For most people, five senses are enough. But a growing number of a transhumanists are using technology to expand the range of inputs our biology offers. One of the most recognisable among them is artist and activist Neil Harbisson. Born colourblind, Harbisson has a flexible antenna implanted into the back of his skull with a sensor on the end of it that converts colour data into sound waves. He still sees in grayscale, but thanks to his implant he’s able to “hear colours”. Harbisson, and others like him, argue that the sorts of technology we’re putting in motor vehicles might one day become more popular with humans… and that perhaps it ought to.
“We’re giving these senses to machines like cars, but not to us,” Harbisson says in a group media interview after delivering the keynote address at an event in Johannesburg on Thursday. Harbisson calls his colour-sensing antennae an ‘eyeborg’ and explains while earlier iterations had to be charged by plugging in a cable, upgrades over the years mean these days he can charge it inductively, like modern smartphones with wireless charging, or electric toothbrushes. “I’ve got a specially designed pillow,” he explains with a smile.
Today, the most widespread biohacks or electronic augmentations for humans are implants of RFID or NFC chips. These are primarily used to replace access cards or contactless payment solutions, and have been rapidly growing in popularity in countries like Sweden. Harbisson says he’s not surprised these technologies are taking off more rapidly than more drastic ones like his eyeborg.
“Most implants are for outputs, where the implant sends information to a machine,” he says. “We work on inputs that receive things.” Harbisson explains that the challenge with input mechanisms are that they affect the mind. After having his antenna surgically installed, Harbisson suffered from headaches for weeks, and says it took months for his brain to adapt and become accustomed to the sound waves it generated.
“People are less ready — and more afraid — of implants that can change your mind,” he says. But, given the low cost of the equipment — Harbisson’s hardware uses a combination of bone conduction tech used in solutions for the deaf, an off-the-shelf chip to convert colour data to vibrations and a widely available colour sensor — he expects this could change, and soon. A far larger obstacle than the cost of equipment is finding doctors willing to do the necessary surgeries.
Transhumanists, Harbisson says, face some of the same challenges as people wanting gender reassignment surgeries in the late 20th century. “People could find doctors willing to perform the surgeries, but bioethical committees would say it was unethical. Now that’s changed.”
The same could happen to “transpecies surgeries” in coming years, according to Harbisson, who adds that you might find a country like Sweden that permits the surgeries and then becomes a popular destination for people wanting the procedures. As for his surgery? He found a doctor who is enthusiastic about it and was willing to perform the procedure for free “on his day off”.
More human than human
The “we” Harbisson refers to when talking about cyborg technologies includes members of the Barcelona-based Transpecies Society. Harbisson, and others like him, say they don’t feel purely human any more. By adding an additional means of perception, Harbisson has transformed himself, transcended his biological limits, and — according to him — transcended the boundaries between species. “I feel more connected to other species,” he says. “When I see a cat staring at a wall where I can see infrared, or lots of bees going to a flower with high ultraviolet I feel like I’m able to cross the boundaries between us and other species.'”
Harbisson co-founded the Transpecies Society in 2017 with two other “cyborg artists”, Moon Ribas and Manel Muñoz. The Transpecies Society hosts workshops, residencies and talks and seeks to educate the public about its work. Harbisson and Ribas founded another organisation in 2010 called the Cyborg Foundation, “an international organisation that aims to help humans become cyborgs, defend cyborg rights and promote cyborg art”.
Ribas has sensors in her ankles that let her feel seismic activity on earth as physical vibrations, and more recently added sensors that let her feel seismic activity on the moon. She turns this incoming stimulus into dance and percussive performances. Harbisson, meanwhile, receives image data from the International Space Station. He says his and Ribas’s ability to experience extraterrestrial data or events as sense data makes them “senstronauts”, and that it brings space to their bodies.
Harbisson’s next project will see him installing a “solar crown” in his head beneath the skin. A point of heat will move around his head once every 24 hours, so he’ll be able to “feel time”. Moreover, once he’s accustomed to it, he’ll be able to meddle with it. “I want to see if I can manipulate my sense of time,” he says. “Can I slow down important things or special things by slowing the movement?”
The ethics of designer bodies
“Designing ourselves is ethical,” Harbisson says. “We’ve been designing the planet for generations to suit us, but we should be doing it to ourselves instead.” Another benefit of Harbisson’s deliberate, digital synesthesia is that his ability to perceive infrared makes it easier for him to navigate after dark. “Cities at night could be dark if we had night vision, and then we wouldn’t spend so much energy creating artificial light,” he argues.
Part of Harbisson’s work is lobbying for cyborg rights. These include, but aren’t limited to the right for individuals to “design themselves”, regulation around hacking — Harbisson says he was hacked once, where someone forced his embedded hardware to emit sound waves it wasn’t receiving from the antennae, but says he enjoyed the experience, and guidelines for instances where people physically interfere with implants. He suggests that instead of constituting damage to property, someone breaking or pulling his antenna should be thought of more like assault.
We’re all orange
It’s not hard to see how transhumanists and other biohackers could be discriminated against much like minority groups, transexuals and other individuals have been for, well, pretty much the whole of human history. But, as in instances of racism, ageism or other prejudices based on arbitrary signifiers, there’s a strong argument to be made for working hard to try and resist that, particularly when transhumanism could one day help us survive in a world of climate change, artificial intelligences and other challenges with which our species has never had to contend.
Harbisson’s able to focus on the dominant colour in a scene, rather than being overwhelmed by sense data in the case of an extremely colourful one. Having pointed his antenna at plenty of humans over the more than a decade he’s had it, he says when it comes to people distinctions like black and white are meaningless. “We are all different shades of orange,” he says.
If you’re having a hard time imagining what it might be like to hear colour you can try out the Eyeborg app which seeks to replicate the sort of experience Harbisson’s antenna gives him.