Cyborg Neil Harbisson has an antenna in his head, picks up vibrations from colours like ultraviolet and infrared and can receive telephone calls and satellite images directly in his head. He told his story at the Brave New World conference.

Harbisson became part man, part machine in 2003, as he is completely colour blind. His antenna uses a chip to convert colours into sound signals – this means Harbisson, born in Britain but raised in Catalonia, can ‘hear a salad’. He uses this achievement in his art, exhibiting a multicoloured abstract painting that is supposed to represent Justin Bieber’s face. A photo of a moody Prince Charles suggests that he was ‘not amused’ when Harbisson sent him an MP3 file with the ‘soundscape’ of Charles' facial expressions. The video below shows his sonochromatic scale.

Improving physiology with technology

Harbisson was one of the speakers at the Brave New World conference, held over the past few days in the Dutch city of Leiden. This was an international affair where artists, scientists, philosophers and other trend watchers came together in the Stadsgehoorzaal theatre to reflect upon the impact of new technology on human existence. The audience was apparently receptive, as a digital vote indicated that nearly 75% would be prepared to ‘improve’ their body or mind using technology.

Harbisson is one of a select few who has already done so. Incidentally, it took a long time for him to find a brain surgeon willing to carry out the operation. ‘There are two risks: either your brain refuses to communicate with the device, or your body rejects it. The device has to fuse with your body. It's gone well for me, although I suffered terrible headaches in the beginning.’ And the implant has now become part of him. ‘I don't feel like I use or carry technology, as I am technology.’

Physically experiencing earthquakes

Neil's antenna also picks up vibrations from colours. His friends use Bluetooth to send him images of sunsets from the other side of the world, which Neil sometimes processes in his dreams, as his ‘device’ is always on. He will soon be getting a new organ: a headband that converts the movement of the sun round the earth into heat, so that he feels the progress of time with his own body.

The three cyborgs Manel Muñoz (left), Moon Ribas and Neil Harbisson. Photo Fabian Takx.

His Catalan girlfriend Moon Ribas (32) has also undergone the transformation to cyborg. She explained how she has had a chip implanted in her foot that helps her to physically sense earthquakes anywhere on earth. She then converts these sensations into performances like ‘Seismic Percussion’ and dances like ‘Waiting for Earthquakes’. If there are no earthquakes at that moment, the show is cancelled.

A third Catalan cyborg joins in: Manel Riba, secretary of the Transspecies Society, an association that is being set up to protect the rights of the cyborg. He recently had a device fitted into the back of his head that registers differences in air pressure. ‘It’s currently my dominant sense, and I feel something every time there is a change in the atmosphere. But I'm getting used to it.’

Out of the closet

One of the aims of the Society is to help cyborgs or prospective cyborgs to ‘come out of the closet’. Neil, who has repeatedly experienced how little understanding there is for human machines, says he sometimes receives emails ‘from desperate people in China who have to keep it a secret that they are cyborg’, and from 17-year-olds who foster an intense desire to become a cyborg when they turn 18. ‘They have felt their whole lives that they're more than just a human’, he explained. ‘Just like transgenders have the feeling that the gender they were born with wasn't the one that suits them best.’

In the Netherlands, there are very few people on this train yet, based on what we saw at Brave New World. Peter Joosten was the sole representative of the host country. He has had an NFC chip implanted in his right hand. (Fabian Takx)

Opening photo: Neil Harbisson. Photo Moogfest.

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