Cyborg hears colours with antenna attached to skull

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Cyborg since 2004, Neil Harbisson.
Cyborg since 2004, Neil Harbisson.

Integrating technology with the human body is slowly moving from the big screen to medical mainstream, as part-human part-machine people are no longer confined to science fiction.

Neil Harbisson (33), who hails from Catalan, is a contemporary artist and real-life cyborg. He has an antenna implanted in his skull which has sensors that allow him to hear colours. He spoke this week at the SAS Road to Artificial Intelligence event in Johannesburg.

Harbisson is part of the growing biohacking movement. Biohackers apply the hacker mindset to the biological system. They want to give themselves an extra sense, track bodily processes, or implant a chip in their hand to replace an access card.

He has a condition called achromatopsia, which means he is totally colour blind and only sees in black and white and shades of grey. It is estimated this affects one in every 30 000 people worldwide.

The artist wanted to design a new perception of reality and create a new sense that would let him extend beyond his human limitations. He did not want to see in colour, as he says there are advantages to seeing in grey-scale, but decided he would like to hear colour.

He designed a WiFi-enabled antenna that would be implanted into the back of his skull and send audible vibrations in his skull to report information about surrounding electromagnetic radiation. This means he can hear the colour spectrum, including infrared and ultra-violet; colours invisible to other humans.

While it was a struggle to find a doctor who would perform the operation, he eventually found someone willing to do it on their day off, anonymously.

Harbisson likened doctors' reluctance to perform these types of trans-species surgeries to when people first wanted to become another gender. "There were doctors who could do it, but most hospitals deemed the procedures unethical. We have seen how the perception of transgender surgeries has changed and I believe there will soon be a country that will allow trans-species operations and we will all move there."

Beyond mankind

Defining himself as trans-species, he no longer feels 100% human. He believes humans who add senses, via technological means, that animals have, can better understand the natural world. For example, when he sees a cat staring at a wall, he knows the cat is actually staring at the infra-red light, and that when bees flock to a particular flower it is because there is a high concentration of ultra-violet light there.

The process to get used to the antenna and the new sense took about five months. To learn what colours sounded like, he would look at colour cards with their names printed on them. He endured about five weeks of intense headaches before his body adjusted.

The antenna was built with no off switch, because Harbisson says you cannot turn off your other senses.

His antenna can receive information from satellites, and five other people around the world have permission to send him information. He says when they do, he hears what they are seeing. He also has a connection to space, but says when he dials in it is overwhelming as there are so many colours in space.

Harbisson says he has only been hacked once, when someone without permission sent him information, but he quite enjoyed the experience.

His favourite colour to hear is infrared, as it is a very low-frequency and soothing sound, and his worst is ultra-violet as it is a very high-frequency and jarring sound.

People tell him they are black or white, but to him everyone is just a lighter or darker shade of orange, he notes.

Powering up

To charge the antenna, Harbisson says in an ideal world it would be self-charging using blood to conduct electricity, but tests have shown this leads to clotting. There are doctors working to solve this problem, so in the meantime he has developed a special pillow that uses wireless charging technology to top him up while he sleeps.

In 2004, when wireless technology was not available, he would plug himself into the wall.

Harbisson has now been officially recognised as a cyborg by a government and has a passport with a photo of him and his antenna.

He is not alone in his efforts to be more than human, and is part of the Cyborg Foundation, which aims to help humans become cyborgs, defend cyborg rights and promote cyborg art.

A growing number of people use biohacking to make their lives easier, implanting small sensors so they can do things like open doors and make payments without the need for a key or card.

ITWeb's Brainstorm magazine interviewed Hannes Sj"oblad, founder of a Swedish biohacker association called BioNyfiken, last year. He has a 13.56MHz chip encased in a Pyrex glass capsule implanted in his hand and it replaces all the functionalities of the items he used to carry around in his pockets.

"I use my chip many times per day to open doors to the office where I work, to unlock my private devices and to enjoy various loyalty programmes in shops around Sweden. I store my business card on it too and just tap a person's device to give them my contact details," said Sj"oblad.

In Sweden, the government has made it legal for citizens to implant a chip in their hands that lets them use the train system. These chips, approximately the size of a grain of rice, let users wave their hand near a machine to enter the terminal, and can be programmed to open other places like office and home buildings, and now even pay for goods.

It has been reported that over 3 000 people have had these chips implanted since the introduction of the technology in 2015.

Last year, a US-based machine company offered its employees a chance to have a microchip implanted in their hands that they could use to buy snacks, log in to computers or use the copy machine.

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