Neil Harbisson Is A Cyborg Who Hears More Of The World Than We See

What would your world be like if you couldn’t see color? For artist Neil Harbisson, a rare condition known as achromatopsia that made him completely color blind rendered that question meaningless. Not being able to see color at all meant that there was no blue in the sky or green in grass, and these descriptions were merely something to be taken on faith or memorized to get the correct answers in school.

But Neil’s life would change drastically when he met computer scientist Adam Montandon and with help from a few others, they developed the eyeborg, an electronic eye that transforms colors into sounds. Colors became meaningful for Neil in an experiential way, but one that was fundamentally different than how others described them.

This augmentation device wasn’t like a set of headphones that he could put on when he wanted to “listen” to the world around him, but became a permanent part of who he was. Though he had to memorize how the sounds corresponded to certain colors, in time the sounds became part of his perception and the way he “sees” the world. He even started to expand the range of what he could “see”, so that wavelengths of light outside of the visible range could be perceived.

In other words, he became cybernetic.

Not being readily accepted into society prompted the birth of a mission, as he explains in the phenomenal short film “Cyborg Foundation” that has won the Grand Jury Prize in GE’s $200,000 Focus Forward Filmmaker competition. We’ve recently profiled two other films from this competition, the Super Supercapacitor and the SlingShot Purifier, but there is something truly magical about this winning short as it foreshadows a cybernetic future that isn’t doom and gloom, but one that is greatly enriched through enhancement. See it for yourself.

Neil recently gave a fascinating talk at TEDGlobal2012 describing how his life is different, including how he can “eat my favorite song: I can compose music with food” and “before I used to dress in a way that it looked good — now I dress in a way that it sounds good.” The foundation he co-launched aims to advocate the development and adoption of cybernetics into society. “Life will be much more exciting when we stop creating applications for mobile phones and start creating them for our body.”

The TED talk is worth checking out as well:

In these two videos, Neil boldly paints a picture of what the future holds where augmentation devices will alter how we experience the world. Whether for corrective or elective motives, people will someday adopt these technologies routinely, perhaps choosing artificial synesthesia as a means of seeing the world in a broader or deeper way. Many of the developments in cybernetics and robotics on the horizon will alter human experience, causing the collective definition of “normal” or the “real world” to diverge.

If you have any doubt about it, look no further than the likely launch of Google Glass this year as an inroad into the imminent rise of wearable computing.

Yet, Neil shows that what is different doesn’t necessarily have to be feared, and the richness that augmentation brings can be life changing. Hopefully, as more people become cybernetic, their stories can be told and serve as inspiration to anyone whose life could be transformed through augmentation.

David J. Hill
David J. Hill
David started writing for Singularity Hub in 2011 and served as editor-in-chief of the site from 2014 to 2017 and SU vice president of faculty, content, and curriculum from 2017 to 2019. His interests cover digital education, publishing, and media, but he'll always be a chemist at heart.
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