Neil Harbisson: Making sense of colour. Picture: Lars Norgaard
Neil Harbisson: Making sense of colour. Picture: Lars Norgaard

Neil Harbisson has an antenna implanted in his skull. Given a chance, many of us would like to change parts of our body. But does this extend to grafting pieces of technology into ourselves?

Harbisson, who visited SA to attend an artificial intelligence event this month, is the world’s first legally recognised cyborg, complete with a long, curved sensor jutting out of his head. The base of the antenna is completely integrated into his skull structure — no, it doesn’t give him a shock in the shower — and he needs to charge it every day.

Harbisson, 33, was born with an extreme form of colour blindness that allows him to see only in grayscale.

"If I was speaking to someone and they asked me if I had seen the man with ginger hair, blue eyes and dressed in pink I would have absolutely no idea. The only information I would have is that the man has hair, that he has eyes and he is not naked," he says.

While at university, Harbisson set about creating a sensor that would allow him to "hear" colours instead, so as to give him a "view" into colour’s social revelry.

Every colour, he says, gives off a natural frequency, which can be transformed into a sound frequency. Harbisson harnessed this phenomenon and with the use of sensors, created a device that he could wear on top of his head, which started him off on a journey to learn what the colours he couldn’t see sounded like.

But he wasn’t quite satisfied with the device and came up with a plan to have the technology implanted into the occipital bone at the base of his skull.

After a failed petition to a bio-ethical committee, he convinced a doctor to graft four implants into his skull in 2004: a vibrating chip, two implants for structural support for the antenna and a fourth implant, which allows him to connect to the internet.

Ultimately, he was able to hear colours he couldn’t see, and was even able to hear colours no-one else could see. The procedure opened up his sensory abilities to allow him to hear ultraviolet and infrared spectrums, making him something of a superhuman colour detector.

"The biggest connection my new sense has given me is with animals and nature. If I see a cat staring at a wall I can hear that it’s looking at an ultraviolet light stream. Or when I see bees crowding around specific flowers I can hear that there is higher light intensity."

Harbisson has since used his "eyeborg" to create art: making electronic music soundscapes out of the fruit section of his local grocery store or scanning celebrities’ faces to create a song based on the unique colour of their likeness.

But more importantly he has used his status to create awareness surrounding the endless possibilities of humanity and raise questions about the boundaries we inflict on ourselves.

He also questions the idea of nationality, and has petitioned Sweden for citizenship. He says all the parts from his new "limb" are from that country, which makes him part Swedish in the truest sense of the phrase.

Luckily for him the Swedes are known to be forward-thinking when it comes to their relationship with technology and have a thriving microchip-implant industry. Thousands of Swedes have, since 2015, had rice-grain-sized microchip receivers integrated into their hands to be used as a replacement for credit cards, office keys and gym cards.

Even the national train service, SJ, will happily scan a hand in place of a ticket.

The Swedes and Harbisson are not the only ones who see the advantages of technology integration. Harbisson and cyborg artist Moon Ribas — who has seismic sensory implants in her feet that allow her to feel earthquakes and moonquakes — founded the Cyborg Foundation.

The international organisation works with governments and individuals to "help humans become cyborgs, defend cyborg rights and promote cyborg art".

The duo, along with Manel Muñoz, who has a sensory organ that perceives changes in atmospheric pressure, formed the Transhuman Society in Barcelona, a safe space for 400 or so individuals who — through their implants — feel they are more than "just human".

Harbisson says the society is not about artificial limbs or prosthetics as there are medical professionals who are far better equipped than himself to tackle that sort of thing. Rather, it is about moving beyond what people perceive themselves to be and going beyond their sensory awareness.

It is about creating a "revealed reality", a reality only seen through the use of technology, he says.

So what is his favourite colour?

"I like space. It’s quite overwhelming because space is filled with many infrared and ultraviolet colours that we cannot normally see, but it’s very beautiful."

We live in a world where many still don’t have ready access to water; yet others can see the colour spectrum of space.

You don’t need a sensor to see that humanity is as strange as it is remarkable.