Designing Ourselves: A Future of Cybernetics for Everyone

Neil Harbisson envisions a cybernetic future of artificial sensory organs for the masses.

That antenna sticking out of Neil Harbisson's head isn't a medical device, it's not a wearable, and it's not a gadget. Ask Harbisson and he'll tell you it's an “artificial sensory organ” that allows him to overcome his colorblindness and perceive color.

Neil Harbisson
Neil Harbisson 

For the past 13 years, since he first had his artificial organ (which he calls the “Eyeborg”) drilled into his cranium, Harbisson, who will be delivering a keynote at the upcoming ESC Silicon Valley  conference, has emerged as one of the world's preeminent futurists as well as a self-proclaimed cyborg. And he believes we're progressing toward a world where more and more people (disabled or not) will be choosing to augment themselves and experience the world in brand new ways.

Harbisson, 34, was born with achromatopsia, a rare form of colorblindness that allows him to only see in greyscale. As a child Harbisson said he knew that color existed, but he also understood that he had no way of perceiving it. His study as a musician led him to an answer. “When I started studying music I found out there are technologies that can create sounds. I was interesting in creating a sense of color without changing my existing sense,” he said. Transposing colors into different frequencies of sound seemed an ideal solution, but Harbisson also did not want to sacrifice his ability to hear the rest of the real world for the sake of hearing color tones.

He started looking into bone conduction as a solution and eventually settled on the design for his Eyeborg antenna. “Finding people to collaborate with on the project was easy because I was in an art school at the time,”Harbisson said. “The technology is not complex, it's the way it's being used that's unusual.”

What was complex was finding a doctor willing to graft the Eyeborg onto his skull...particularly after a bioethical committee shot the idea down. He eventually found a doctor in Spain who was willing to perform the procedure under the condition of anonymity. 

ESC logoNeil Harbisson will be delivering a keynote, “ The Art and Science of Extending Perception Through Cybernetic Technology on December 7 as part of ESC Silicon Valley Register here  for the event, hosted by  Design News  ’ parent company UBM.

If being bombarded with tones coming from every color source around you sounds overwhelming, it is.  “It took time for my brain to accept this as a sense. It was all chaotic, I had strong headaches. It was exhausting to hear all of this information every day,” Harbisson said. It took five weeks for the headaches to subside and for him to normalize to the new sensory input. Now Harbisson said he has even begun to dream in color.

The Eyeborg also allows him to perceive beyond the visible color spectrum, into the infrared and ultraviolet range as well. “Infrared makes me aware of movement detectors. If I go in a space and can sense infrared I can sense an alarm or something tracking my movements,” Harbisson said. “I can also sense at night, even

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