Interview with a Cyborg: Hearing ultraviolet and sensing time


The first Cyborg Artist

Neil Harbisson is a cyborg, a cyborg rights activist and a cyborg artist. Although he was born with an extreme form of color blindness, the osseointegrated antenna implanted in his skull allows him to perceive color. At first, the antenna transposed light frequencies into sound frequencies, which he was able to hear through headphones. As of now, the device transmits information through vibrations to his skull and is capable of adjusting volume levels depending on color saturation, of detecting ultraviolet and infrared colors and of receiving a Bluetooth connection. You can read more about him and watch his TED Talk here. The following interview discusses perception, the need for special cyborg clinics and the process of adapting to new senses. It took place after his keynote at the 4GameChanger Festival.

The interview

First of all, what sound are my eyes?

Neil Harbisson: F#.

Is that a good color?

N.H.: There’s no good or bad. We all have our own sound.

What did it mean to you to be able to finally experience color?

N.H.: At the beginning it was chaotic, because there’s color everywhere. I was surprised there was so much color. Afterwards it became more and more normal, then it became interesting and then I started having favourite colors. It was more of an evolution. It wasn’t a sudden change, it was a gradual change.

Do you think we are missing out on certain experiences by not perceiving as much as you do?

N.H.: We are all different, we are all experiencing things differently. We all have the same sensory organs, but we are all using them differently. So, adding a new one gives you the chance to experience new things. If you are blind, you are not experiencing less. You could be perceiving much more without having a certain sensory organ. Having more sensory organs does not mean you will be perceiving more. It’s more about how you use your sensory organs. I mean this antenna could be useless as well if I was not paying attention to all the input. This is not AI. If it was AI, it would be giving me the names of colors. It’s just giving me the frequencies, so I had to learn what color each sound is. It’s a process of learning to differentiate each color. It really depends on the brain.Neil Harbisson

So although you gain a different perception with a cyborg organ, it still depends on you to decide what it means to you?

N.H.: You don’t get perception by adding a sensory organ. You get a stimuli input. If it becomes perception or not, it depends on how you analyze this new input. You might be receiving a new input, but not make any sense of it. It’s a collaboration between technology and the brain, you really need to use both. It’s the same with any other sensory organ. You might have the sense of taste, but not be able to differentiate a wine from Germany and one from Argentina, where someone else might be able to do that. It depends on how you use your senses. Some people are able to differentiate a C or a D note in music with their sense of hearing. Other people have exactly the same sense of hearing, but are not using it in the same way. It doesn’t matter if you have 10 cybernetic senses in your body, that doesn’t mean you’ll be perceiving more. It depends on your brain as well.

When do you think cyborgism will become mundane? You said that the main challenges right now are social challenges.

N.H.: I think in the late 20s it will be more normal, but still not mainstream. It will slowly become more and more accepted. I think we should start changing ourselves and not change the planet so much. Nightvision should not be considred something useless. If we all had night vision, we would not need so much energy at night, we wouldn’t be spending so much energy now (N.H. points towards the overhead lights). It would be beneficial for our planet if we added specific senses.

Do we need a cyborg curriculum or training process for people who are making the change?

N.H.: I think there will be university degrees on sense design or cyber design. Once you have a new sense or a new organ, you’ll need some time for adaptation.  It might be helpful to have some psychologist to help you adapt to this new experience or other tests, MRI scans, to see if your brain is actually adapting to this new perception or not. In the same way as there are clinics for dental implants, we will need cybernetic clinics to specialize in new organ implants.

As a final question, can you tell me about the new sensory organ you are designing? 

N.H.: We all have a sense of time, but we do not have an organ for the sense of time. I want to have an organ specifically made for the sense of time. It’s going to be circular, it’s already done,  I just need to install it. It’s a point of heat that goes around the head. It takes 24 hours to go around. It’s an orbit, like the planet has an orbit. Once I have this for a few months, it should become subliminal. So I’ll feel what time it is by this heat point. Whenever this happens, I’ll see if I can modify my perception of time by making the heat go slower or faster. In theory, I should feel that time goes a bit slower or faster. Also, I can put it on flight mode so that I can travel at the same speed as the plane so I have less jet lag or also travel in time if I make it spin several times. It’s taking Einstein’s theory of relativity into practice, to see whether or not we can modify our perception of time if we have an organ for time. We can create optical illusions because we have eyes, so we should be able to create time illusions if we have an organ for time.

Thank you very much Neil!

N.H.: You’re welcome.

Perception vs. reality

“Changing your perception of the world is often as good as changing the world” – Sam Harris

Neil’s remark on how important it is to use our minds in deciphering our senses is both insightful and reminiscent of another TED Talk. In contrast to adding new organs, some people gain perspectives when confronted with the loss of a sense. Isaac Lidsky provides a strong counterpoint, describing how the loss of his sight provided him for vision for his life.

Thank you Neil Harbisson for the interview and 4GameChanger Festival for the opportunity.

Images:  Mario SixtusDan Wilton.

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About Radu Mester

Radu studied film & computing, works in EdTech as a content creator, and reads nonfiction books in his spare time.

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