Interviews, TECHNOLOGY

Neil Harbisson — on art and technology

In the third millennium, it is difficult to surprise someone with bionic prostheses or body-implanted pacemakers. The use of exoskeletons becomes commonplace. All these devices give people the opportunity to restore the abilities that they previously had, but have lost for various reasons. There’s nothing surprising about that. We only start to be surprised if man gains abilities that he never had before.

Cyborg is a word borrowed from science fiction literature and films. It’s partly human, partly machine. Most people do not believe that in our time it is possible to integrate mechanisms into the nervous system of a living person. They think that relevant technologies can only appear in the future. But what if this future has already come? How to be a cyborg — listen to British artist and musician Neil Harbisson — the first officially recognized cyborg in human history, expanding the abilities of perception colors by osteointegration of a special antenna into the skull.

Being Even More Human

— You have the title “the first officially recognized cyborg.” What does that mean to you?

— I was just able to prove that the implanted mechanisms are part of my body. This is akin to a feat: to recognize me as a cyborg, I had to endure a long and unequal fight with the British bureaucratic machine. It took a few weeks of correspondence for me to be allowed to take a picture on a passport with an antenna mounted in the head. I had to convince officials that I am not able to live a full life without an implant. To be the first is not so much honor as responsibility. The title is not so important to me personally, but it is very needed to promote new technologies and promote upcoming cyborgization of humanity.

— Based on your experience you want to make cyborgization more commonplace. Were there any cases when strangers addressed to you, wanting to become cyborgs? How inevitable is cyborgization in the future?

— Our organization Cyborg Foundation receives many emails. Mostly they come from children and adolescents who want to become cyborgs. Some of them associate themselves with comic book heroes, but there are also those who are ready to discover the perception of the world not only with five biological senses.

It is necessary to popularize the future now. We not only live surrounded by technology — technology is inexorably becoming part of ourselves. Cyborgization is inevitable. Without it, impossible to achieve harmony in a technogenic society.

— Once Kline and Clynes came up with the slogan that “cyborg is a step forward.” Do you think you are the next step in human evolution?

— Sooner or later, the world will come to the transhuman. We set foot on this path in the stage of the first protocell. In the near future — already in the 2020s – the Internet will not be used as a communication system only, but also as an opportunity to expand sensual reality. In order to live 200 years, it is not necessary to maintain the body in working condition by means of mechanisms.

It is enough to change the perception of time: just feel that you live like this long. In both cases, we will get a similar result. Extensive integration of technical elements in a living organism is an inevitable stage of evolution. The fact that I’m a cyborg does not bring me closer to the robots. On the contrary, the new essence reinforces my sense of unity with nature. To be cyborg means being even more human than ordinary people.

A Technological Amazing New World

— Technologies built into your body can be considered almost unique. People from all over the world were engaged in their development. Special attention is paid to your antenna. Tell more details, how is it to live with an antenna in your head? What feelings arise when someone touches it?

— From childhood I was forced to learn that the sky is blue, and the grass is green. At the same time, I myself doubted, that colors exist at all. In the end, my parents took me to the doctor. It turned out I just didn’t see them! Newton’s research helped me solve the problem. Each color tint has its own special frequency, just like sound. So I decided to create a device that would allow you not to see the colors, but to hear them.

The first technological solution appeared in 2003–2004. Color vibrations were fixed by the webcam, then the computer converted them into sounds that I could hear in my headphones. Subsequently, a team of specialists developed an antenna that was injected into my head, and special software for it.

My antenna has been upgraded several times. Initially, she allowed to perceive ordinary colors — from red to purple. Then the opportunity arose to feel infrared and ultraviolet radiation.

In 2012, I gained the ability to receive Internet signals. In 2014, five of my friends — on one from each continent — sent me directly to the brain through the Network color images, audio and video files! Antenna opened me an amazing new world full of “colored” sounds. Even I began to dress so that the clothes not only sat perfectly on me, but also sounded great.

One of the components built into the antenna allowed me to sense directly the movement of time. The human body does not have such an ability from nature. Only thanks to special device I got this amazing feeling.

My antenna is as much a part of me as a hand or an ear. When people touch it, I feel unpleasant sensations. I feel like my teeth are tearing.

— Does your antenna work constantly or can it be turned off? It has not occurred to you over the years – desire to temporarily disconnect from the constant flow of information?

— In recent years antenna works constantly. I never wanted to turn off Eyeborg to take a break from the endless flow of information coming into my brain. A return to black and white perception of the world would be torture for me, and probably would end in serious stress.

— Antenna must be recharged or batteries must be changed. How convenient is it? Are there ideas for invention of alternative recharging methods?

— At the very beginning it was bulky construction. I wore an antenna connected to five-kilogram computer on my back. It had to be charged from the outlet for 5–6 hours in day. I’m using batteries now. Their charge lasts about a month. And this is not the limit. Engineering thought doesn’t stand still. It becomes possible to apply alternative power supplies. Not so long ago, I had an idea to use microturbines injected directly into blood vessels for transformation of the blood flow energy to electricity.

— With this technology you also got a new, previously non-existent feeling — visual sound. Can you tell me more?

— Colors and sounds are just waves. The antenna allows you to feel color fluctuations and determine their frequency. This is not an abstract feeling, but a very specific physical feeling. Each color has a special vibration: red one, blue one. Antenna catches them, and the computer converts them to sound. As a result, I hear colors.

I began to perceive the world around me in a completely new way. Art galleries turned into a symphony orchestra for me. People are wrong when they say that in in the modern world, all cities are gray and the same. In fact, they are colored and different.

In the series of paintings “Colors of Cities” I tried to convey my impressions of each place, that I happened to visit. Madrid — amber-terracotta, and Oslo, Reykjavik, Venice’s color scheme is harmonious and melodically soulful.

When I see a person, I describe with notes how each individual feature of his face sounds. At connecting them together you produce a sound portrait.

— You give lectures on how to be a cyborg. And even, together with like-minded people, you created Cyborg Foundation. What is the purpose of its creation? What the organization does in present time?

— The organization is established to protect rights and assist people with disabilities that feel like cyborgs or want to become them. Dozens of people with vision disabilities got antennas implanted, which discovered alternative ways of perception. Cyborg Foundation’s activities are not limited to implantation. We launched the popularization of cyber art: we are developing new artistic practices based on leveraging enhanced sensory capabilities.

— You were born with a rare disease — achromatopsia. Built-in technology has helped you to solve this problem. Is it possible to say that in the near future cyborgization technologies will be used, for example, to get rid of blindness or deafness?

— The development of new implants will be a revolution in medicine. It will allow people to restore certain body functions or acquire completely new abilities. Implanting an antenna in the head gives a great chance for blind people “to hear the world in color.” However, this is not only about robotic prostheses. We have built-in-tooth Bluetooth technology, which is able to transmit information through the Morse alphabet. This can solve the problem of communication of paralyzed people who still have active jaws.

Equality of people and cyborgs — everyone has the right to the future

— You demand that cyborgs have certain rights on an equal basis with people. How is this perceived by the public in different countries? How much conservative are people in this regard?

— Everyone is free to decide on their own which technologies to use to improve biological body or what ability to acquire. It must be understood that the implant is the same body part as any natural human organ. Our organization is fighting for legislative recognition of this fact.

It is unacceptable, illegal and against the will to extract natural or artificial parts of the body from people. Once I was “hacked” as usual computer. I believe it is as much a crime as hacking an email or safety system. Protection is needed not only from physical, but also from hacker attacks. Cyborg Foundation takes a permanent part in the work of the European Union Commission on robotics laws. We are sure that cyborgs and ordinary people should have equal rights in everything, and we do our best for this.

— You are a co-founder of Transpecies Society. This is an association that is trying to give rights to people with non-human identities. How acute is the problem now? Can cyborgs count on positive perception of ordinary people in the coming years?

— Cyborg is primarily a self-identification. You can consider yourself an ordinary person with a dozen built-in implants or feel android with a single pacemaker. Many see us as a threat, considering augmetization a loss of humanity. It is not easy to get rid of similar relics, but necessary. Technology is constantly getting cheaper and becoming available for masses. Being considered fiction 10 years ago, now the development in the field technical implantology radically changes society, rapidly erasing the line between man and technique. Becoming a cyborg or remaining a person without implants is your choice.

— In one of the interviews you said that by 2040 there will be many people who will have additional sensory organs. What exactly did you mean?

— Comparing the sensual perception of the world with humans and animals, you should be brave enough to recognize of the superiority of certain species over humans. Sharks can sense electromagnetic fields. Bats orient themselves in space using echolocation. It will be difficult for anyone to refuse the desire to use the sensory organs of this level. Becoming cyborgs, we get a chance to know the world as it is perceived by other living organisms, to understand animals better and to find close mental connection with them. I believe that in the future there will be technologies that allow printing, using our own DNA, the artificial organs we need on 3D-printers.

Interviewed by Kristina Firsova

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