What would you tell me if I asked you this? I’ve got some more questions like this one. Jesus, what kind of song are you wearing? Why do you think these glasses are too loud? Is it just me, or did last night’s dinner sound a little off? Did you hear her eyes well?
Don’t worry, I’m perfectly fine, thanks for asking. After all, I’d never even ask you something like this. But there is one man who wouldn’t find any of these questions strange and who’d answer them all without missing a beat. Okay, he’s not exactly quite human, at least that’s what he claims. But he’s not a robot either; he’s a living being made of flesh and blood, Homo sapiens, with a tiny addition inside his head and on it. His name is Neil Harbisson, and while I was recently listening to him and watching him live at a conference in Antwerp, Belgium, those were just some of the questions I would ask him.
Neil Harbisson was born in 1984. He grew up in Catalonia, where he began playing the piano and composing his own music when he was just 11. At the age of 19, he moved to England, where he studied music composition. Today, he lives in New York. Neil was born with a severe form of color blindness, so he was only able to see the colors around him as white, black, and shades of gray. He wasn’t going to resign himself to this, so in 2004 he underwent surgery during which a device was installed inside his skull, consisting of an antenna with an electronic eye on top and sensors located in the back of his skull. Images registered by the electronic eye are transformed by the sensor into vibrations of various frequencies, and Neil learned which vibration was which color, so he began hearing colors and recognizing them. So, this built-in sensor in the skull enables synesthesia: transforming the vibrations he receives by hearing them as colors. Since this antenna can be connected to Wi-Fi networks, Neil can hear all the color vibrations sent to him using the Internet. He proudly points out that in this way he became the first official cyborg in the world.
This built-in technology enabled Neil not only to recognize the colors that other people see, but to recognize even those colors that the human eye can’t see, such as infrared or ultraviolet. In addition to this, with the help of this new organ, Neil can now turn anything else he sees – complete images, objects, people – into the corresponding vibrations and hear them. Thus he claims that actress Judith Dench has silent hair, Woody Allen sounds soft, and Prince Albert of Monaco liked the sound of his own face so much that he set it as the ringtone on his cell phone.
The whole thing can be observed from the opposite perspective. Neil can turn any sound into colors, into images, be it a music hit, or a political speech. For example, here is Neil’s parallel vision of Martin Luther King’s famous speech “I Have a Dream” and a speech by Adolf Hitler.
Although he is definitely the first officially recognized cyborg in the world, Neil doesn’t want to remain the only one. So in 2010, he founded the Cyborg Foundation, an international organization that will fight for cyborg rights, promote cyborg art and support people who want to become cyborgs.
Neil Harbisson thinks that this is just the beginning and that, with the aid of technology, the human species will increasingly and more efficiently develop and improve all other senses beyond the limits set by nature, and that we will soon be able to choose which of our senses we want to develop more. Guided by this idea, in 2017, he became one of the founders of the Transpecies Society, an association that will support people who do not identify as human and which will promote the freedom of choice to develop new senses and additionally improve and install them into their own bodies.
Neil Harbisson communicates much of his agenda through a variety of artistic performances and exhibitions, and thus presents himself, among other things, as a cyborg artist. For now, it is probably easier for people to accept that both he and his appearances are just extravagant attempts to draw attention to himself and that this whole thing belongs in art galleries instead of being the topic of serious public debate.
Anyway, Neil Harbisson’s persona and work are just more proof that the future is already here and that robots are already among us. This doesn’t mean we should start running away from them, let alone try to chase them or push them away from us. Maybe it would be good if we tried looking at the world from their perspective. For example, Neil claims that people don’t have different skin color since he can neither see it nor hear it; instead, he claims that all the people on Earth are a shade of orange. For starters, why don’t we try looking at each other in this way? We don’t even need an antenna.