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    What It's Like to Be a Cyborg, As Explained by a Cyborg

    Written by

    Brian Merchant

    Senior Editor

    Image: Flickr

    Neil Harbisson is one of the world's first bona fide cyborgs. Born with total color blindness, Harbisson initially believed himself to be confined to a life in grayscale—everything looked like a black and white movie, he says. As a university student in 2003, Harbisson attended a lecture on cybernetics given by Adam Montandon. Immediately after, the two set about working on the prototype for what would become the Eyeborg, a device that, when implanted into a person's skull, allows them to "hear" color.

    Since 2004, Harbisson has worn the Eyeborg full-time. Originially designed to be a corrective device, it has inspired Harbisson to explore the possibilities cybernetics holds to expand and improve the human's sensory experience. Now he can hear colors that we can't see. He travels the world giving lectures about cybernetics, and makes art using his extended sensory capabilities. In 2010, he started the Cyborg Foundation, whose mission is to "help people become cyborgs," as well as to "defend cyborg rights and promote the use of cybernetics in the arts." 

    Harbisson, who lives in Barcelona, recently flew to New York to speak and perform at the annual PSFK conference. He agreed to sit down for what ended up being a lenghty chat about why everyone should become a cyborg, and what it's like living in a world where nobody else is yet.

    Motherboard: So how do you define a cyborg?

    Neil Harbisson: I guess there's like three big families. People that used to make mechanical elements as part of the body, people that use electronic elements as part of the body, and people that use cybernetics as part of the body, and then some of the projects we don't really know where they fit sometimes. Sometimes one project can fit in two families.

    In general there's three though. Someone with a carbon leg would be something mechanic, but if the carbon leg has a camera that can film his daily life it would be electronic, but if the leg can detect if the floor is hot or cold and the person can feel then that would be a cybernetic leg.

    There are different attitudes about each. Some are utilities. 

    Yes, you can use cybernetics to extend your knowledge or information, or you can use it to extend your senses or perception, or you can just use it for repairing a sense.

    You're specifically interested in cybernetics that expand the senses?

    Yeah, specifically on senses and perception extensions. It's specific to what I'm interested in, and what you can do with something so specific is huge. Extending senses and perception by applying cybernetics to the body. The light one [a sort of robo-tooth that emanates light when you open your mouth] is not cybernetics. But the other ones are, yeah. Sometimes it's also interesting to have something mechanical like a light that you can just click and then you have a light which is useful.

    Motherboard Netherlands met with Harbisson last month, which made for an enlightening video. Watch it to see how his explants work.

    In the most concrete terms, how would you describe your ultimate goal? Do you want more people to be able to enjoy this sensory and utilitarian experiences of having additional capacities to feel and to think? To understand more? Or, what is the goal? To make people smarter?

    Not smarter, I think more perceptual. I think the goal is to extend the perception of reality, not the knowledge. If we just concentrate on senses, knowledge will come automatically in different ways. If you have just the knowledge, we don't have time to process this.

    If we have the senses, then we can process them and create knowledge that will vary, depending on who is wearing this cybernetic extension. I think the goal is to try and convince people that we can extend our senses and this can help us understand better the world we live in and also understand other animal species.

    More empathy?

    I really like this because many of the things that people see as extra-human or super powers is something extremely normal in nature, like bone conduction, or seeing ultraviolet, or even immortality. There are some jellyfish that almost never die. They regenerate themselves. All the things we see as futuristic or impossible are real to other animal species.

    So you want to expand those abilities. Ultimately, we should all be cyborgs then?

    I think yes. But in a way that can actually get us closer to the animal kingdom.

    This is something that you're advocating across the board for everybody? It would help everybody?

    Yes, it would.

    What are we looking at in costs and things like that? Obviously right now it's probably very expensive.

    Right now we don't need an external product so it's cheaper than people think. If you want a phone you need to create an external product, whereas if you are the product—you just need very simple technology. What is expensive now is to have it implanted, but you can have it explanted or wear it continuously.

    You've had your technology implanted?

    No. Now it's explanted by pressuring the bone, and this year it will be implanted in the bone. [He gestures to the back of his skull] It will be like this kind of these holes. It will give me a better separation between visual sounds and audio sounds.

    When are you having that done?

    As soon as the design of the antenna is finished. The antenna needs to be in the bone and they're having problems designing.

    So they're actually going to bore a little jack, basically.

    Yeah, there will be three holes, one for the jack, one for the antenna and one for the cheek, because now I'm feeling this pressure to the bone and this will avoid pressure.

    It'll be like that Cronenberg movie, ExistenZ, where they jack into the game...anyway...So it's economically feasible for people to do this?

    Yeah. All the things I did, like for seeing behind you, you just need infrared. Extremely simple. It's just the application that's different. We use infrared to open doors and to dry our hands. You just take this infrared and you stick it in the back of your head and it has a completely different use that can change the way you perceive reality. It's extremely cheap. The only expensive thing might be to have it implanted in a professional place. You could have it implanted in a private place, though.

    "It's more of a feeling rather than a condition to be a cyborg."

    How much did this cost you then? Besides other research that was required to do, you're trail blazing here...

    This? Like $300.

    I could do that!

    On the Cyborg Foundation's website, there's a link that says "lab," and it explains how you can create your own eye. So the aim is to share the sensory extensions that we create. So that people can actually make them better or try and create them at home.

    A couple of friends, Moon Ribas, a choreographer Harbisson often works with, and Salvador Navarrette, the music producer who performs as Sega Bodega, had joined Neil at the conference. I asked them to join the conversation.

    You're a friend of Neil's? [He nods]. Does his being a cyborg change how you think of him?

    Salvador Navarrete: I knew him before and if one day he was like "this happened and it's going to be like this for the next ten years" I would have been like "Ok..." but this is just the way Neil is. I don't know him any differently, I don't even see it. You know when you meet someone with a strong accent, and then after a year you don't hear it.

    Moon Ribas: I've known him since he was a child, and for me this has been a natural process. Actually, Neil use to be very against technology and now he's a cyborg. [laughs]

    Is that right? You used to be against technology?

    Salvador: He didn't have a phone. It was like a natural process, yes.

    What changed your mind?

    Neil: I never liked the use of technology as a tool. That's why I never really liked it. Then I went to this conference at my university where they talked about technology as an extension of the body and this made me see technology in a different way. This is a completely different way of using technology, integrating it and using it in a way that extends the senses. That's what really impressed me. The possibilities are endless.

    Now, I have to ask you, in your home of Spain, things are difficult economically and a little tumultuous. So when you're walking down the street do people see you and think you must be rich or you must be different? Do you get any antagonism?

    Every day someone will laugh at me because they don't know what it is, so it can look silly to have an antenna coming out of your head. Every day there's a situation where people make fun of it because they don't know what it is. But I'm so used to it now. It's been nine years. I lost the sense of ridicule and gained the sense of color. It doesn't affect me anymore. I had a design that was hidden and you didn't see it so much, but this was worse because I was talking to someone and someone noticed a camera sticking out and it wasn't a good thing.

    They thought you were spying on them.

    Yes, constantly, so having it in the most comfortable way—which is like an antenna—is the best way and you need to get used to the social implications going around with an antenna. People will ask what it is our won't allow me in places.

    They won't allow you in places? Like restaurants or clubs? Because they think it's surveillance?

    There's a campaign now that's starting against Google Glass and against cyborgs and people might think I'm filming because of Google Glass. Seven years ago no one thought I was filming. They thought it was a light or a telephone, but not a camera. Now people are starting to think I'm filming, which is not good.

    So besides that, what are your thoughts about Google Glasses? That's a much smaller step towards sensory augmentation, right?

    Yeah, I think it's knowledge augmentation more and communication extension. It will allow us to extend our knowledge in a faster way but I'm not sure if the applications ... I'm not sure because I've never tried them, but I think they're mainly to extend knowledge and information.

    But are you supportive?

    Yeah, completely.

    So you used to be skeptical of that technology and now you're completely embracing–

    My vision of technology has changed.

    Do you self-identify as a cyborg at this point?

    Yeah, but not in a science fiction way. I see it as a union between cybernetics and my organism. That's how I feel. I feel that there is a union. I feel cyborg. I feel this union. And it's a strange feeling. When software and your brain are one thing. It's something that's hard to describe.

    It's a brand new thing you've created.

    I feel like a cyborg but I'm not the Terminator type.

    "It will be completely normal to have technology applied to the body in the 2040s"

    Do you know any other cyborgs? Are you friends with any?

    Depends on what you define as 'cyborg.' People that feel cybernetics are part of their body, then yes. There are people that use electronic ears that allow them to do things that humans cannot do like hearing more, or also disconnecting and turning off sound. I've met some of them and they feel cyborg, they feel this is part of their body and part of their brain. Then I've met people that don't feel like this. It's more of a feeling rather than a condition to be a cyborg. This was a gradual feeling. I didn't feel like a cyborg when I started using the eye. I felt like this after five months when I really felt a union between the software and the brain.

    So it had to develop. Given the way things are going, is it only a matter of time before more and more of us are cyborgs in the sense you're discussing? 

    I think the generation is growing now. There are those who are 11 and 12 who can create cybernetics at home and can create robots very easily. We're receiving a lot of emails from children who are interested in applying technology to the body. They don't want to be like their parents who are constantly using their hands. Giving senses to technology, they want to give sense to themselves. Cars have this sense and we don't have it. It's strange because we could have it as well. I guess it will be completely normal to have technology applied to the body in the 40s.

    The 2040s?

    Yes. Now it's normal to have a phone, I guess it will be normal.

    Will people act in different ways? We'll have an antenna, an earpiece...

    We will get inspired by nature. Animals have antennas and maybe we will have tails that will give us extra senses. We can learn from nature, we have it there.

    Tails even? For balance?

    Sure, or for sensing behind. You can use a tail for something else.

    Attached to the vertebrae? Have you explored this?

    Salvador: What about an eye?

    Neil: I don't like touching what's already good. The thing with Glasses is that it's plugging a sense. It's blocking a sense. Headphones block my hearing. I want to create extensions rather than modifying the ones we already have.

    But you imagine it's going to be an organic, everyone-has-access to the technology and they do it. What if it becomes popular and it becomes a service people sell? Like ear piercings or tattoos? Will there be corporate involvement?

    I'm sure there will be both. Some people might not be interested in having their own personal extension. They might want to have one that everyone has so I guess both options are interesting. I think what's most exciting is that you can actually design your own sense. A very personal sense.

    So for somebody who has no deficiencies of sight or hearing or anything, what mod would you recommend? How would you recommend they become a cyborg first?

    There are so many sense we are so poor on. All of our senses are very low in comparison with animals.

    What would you upgrade first?

    Waking up what's behind. We're half dead. We're not perceiving anything behind us and that's strange, isn't it? All of our senses are focused on what's in front of us. Whereas there is a whole world behind us that we don't perceive. Starting with an infrared sensor in the back of the head, and it vibrates when someone gets close which is very cheap. That would give us an extra sense.

    Do you have that installed?

    No. Right now I'm just working on the eye and finishing the implant then I'll start with other ones. Really simple things. If you start with simple senses, then you'll start wanting more. It can be quite addictive. Having light—a small lamp—is not cybernetic, but is also something that might awake other feelings that we want to extend.

    Also, bone conduction ears could be very popular, because we could all have this mini-jack input in the back of the skull and use it to hear bone conduction. I could be talking to you and hearing you and hearing music at the same time. I would have this just for you and this for the music. Or I could have a phone call or listen to a football match while also listening to you, and I would not be blocking what you're saying. I'd be perceiving it through a different sense. You can do that because bone conducts sound.

    Is this a jack right now? Can this be removed?

    It could be removed. Even the implant could be removed. Anything you implant can be removed. The bone takes two months to integrate, and they told me that even that could be removed if you really want to. Anything could be. Nothing is permanent, but people are still scared of it.

    But on a day-to-day basis, your Eye stays in? Even when you sleep?

    Yes, and even when I shower. What I can't do is dive. That's the only thing I can't do.

    Were you a scuba diver? Is this a problem?

    Never. But I would like to listen to the colors under the sea because this would allow me to hear underwater because I don't need air conduction so one of the advantages is that I can hear under water or in space because I don't need air.

    It's all very fascinating into it. Maybe I'll start with the infrared. Do you know a guy who can do it?

    We're working on it. In June, we should have a model done. We're working with a student in Barcelona and he needs to finish the project in June. If it doesn't work, then in September.

    Can I volunteer to try it out?

    Of course.

    Take my name down.

    Images: Wikimedia, PSFK