Born with a form of color-blindness, where he cannot see any color beyond the gray-scale, Neil Harbisson installed an antenna at the base his skull to help him hear colors.
He not only considers himself a cyborg, he was the first person to ever make a government agree with that label. To him, his actions are as much about art as they are cybernetic. In fact, he calls what he does cyborg art.
Synesthesia is a condition where the mind of affected can interpret the stimuli of one sensory organ with another sensory organ. For example, hearing a low D-note might make the person with synesthesia smell boiled eggs or some such thing. For Harbisson, creating a system of controlled synesthesia was the goal.
The effects of his biohack have not only granted Harrison the ability to detect colors, which come to him now via sounds, but to detect wavelengths invisible to the human eye, and to “see” the world in a way he did not anticipate.
The name for Harbisson’s condition is achromatopsia, which means no colors. He only sees scales of gray with his eyes. His bio-hack began with the intentions that he would be able to detect colors.
His antenna is only skull deep, no wires to the brain. As of this writing, it works by detecting light, then vibrates the skull at frequencies tuned to the color spectrum.
Since Harrison first installed the antenna, he’s pushed the wavelength spectrum to include what the human eye cannot detect, including ultraviolet waves. The net result of means he can detect when the sun is more dangerous to his skin.
He can pick up electromagnetic radiation. He can even receive signals from satellites. The antenna is now Bluetooth-enabled so Harbisson can even take calls or connect to the internet.
An unintended outcome of Harbisson’s implant was the reverse of transforming color into sound. He can now translate sound into colors. When he hears music or voices, his brain attributes colors to those sounds.
Speeches appear to Harbisson as spectrums of bent light. He’s even taken the new perceptions to task, creating colorful palettes of the sounds he hears.
In a speech delivered by him on TED, Harbisson shows the audience side-by-side images of speeches by MLK and Hitler, asking them to decide which one they prefer before telling them which belongs to which speaker.
In 2010, with Moon Ribas, Harbisson founded the Cyborg Foundation. Like Harbisson, Ribas augmented her body with extra-perceptive technology. She implanted a device in her arm that allows her to feel the earth so she can detect earthquakes.
Their site features their work and experiences but also serves as a platform for encouraging other cyborgs. They discuss ways one might wish to enhance her body with technology and talk about ways to go about making those ideas a reality.
You’ll also find links to online content talking about technology aimed at hacking the human body, but most of the content is outdated.
A quick scan of the internets shows that the fanfare of news surrounding Harbisson peters off in early 2016. Even his Twitter feed ends in December of 2016.
This writer wonders if it’s a matter of normalization or something gone awry. Did Harbisson remove his antenna? Hard to imagine anyone would give up that experience, but the human body is adaptive but can be fickle. Perhaps he ran into technical problems with the implant.
In any case, history records Harbisson as the first cyborg. For grinders, he’s one expression of what is possible.