should be done underground.

We decided where it would go on back of my head, the occipital bone. They took the hair off so there’s a part that is permanently without hair, which helps avoids possible infection. Then they were reducing the skin because the skin at the back of the head is quite thick. Then it was just a cut, they opened the skin like a door, and the skull was drilled three times for three different entries — two for the antenna and one for an audio entry so I would have the sound directly into the skull.

I was awake during the surgery. I was lying down facing the floor in one of those chairs that you can put your face into. I couldn’t feel the back of my head but I was awake. They gave me a tranquilliser but I was totally awake the whole time. I could feel the drilling and they could talk to me. It took three hours.
Then I had to wait for it to osseointegrate. The operation was on December 2, 2013 — we kept it secret until March. It actually took two to three months to heal, to merge with the bone and also to stop bleeding. When you stitch at the back of the head it really takes a long time to heal. It’s not like normal stitches because that zone moves a lot when you move the head.

So how does this new eyeborg actually work?
Basically the sound goes inside the bone to my inner ear. Before it was pressuring the bone so I could feel the pressure whereas now I feel nothing on the back of my head.

Also weird is when I touch the antenna now, I feel it. It’s so difficult to describe. I feel like I have a new body part. I don’t know if anyone has ever sensed this before. If I close my eyes and someone touches the antenna, I feel it. Maybe it’s like a long nail… this is a very ugly comparison. Or a very long tooth. If you had a long tooth and someone hit the tooth, that’s more or less what it’s like.

The other part is the upgrade of the sense. Now I can connect to other people because it has Bluetooth. We developed an app that allows you to connect to my antennae. So I can connect to other devices or someone can send information directly to my antennae. This is a completely new stage for me because I no longer need to perceive the colours that are in front of me. I can perceive the colours that someone else is seeing.

Neil Harbisson photo by James Duncan DavidsonThat’s incredible. It’s just mind-boggling.
It is for me as well. I’m just exploring this now. I can also have phone calls to my head now. We need to develop it a bit further with phone calls but the transmission of colour works fine. We demonstrated it in the first talk that I did about this. Someone in New York sent images to my head direct from Times Square and I was able to sense all the different colours that she was Skyping.

There are some ethical questions around the merging of humans and technology — now that you’ve taken that to a new level, what’s been the reaction?
From the moment I began perceiving infrared and ultraviolet, I noticed there were more people against it. Now that I can connect to other people, there are more people against it. We do receive emails from people that don’t think it’s natural to do this and they worry about the future of humans and what the consequences might be. People in general are very pessimistic and they see the future as bad, if there’s a union between humans and technology.

But you don’t see it that way?
People tell me that they find this very inhuman or unnatural. I just completely disagree because technology is a human creation so I feel that extending human senses with human creations is completely human. People who think that we will become like machines and be less human, I think it’s completely the opposite.

Since I’ve become technology — because I feel that I am technology — I feel closer to nature and to other animal species that have antennas. Hearing through bone construction makes me feel closer to dolphins and other animals that perceive sound through bone conduction. Perceiving infrared and ultraviolet makes me feel closer to other insects that perceive these colours. So in my case extending my senses makes me feel closer to other animal kingdoms and to nature, not to machines or to robots.

That’s totally unexpected. You say that through the Cyborg Foundation, which you set up in 2010, you want to help other humans become cyborgs. Why is that?
I think that humans have very poor senses, compared with other animal species. As humans, we’ve been focusing a lot on extending our knowledge but we haven’t focused at all on extending our senses and our perception of reality. We should try exploring that extension so we can understand reality better.
The more we sense and the more we extend our perception of reality, the more knowledge we will gain from reality. I think the main aim of human kind is to extend our knowledge of who we are and where we are. So it’s just a very natural thing to do, I think, to expand senses and perceptions.

You’ve talked a lot about how the eyeborg has enhanced your own abilities but do you ever worry about the effect it’s had on your identity? Do you think it’s possible you could lose yourself in all of this technology?
No, because I am creating myself. There’s no one forcing me to do it. There’s no company where I go and buy my parts of myself. It’s me who’s creating my own body and my own senses so I have full control of what I’m doing. We decide how we want to look, we decide how we want to dress, how we want to be or behave. Why can we not also decide how we want to perceive life? How we want to sense things?



Interview by Koren Helbig. Photos courtesy of James Duncan Davidson