The World’s First Cyborg Artist Can Detect Earthquakes With Her Arm

Moon Ribas chats about her sixth sense, connecting her feet to lunar seismographs, and defending cyborg rights.

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Nov 23 2016, 11:00am

Moon Ribas. Image: Lars Norgaard

We've come a long way since the word "cyborg" was first coined in 1960 by scientists Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline who used it as a short form of "cybernetic organism." In an article first published in the Astronautics journal, they defined it as a man-machine system that can live in different environments than humans normally could not and with additional senses. But what else?

Women are cyborgs, too, like the Catalan cyborg artist Moon Ribas, who has an online sensor implanted in her left arm. The dancer and choreographer can feel earthquakes in real time, which she calls her "sixth sense." She had a tiny cybernetic implant grafted into her left elbow in 2013. Whenever she senses an earthquake through an online seismograph, her arm vibrates. Depending on the scale of an earthquake on the Richter scale, she'll get a weaker or stronger vibration as a way to sense what she calls "the heartbeat of our planet."

Image: Will Clapson

Ribas became a cyborg primarily to take contemporary dance to the next level, like Waiting for Earthquakes, a stage performance where she literally waits until she gets a vibration in her arm then allows it to lead her dance movements. Since her chip can sense earthquakes that are as little as one on the Richter scale, which people cannot feel (they're called 'microquakes' and they are often around volcanoes before they erupt). She typically has an earthquake vibration in her arm every 10 minutes, as there are roughly 50 earthquakes a day. But if not, her dance performance has her standing still on a stage, similar to waiting in a waiting room.

After three years of having her arm sensor, Ribas now wants to add a location sensor on her left arm that enables her to sense how close an earthquake is to her, which intensifies the closer the earthquake is to her. She will also get two vibrating chips implanted in the bottom of her feet. "After awhile I realized it would make more sense to feel earthquakes through my feet because they actually touch the earth," she said on the phone from Barcelona. "The prototype has already been made, I can wear it permanently."

Maybe getting a cyborg chip is like getting a tattoo: Once you start, you can't stop? But it isn't about becoming more superhuman or machine-like. "I have an interest in sci-fi, but nature is already amazing—some animals can see ultraviolet and infra-red, while some jellyfish never die. If we apply these things to our reality, our understanding of the planet will also change."

On her feet, Ribas will be able to feel the seismic activity of the moon, also known as moonquakes (it's just a coincidence her name is Moon). But she'll still be able to feel the earth. "My arm will vibrate with the earth and my feet will be on the moon," she said.

There was previously a lunar seismograph on the moon but it was stopped in 1977, now it has been replaced by a data-gathering satellite. "I have to connect to the satellite and find a way to get light data in real time," said Ribas. "I have to contact NASA or I want to find a way to get my own satellite up there."

Along with her partner, Neil Harbisson, a cyborg who has a Wi-Fi-enabled antenna in his skull to hear light frequencies, they're working to grow the cyborg art movement. This summer, they launched Cyborg Nest, a cyborg productcompany which sells subdermal implants which is the first step to becoming a cyborg.

They're also doing an open call for collaborators called Cyborg Futures, which aims to promote cyborg art, and they're encouraging others to become cyborgs with the Cyborg Foundation, which defends cyborg rights. "It's about the right and the freedom to choose the senses you want to have," she said. "I have the right to change my body."

Despite some backlash from medical ethicists and religious groups, Ribas doesn't plan to stop her work anytime soon. "We get threats saying we are against humanity," said Ribas. "We see it as something that creates more empathy to the earth and humanity, it creates more respect."