The world’s first cyborg, Neil Harbisson chats with #GNTECH

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Neil Harbisson

By Suparna Dutt, Special to #GNTECH

Google CEO Sundar Pichai was far from alone when he recently named artificial intelligence as the next big evolution in technology. Facebook is building a smart assistant called M, Microsoft has thrown its hat in the ring, and Amazon is also betting big on AI with its new digital assistant Alexa. And on the same plane with other tech giants, albeit a step forward, is the British-born, Catalan-raised and New York-based artist and activist Neil Harbisson, who has been advocating the best intelligence as cyborg intelligence for more than a decade.

“Looking to the future, the next big step will be for the very concept of the device to fade away,” Pichai wrote in the technology giant’s annual founders’ letter to shareholders last month, alluding to numerous possibilities to enhance your natural abilities and getting assistance that understands your context, situation and needs.

Understandably, although algorithms are increasingly growing powerful, humans are core to this system, to interpret, judge and tweak information in ways that are explicable to both computers and other humans. In an interview with #GNTECH, Harbisson, the world’s first official cyborg, says moving seamlessly in a natural way, we might be witnessing the start of our species’ renaissance. “Life will be much more exciting when we stop creating apps for our mobile phones and we start creating apps for our own body.”

Thanks to the antenna, or eyeborg, implanted in his skull, Harbisson, born with a rare form of colour blindness called achromatopsia, can hear images and paint sounds. “This electronic eye, a colour sensor between my eyes connected to a chip installed at the back of my head, transforms colour frequencies into sound frequencies that I hear through my bone.

“The antenna is a new body part and the chip an extension of my brain. I don’t feel I’m using technology, I don’t feel I’m wearing technology. I feel I am technology.”

Neil Harbisson

Technological evolution

Living in the midst of a technological revolution, taking part in our biological evolution, extending our senses and perception of reality, is no longer hypothetical but a possibility, but the challenge is finding the right biocompatible material to allow the creation of new sensory organs.

While one possible solution, according to Harbisson, is bioprinting (3D printing the desired body parts with one’s own DNA), in April a team of researchers at MIT discovered a way to put electronics inside the human body, making it easier to turn into a cyborg. They’ve developed a new form of hydrogel — a water-based polymer that can look and feel like muscles and tendons. Such a gel could contain tiny electronics that can monitor our insides, provide electrical stimulus, and can bend and twist without breaking or tearing.

Explaining the difference between wearing technology and being technology, Harbisson says, “So you can use Google Glass, for example, to know how to get from A to B. Or you could implant software that lets you feel how to get from A to B, and therefore nothing is interfering with your sight, the way you perceive the world through your eyes. You could use your mobile phone to go north, or you could have an electromagnetic sense that allows you to feel where north is, like many animals do.”

Simple additions to our bodies such as night vision would have tremendous implications in the way we live and explore, reducing the energy wasted in the creation of artificial light. The use of the internet to extend our senses to space is a parallel line of exploration, says Harbisson.

While our sense of knowing is already outsourced — you are not alone when you feel less knowledgeable without ready access to your smartphone — we are gradually merging with technology. Our closest technological companions — from phones to computers — are becoming our extended minds. Consciously or unconsciously, we are all in transition.

You can notice it in language. Earlier, one would say, “My phone is running out of battery”; now most people say, “I’m running out of battery” or “I have no reception”.

Given the claims so far, it should come as no surprise that cyborgs are increasing in number by around 110,000 each year. Hundreds of people around the world have implanted electronic devices in their bodies to enhance their natural abilities, including Stelios Arcadiou, known as Stelarc, a performance artist who has implanted an ear on his forearm; Kevin Warwick, who has an RFID chip embedded beneath his skin; and Tim Cannon, who has a self-administered body-monitoring device in his arm.

To help humans become cyborgs, Harbisson created the Cyborg Foundation in 2010 with fellow cyborg activist Moon Ribas, who has an earthquake sensor embedded in her left arm. Harbisson says becoming a cyborg can reverse the link between ageing and the body’s degeneration. “If you have cybernetic body parts, these will get better the older you get as your body parts will evolve together with the evolution of technology.”

He adds that his antenna is constantly evolving. An upgrade he had two years ago is connecting to the vision of other people — the antenna can connect wirelessly to other cameras or antennas around the world. The next big upgrade is to use his own energy to charge the antenna. “I don’t want to depend on electricity, batteries or solar energy. The antenna could be charged by the energy created by my own brain activity, by the energy of my breath, by kinetic energy or by adding a small turbine in a blood vessel. I’m interested in using blood circulation to charge the antenna and to make it work in a bidirectional way; the antenna should also be able to give energy to my body in [an] emergency.” RoboCop, the sci-fi action film, showed us a future where technology and humans become one, blurring the lines between reality and fantasy.

Surpassing the limits of human colour perception, Harbisson says since he started to hear colour, including infrared and ultraviolet, his life has changed dramatically. “Art galleries have become concert halls; I can hear a Picasso or a Rothko. I also found out that things I thought were colourless are not colourless at all. I found out that humans are not black and white, human skin ranges from light shades of orange to very dark shades of orange…”

The way he dresses changed. “If I’m happy I dress in C major. If I’m sad I dress in a minor chord…” The way he looks at food has also changed. He hopes to open a restaurant one day that has a menu with some Madonna songs as starters, some Rachmaninov piano concertos as main dishes, and some Björk desserts. “I would have some Paul McCartney songs, because I’m a vegetarian.”

More human, not less

Debunking the common refrain we might become less human if we modify ourselves, that our union with technology will alienate us from reality, nature or other living things, Harbisson, who began his journey to transhumanism in 2003, says, “In my case, becoming technology doesn’t make me feel closer to machines, or to robots, but quite the opposite. Perceiving ultraviolet and infrared makes me feel closer to animals that can sense these colours, having an antenna makes me feel closer to insects that have antennas too, and perceiving space makes me feel closer to nature and to the universe. Becoming a cyborg will make us feel more human.”

Reality becomes a new experience with technology. “When you add a sense, you can re-explore your planet in this entirely new and exciting way,” he says.

But is it only through technology that one can achieve this? No, there is “genetic modification [for one]”. At the moment cybernetics is the most effective.”

The antenna implanted in Harbisson’s brain in 2004 allows him to hear the audio frequencies of the colour spectrum, including infrared and UV. A internet and Wi-Fi upgrade lets him receive these from satellites and other people’s cameras, as well as take phone calls in his skull

The antenna implanted in Harbisson’s skull picks up and converts colours — including UV — into audio frequencies.

Images: © Piero Cruciatti/Demotix/Corbis