Neil Harbisson: My aim is not to hack the body, but to hack the mind
Mr. Neil Harbisson is colorblind. But his motto is “we’re as blind as we want to be”, so he made an enchantment to his body — he implanted an antenna which transforms colors into sounds.
Mr. Harbisson and his long time friend and colleague Mrs. Moon Ribas call themselves “cyborgs” (M. Ribas has a seismographic sensors implanted into her arms, and they are connected to the seismographs both on Earth and Moon) and they were giving their keynotes at the conference “Login” in Vilnius, Lithuania — and later journalists had their chances at the short press conference with Mr. Harbisson.
This is not my personal interview, but a collective Q&A session we all had in the press room.
You’ve already gave us your presentation, but could you please tell one more time, how this antenna device affect your daily life, how does it work, what is your perception of the world?
So, the antenna is not a device, it’s an organ — a body part. And I think we should accept that people will start using the technology to extend their senses.
And it changes everything. I can extend my perception of reality now beyond I was born with. You can continuously extend perception of reality without limits because technology keeps evolving, so if you are the technology, you can evolve during your lifetime.
So I am a trans-species, I’m adding an organ that already exists in other species — an antenna — and I’m adding the senses that already exist for other species, like infrared or ultraviolet perception. You can now design what species you want to be during your life, you don’t have to live under the species you are born with, you can become a new one.
Are you officially acknowledged as a cyborg?
Well, in 2004 I had a problem with the UK government because they did not let me to renew my passport, because they’ve said there’s an electronic device on my head in a photo. And I said — this is not an electronic device, this is a body part, an organ, and I feel I’m a cyborg. And in the end after several months they’ve accepted this explanation and they allowed me to change the passport.
So, that’s something that did not happen before, and this was a situation I had. But all I wanted was simply a passport with antenna as a part of me.
What about attention? You probabbly attract lots of it?
I had to get used ignoring people, because otherwise I would be talking to strangers every 10 minutes.
It can be overwhelming, but I’m used to it. And I hope in 2020s it would become normal to see people with new senses and new organs. Now people are getting used to see wearable technology, but I think becoming a technology will also become normal so I hope 2020s it will be more peaceful for me.
During your keynote you’ve told drunk women at the bar always try to pull your antenna. Does it hurt?
It hurts not physiologically, but psychologically. Physically, it’s just like pulling an arm.
And I don’t know why it happens so often, in all countries.
And it has never been a man. Always the women…
Are any other discomforts about your antenna? Do you need any special treatment for it?
Just like there is a toothache, sometimes I’m experiencing an antenna-ache. Then I take pills against the headache, and it goes away. Sometimes I think it may be caused by temperature changes.
And I have to change a lens every two or three years.
Are you planning more implants in the future?
I’m planning on having a new sense, a sense of time. I want to have, to control my own perception of time. It will be like a crown at the beginning, that will allow me to feel the exact time, so if it’s 6 o’clock, I’ll feel a slight tick here, if it’s 7, then it’s there (pointing to his temple). And when I will be able to feel time, this will become my biological clock, and then I will be able to travel in time, I will be able to move time and I will be able to control my own perception of it.
So, I’m working on new sense of time.
Could you tell us one more time how does your antenna work?
The antenna has a color sensor; it detects the light people see, it sends it to the chip inside my head, and the chip vibrates depending on the light frequencies. So each color vibrates differently and these vibrations become the sound to my inner ear and then I hear the different notes, different colors. The advantage is that it goes beyond the specter the eyes can sense.
And there’s also the internet connection, and people can send colors to my head. And I also can connect to satellites, I can sense the colors from space.
Can you turn it off?
No, there is no switch, so this is always on, but I can switch off the internet — in case if someone’s hacks me.
But I can simply cover it, and it’s just like closing your eyes.
Also, when you switch off the light, at night, there is a silence.
Isn’t it annoying — that hearing of sound, all the time?
No, because I’m not hearing colors through my ears, I’m hearing it through my bones and this is a different sense. It does not interfere with my existing senses.
Is it something like synesthesia?
From the outside it may look like, but no, it is not — because synesthesia is a union of senses, and in my case this is the creation of a new sense.
It’s a sonarchromatism.
Where does the system get energy from?
Now I’m using the system of magnets, which I have to change every two months, but the aim is a body energy — charging the system through the blood circulation. It’s the aim of any cyborg — to charge your senses and body-parts from your own energy.
How many colors do you see at once, how wide specter is?
It picks the dominant color. The closer I get to it, more specific it gets. But you can design the system whatever you want.
How did you manage to find specialist who implanted this antenna?
First I went to the plastic surgeons, but I realized it was not a good option because usually they don’t drill the head and mostly they do implants under the skin.
Then I went to a hospital and talked to surgeons, but they said no, because it’s not ethical for them. But then someone told me he knew a doctor that probably would do it, and then I went to that anonymous doctor who did the surgery.
It’s not easy, but this will be easier. It’s the same like trans-gender surgeries in 50s and 60s — it was difficult because bioethical committees set that, and you had to find doctors willing to do it. People from America would go to Denmark. Now cyborg-surgery is having the same.
Is it expensive?
Not really. It’s like having a tooth implant, same in system and in prices.
During your presentation you’ve mentioned you are wearing sounds. How do you sound today?
All this is silent (showing solid black pants), but this jacket is very very noisy, because it’s changing the colors and it has all possible notes. My socks are C# and E, which sound good (pulling his pants up and showing socks).
And how is Vilnius sounding so far?
I arrived last night, so I did not hear much. What I’ve heard, there are many F#s and Gs, so shades between orange and yellow, and the sky was so blue and it reflected a lot. I still have to scan the city, hopefully I will walk around the streets today and will detect the colors.
You’ve mentioned the transgender surgeries, but to get one of those, you have to go to psychologist, and then you have mutual conclusion for a necessity of such surgery. Is there any necessary psychological course for becoming a cyborg?
No, but it will be.
I receive emails from the people who identify themselves as the cyborgs and they look at themselves in the mirror, but see no cybernetics, so they feel that their body does not correspond to their species. It’s similar to trans-gender, the people who do not identify their bodies as who they are in their minds.
People who feel like this could easily be tested psychologically to see that they feel being cyborgs since the very young age and they feel that they need cybernetics in their bodies because they identify themselves as being a technology. These people are not coming out, they’re like hiding in a closet, but we receive more and more emails from the teenagers.
There community is slowly growing right now — people who feel they’re cyborgs and share their feelings about it, and a community of people who feel they are trans-species, who have the organs — and senses — another species have.
We’ll start to hear more and more from them.
You’ve must have heard about the theory of singularity — that the technology is unavoidable, and this is where the human race is going. Do you believe that humans still have a choice?
I think we have a choice either we allow technology to evolve separately from us — and if we do that, it might become more intelligent than us, and that’s when it might take over — or we unite with technology and this won’t happen then, because we become a technology, we evolve with technology.
We have an option, I guess. To grow separately or to grow united. For me, growing united seems to be the best option.
So, I decide I want to be a cyborg. Where do I start?
I think you should decide what senses you want to extend, what reality you want o perceive. There’s so much that you can not sense yet, so there are lots to start from.
And if you don’t know what you want, just look at the nature, the animals — what senses do they have, what experiences are they having — and then you’ll probably find the senses that attracts you more than others.
And when you know what sense do you want, then start thinking how to do that, what organ, the body-part can give you that. Then I would wear it outside for a while, like an extra-sense, so you get used to that, and when you’re used to that, you can go for a surgery and have an implant.
So this is something like getting a tattoo? You have to decide what do you want and where do you want it?
Yes, something like that. But on this case instead of modifying your body, you modify your mind.
The aim is to modify your mind, the body is just a secondary thing. Like, my aim was not having an antenna, my aim was to add a new sense to my mind. The aim is not to hack the body, but to hack the mind.
But isn’t it the most difficult thing, modifying the mind?
It takes longer. It’s not like a surgery, it’s a process. It’s a profound decision. And your brain may reject a new sense — or it may accept it.
How long did it take you for such a decision?
In my case it was very automatic, because I was interesting in sensing colors since I was 11. When I realized the technology could be developed, I knew I wanted it.
There are lots of people who get scared by the idea of body modification. What would you say to them?
I understand them. But if you look at the life in a more general way, were are all here only for few decades, so you can ether live with the same senses and same organs for those decades or you actually live a bit beyond and explore life in a new level.
I think both options are good, but I would encourage people to think about option we have now. We are the first generation who can actually o this — we are very lucky.
Also, if you want to explore space — and I know there are lots of people who are interested in space — the use of internet is a sensory extension. Besides going physically into space, you can explore the space by sending your senses there.
And in my case, if I had a choice between living longer without additional senses and shorter living with additional senses, I would choose the last one. Because perception of time is very personal — someone may live 60 and feel they lived only 40, and some may live 40 and feel they lived a lot more. Time is so relative. It does not really matter how long your body is here, it’s about how much use of time you make.
Has anyone already made a comparison between these new senses and the drugs? This seems to be like the extension of consciousness, too?
Yes, it’s definitely connected. Use the alcohol or drugs is altering or extending your senses, too. So you either can extend your senses with the chemicals, that can have very bad consequences and addiction — or you can also modify your senses with the cybernetics, which is more controllable.
So in some areas cybernetics can be seen as the substitution of drugs. Like, hearing the colors might be very psychedelic. I think we might see a branch of cybernetics or cyborgism as the new drug scene.
Some bioethicists see implants — which might make you stronger or smarter — as a threat and they say it should be under control. What is your opinion on this?
I don’t think there should be any control, because this is your body and nobody should stop you from modifying it. Even if it were very strict legislation, it would not make any difference.
There are two ways of using cybernetics: one is by adding sense, another is by adding intelligence or physical abilities. The last one is a different branch and I’m not interested into this. There is AI — the Artificial Intelligence — and I’m working with AS — Artificial Senses. And Artificial Senses can give you Intelligence, and that Intelligence would be given by your Brain but not by Technology.
But yes, there would be use of cybernetics in other ways and probably some of them would be bad, but in all cases the technology — any product — can be used in a good way or a bad way, like a knife could be used to cut bread or kill people. Same might happen with cybernetic organs or senses.
Do you see any security related threats while using cybernetics? During your presentation you’ve told you’ve already been hacked.
I liked being hacked! It has happened once, someone has sent me an image to my head and I still don’t know who it was. It was a very interesting experience, I did not dislike that, it was nice! So, in my case for now, being hacked is not bad. But if someone start to annoy me by hacking, then yes, I’ll have to do some changes, make my system more closed. Because for now it’s like more open. If there’s a hacker here, he could easily find me and do something.
Do you believe in God?
I think there is a lot we do not know, so I would leave everything open. I’m not religious, I don’t follow any specific religion of Earth, but I think there might be a God in space.
I think the space is the biggest mystery.