The Future of Us: Interview with a Cyborg

Neil Harbisson and Moon Ribas on how we must change to achieve our full potential.

The word cyborg is familiar to science fiction fans, but Catalan “cyborg activist” duo Neil Harbisson and Moon Ribas say they are not interested at all in sci-fi.

As artists and activists, their objective is to enforce the scientific origin of the term — how it was always linked to the idea of exploration and transcendence — so that technology can bring us closer to nature.

Bringing Humanity Higher

In the 1960s, researchers Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline published the article “Cyborgs and space,” in which they posited the importance of adapting ourselves via technology, so we could not only explore space, but make it possible to live there. A combination of the words cybernetic and organism, these cyborgs would replicate animals’ abilities, organs, and senses to compensate for our biological limitations instead of interfering in the alien biome. In their words, “the cyborg deliberately incorporates exogenous components extending the self-regulatory control function of the organism in order to adapt it to new environments.”

This is what Harbisson and Ribas want to promote when integrating their performances with technology. Best known for his antenna and for being the world’s first legally recognized cyborg, Neil Harbisson was born colorblind, but now he has an implant that makes him able to read colors by turning them into audible vibrations in his skull.

It all started back in 2003, when he worked with computer scientist Adam Montandon at Dartington College of Arts in England to extend his senses with the electronic eye implant. Inspired by the way dolphins communicate, which is based on electromagnetic waves, Neil is now able to hear colors, achieving not only a new kinesthetic sense but another way of understanding the world.

Likewise, Moon Ribas has augmented her work as a dancer and performance artist with a sensor implant she has in her elbows. These seismic sensors are able to replicate the tremors of an earthquake happening anywhere on the planet. In conjunction with this new sense, she has developed a dance performance called Waiting for Earthquakes, in which she dances according to the intensity and duration of the earthquake she can feel at the moment of the show. Together with Harbisson, she created the nonprofit organization Cyborg Foundation and also the online store Cyborg Nest, in which you can buy your own implant and have it in your body with the help of a body piercer.

With these two initiatives, Harbisson and Ribas want to make cyborgism a more common, achievable modification.

“We receive emails from young people who are willing to become cyborgs, to design their own body,” says Ribas, adding that these people also want to change their perception of reality.

Unstoppable Changes

While Harbisson believes that this is something to be dealt with now, Moon thinks that, no matter what, cyborgism will become more common in the future.

“People will have technology in their bodies, not just using that as a tool, but as part of their own being,” she says.

For now, the the difficulties are ethical. According to Harbisson, many professionals don’t accept cyborg surgery because of bioethical issues, although many are already starting to understand that this kind of procedure is much easier than the expected. And once you find a surgeon willing to work with you, there’s no guarantee you’ll find a warm reception back home.

“Many parts of society see this as a threat, that becoming less human is a threat. That’s an issue that is still very present,” says Harbisson.

Their position about technology is specific and meaningful. The duo believes that using technology only as a tool is what creates the distance between not only us and nature, but also between ourselves as humans. “Take mobile phones. You can see how people walk around the street without even noticing who is around them. If that’s happening already between us, imagine between us and nature,” says Harbisson.

In his opinion, technology is distracting humans from the environment, but if we “become technology, then you can actually focus on what’s around you again.”

In other words, Harbisson and Ribas are taking Clynes and Kline’s notion of the cyborg one step further. In the beginning of September they came to Brazil to work in partnership with Mesa&Cadeira, an agency that helps companies to solve challenges by handpicking professionals to work on the issue. In this case, Harbisson and Ribas worked for six days with a team of 15 professionals, including an engineer, a dentist, and a dancer.

The result of the collaboration was a tooth implant named “WeTooth,” by which they can communicate using radio frequency and Morse code. During their performance in São Paulo, the artists were sat on a table, back to back, but one could “find out” what the other was seeing when receiving the message via vibrations on their teeth, like elephants communicate by stomping to each other.

Enhancing our Perceptions, Increasing our Understanding

As stated by Harbisson during his TED talk in 2012, we might all wish to extend our senses if we consider how limited they are when compared to other animals. “Sharks can detect electromagnetic fields,” he said, “dolphins can hear through their bones, bats can see through sound. By becoming cyborgs, we have the chance to extend our perception to the level of other animal species.”

These artists believe that by extending our senses, understanding of the world will come naturally thereafter. When speaking about WeTooth, Harbisson said that they’re working to improve the implant so it could be implemented on a global scale. “We are allowing people to become transspecies,” he said, “In fact, [humans] have always been, since starting out as bacteria.”

However, what both artists stress is that in this process of using technology as a means to extend our bodies and senses, nature shouldn’t be harmed. “There are some technologies that are not good for nature,” says Harbisson.

He suggests electric light as an example that could be avoided if we modified ourselves, so we would have night vision instead. “That would be a much wiser way of using technology to change ourselves instead of using technology to create light, which is something that changes the environment and our planet.”

Many dystopias, like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), have argued that technology can be not only harmful to us, but also to nature — a classic dichotomy in anthropology, in which the concept of culture is the opposite of nature. Using a new version of the archetype of the Noble Savage, Huxley discussed a future in which people are not only separated by castes, but also distanced from reality and nature with their constant use of the drug Soma and other trivial resources.

Similarly, Harbisson and Ribas want to promote a journey back to nature, but not by breaking machines and promoting a classic Neo-Luddite narrative. What they want is to make technology meaningful, although their discourse distinguishes what is real from what is not in terms of digital imaging technologies.

When asked if they would be interested in using virtual reality for their performances and works, both artists said they would rather use augmented reality, with HoloLens, or then what they call Real Reality (RR). “It’s a technology that allows you to sense reality that exists and that you can’t sense through your body. For example, my antenna and Moon’s seismic sense are RR for us,” says Harbisson.

Still, if they were to choose only between VR and AR, they would pick the latter. “Augmented reality allows you to also experience the context around you by adding different layers, augmenting the reality with layers. VR would be the last one we would choose. I think it’s the least effective one,” he says, adding that virtual reality “completely isolates you from the context you are in, which we don’t usually like.”

What’s Next

Though Neil Harbisson and Moon Ribas don’t have any interest in science fiction, basing their art in scientific research, it’s possible that the relevance of their work is partly owed to the science fiction stories that have populated our imaginations with cyborg characters for decades now. As important as Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto was for philosophical, sociological and artistic reflection, cyborgs have been characters since 1972 with Martin Caidin’s Cyborg. Later, they became cool with William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy and mainstream science fiction works like the Star Trek series and Star Wars movies.

As much as myths were created and told in order to make people understand and explain the world, perhaps it’s by the means of science fiction that we will find the turning point at which being a cyborg is normalized. At Human by Design, a conference put on by the developers behind Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, on August 3rd, Harbisson had the chance to see an initiative that is trying not only to implement new ethics for cyborgs, but also change the mindset with a videogame and transmedia sci-fi narrative. Hopefully, with enough artists like Harbisson and Ribas working alongside enough sci-fi evangelists, we can develop cyborgism to its full potential.