As part of our Creative Technology series with Intel iQ, PSFK is interviewing unique artists to gain insights about how they use technology to enhance creativity and push the boundaries of their art.
Neil Harbisson is a cyborg. Born without the ability to see color, he has hacked his own body with a device, the ‘eyeborg,’ that translates color information into sound – now he effectively ‘hears’ color instead of seeing it. In 2004, Harbisson was not allowed to renew his UK passport because the passport office would not allow him to appear with electronic equipment. Harbisson wrote back insisting that the eyeborg should be considered part of his body. After weeks of correspondence, he became the first official cyborg recognized by a government.
We caught up with Neil after his fantastic presentation and performance at the PSFK CONFERENCE in April to go a bit deeper into his work, his identity and his plans for improving the human race.
Explain how you became a cyborg.
I was born with achromatopsia, a condition that means I see the world in grayscale. At first, doctors told me I was colorblind; then, they thought it was a very severe case of color-blindness and finally, they realized that I could only see in black and white.
When I moved to the UK to study music composition, I heard a lecture by Adam Montandon, a cybernetics expert. He helped to create my first ‘eyeborg,’ which lets me hear light waves. The very first thing I looked at with it, outside the classroom, was a red noticeboard. It made the note F, the lowest sound on the spectrum. Red has been my favourite color for years.
Your eyeborg lets you 'see' color- can you explain a bit more about the technology?
Color is basically hue, saturation, and light. Right now, I can see light in shades of grey, but I can’t see its saturation or hue. The eyeborg detects hue, and converts it into a sound frequency that I can hear as a note . It also translates the saturation of the color into volume. So if it’s a vivid red I will hear it more loudly.
In the beginning, I had cables coming out of my head, snaking down into a big backpack with a laptop. It made people a bit uncomfortable. But now the eyeborg translates color into sound using a chip at the back of my skull. It makes noise by pressing against my head and I hear through bone conduction.
I still have to recharge myself at a power socket, but I’m working on ways to use my blood circulation instead. In the near future I'm having it osteointegrated - which means that part of the device will be put inside my skull, so the sound will resonate much better.
What does it mean to be a cyborg?
It's not the union between the eyeborg and my head that turns me into a cyborg but the union between the software and my brain, a union that has created a new sense. I never take the eyeborg off: I wear it to sleep, and in the shower. It feels like a part of me. When I started to hear the sound of color in my dreams, that’s when I began to think of myself as a cyborg.
It’s the new range of experience, outside normal human capability, that similarly defines the cyborg state of being. I can ‘see’ near infrared - I perceive color that is invisible to the human eye. And also near ultraviolet. This allows me to perceive pictures that no one else sees. Not many people go for a walk in the supermarket for fun, but I do. The cleaning product aisle is very exciting. The rows of rainbow-colored bottles sound like a symphony to me.
You've said your eyeborg has extended your human senses- can you talk about how the technology has enabled you to further your art?
Thanks to the eyeborg, I’ve made a career by combining music and art. I do concerts where I plug myself into a set of speakers and play the colors of the audience back to them. The good thing is that if it sounds bad, it’s their fault!
I also do portraits live by pointing at the different hues on the different parts of the face, so I can create the chord of a face. Prince Charles sounds surprisingly similar to Nicole Kidman. This is how I found out that there are no black or white skins. We all are different shades of orange.
But it’s also part of something bigger than myself or my art. People all around the world have written to me saying they’d like to become a cyborg and extend their senses. The budding ‘cyborgism’ movement is an artistic and social movement that aims to create artworks through new senses or the extension, reduction or modification of an existing sense as a result of the union of cybernetics and the body. And to support that I helped found the Cyborg Foundation that helps humans become cyborgs, promotes the use of cybernetics as part of the human body and defends cyborg rights.
We do not mean to repair people's senses, we make no difference between people with "disabilities" and people without, we believe we all need extend our senses and perception. We are all disabled when we compare our senses with other animal species, but we don’t have to stay that way.