Science fiction is full of stories in which the machines take over and humans are left subservient to their own creations, but according to some artists and experimenters, that need not be our future.
The work of Neil Harbisson, an Irish-born human cyborg, and Stelarc, an Australian performance artist, suggest that if we unite our bodies with technology, we can drastically extend our abilities and perception, and maybe even stay one step ahead of the robots.
Neil Harbisson was born colour blind, yet seeing only in black and white and grey scale had its benefits. He could easily remember shapes without the distraction of colour — but he did not stop wondering what colour was like. Even if you don’t see blue, green or yellow, you can’t ignore their existence, he said. Everyday life is full of references to it, from Greenland to brown sugar.
In 2003, Harbisson began to collaborate with cybernetics expert Adam Montandon to see if he could use technology to see colour through sound. Ultimately, the pair settled on a permanent solution: Harbisson had an Internet-connected antenna inserted into his head that allows him to hear the light frequencies of colour — now he is able perceive colour through vibration.
Everything around him has a note. On Sunday, for example, he was wearing F Sharp coloured shoes. Each food item he eats has a note, and supermarkets are like going to a night club — the section with cleaning products has the best sounds, he said. Even humans can be perceived in this melodious way. Apparently, MaCaulay Culkin sounds like C Major.
Using the antenna, Harbisson can pass colour blindness tests and it has allowed him to surpass the limits of human colour perception, by adding the ability to pick up infrared and ultraviolet. In a bank, for example, he can often tell if the infrared alarms are on or off.
Oddly enough, adding a sensor to his body has not left Harbisson feeling like a machine. Rather, he said he now feels much more connected to other animal species, like insects who also have
antennas. “We can use cybernetics to extend our perception. Now that I’ve become a cyborg, I feel more connected to the world and to nature than machines,” he said.
He is also not limiting himself to this Earth. Harbisson’s antenna is connected to cameras on the International Space Station, and he is beginning to investigate the colours of space.
Having an Internet-enabled appendage doesn’t come without risks: Harbisson has been hacked. Once, someone illicitly sent a message to his brain through the antenna, proving even cyborgs can get spam.
And yet, in his opinion, the possibilities the technology offers make it all worthwhile. Although Harbisson’s new sense doesn’t have a specific name, he believes he’s developing the Internet as a sixth sense. “I know I see the Internet as a sensory extension, because it allows me to sense colours that are far away from me or from space,” he said.
He also wants to help others share his new capacities. In 2010, Harbisson started the Cyborg Foundation, which aims to help humans become cyborgs if they wish to, defend cyborg rights and promote cyborgism in art and society. However, he predicted, in 100 years the focus will instead be genetic modification and sensors like his antenna will be created simply by altering our genes.
We shouldn’t be afraid of getting intimate with technology, Harbisson believes. “If we merge with technology, technology won’t become more intelligent than us,” he said. “I don’t see technology replacing our brains … Technology becomes much stronger if we unite.”