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 ValleyRegister 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 if there's no light.” He said his ability to sense ultraviolet also helps him in sensing intense sunlight and helping him know when he's been outdoors too long. Today Harbisson's Eyeborg affords him a 360-degree perception of the color around him and allows him to perceive an infinite number of colors by assigning each color a unique tone. “There's no way of counting the number of colors,” he said. “There are 360 hues and you also factor in saturation and light levels.” Since his initial implantation he's also added Bluetooth functionality to his Eyeborg to allow for easier software upgrades as well as Internet access (he lets friends share images with him directly via Internet so he can perceive colors remotely). 

Given all of the different tones coming at him constantly, Harbisson describes his day-to-day as a rather musical experience. “All of my other senses have awakened a bit more. You find connections. The smell of orange makes my brain create the sound of F-sharp. I might hear a sound and relate it to a specific color or a smell.”

His favorite place to visit? “I really like supermarkets. Walking around the supermarket is a very unique experience. You don't really find the combination of colors placed that way in aisles anywhere else and the light is always really good in supermarkets.” On the other hand he said he doesn't really like spaces with a lot of violet coloring since it can be very high pitched.

Harbisson is far from the only person like himself. In 1998 Kevin Warwick, professor of cybernetics at the University of Reading, England, became the world's first cyborg when he implanted with himself with an RFID chip that allowed him to control lights and machines around his lab. Warwick has since removed the chip from his body, but an entire underground movement has sprung up – mostly through online forums and websites – around biohacking and personal cybernetics. There are even annual conventions like BodyHacking Con.

Biohackers, or “grinders,” as some members of the community have branded themselves, are conducting often risky DIY experiments into implanting themselves with chips and other devices for reasons varying from medical to pure entertainment. They even have their own online stores dedicated to selling homemade implants as well as the required surgical tools – all with full disclaimers of course. A biohacker named Amal Graafstra recently gathered attention for a proposed project to use RFID implants to create smart guns that only fire when they're being held by their owner ( Graafstra has already demonstrated a working prototype, using himself as a guinea pig).

While he hasn't declared himself a part of the grinder movement, Harbisson himself has started the Cyborg Foundation – a platform dedicated to bringing together individuals around the world who want to become cyborgs, and “come out of the cyborg closet” according to its website. “There are lot of people that are in the cyborg closet ... We believe that everyone should perceive the world as they wish. And this platform exists to give you the tools to become who you seek to be by expanding your senses and/or abilities as you please,” the foundation's website reads.

Taking his mission one step further, in 2015 Harbisson co-founded his own company, Cyborg Nest, that will be selling implantable technologies Harbisson is referring to as “new sensory organs.” Whereas engineers and scientists are abuzz about artificial intelligence (AI) Harbisson believes there is a new, emerging field that is just as exciting – artificial sensing (AS). “Cyborg Nest is about exploring our relationship with AS, and the applications of AS to enhancing body intelligence” Harbisson said.

The company is already taking pre-orders on its first product, North Sense, and is planning on shipping the first units out in January. North Sense is a partially implantable sensor, about a square inch in size, that anchors to the skin via titanium barbell piercings and vibrates when its wearer is facing truth north – transforming a person into a sort of human compass.

The North Sense Implant will attach to the body via titanium piercings (image source: Cyborg Nest)
The North Sense will affix to body like a piercing and detect true north. (image source: Cyborg Nest) 

Cyborg Nest also has other new devices planned on the horizon. One that Harbisson is particularly excited about is a forehead implant that will use heat generated at various orientations to give a user an inherent sense of time. “Humans don't have an organ for time, so we decided to create one” he said, adding that the finished product will also have a “flight mode” and be able to adapt to travel as well as different time zones.

Animals already have sensory abilities, like the ability to see ultraviolet or detect true north, that go beyond human perception and Harbisson thinks it's time that humans joined the club. “It's not bad to modify ourselves or design ourselves. It's positive,” he said. He believes adopting more cyborg technology could have a powerful effect on society.

“I usually give the example of night vision. If we created night vision instead of lightbulbs it would be much better for the planet; we wouldn't be using so much energy to create artificial life,” he said. “By adding senses you can also prevent illnesses and accidents. Sensing ultraviolet would prevent too much sunbathing, for example. Once you feel nature you're more aware of it. If we all felt something like climate change instead of just knowing it's there we'd act differently.”

Research is showing that Harbisson's feelings aren't just confined to niche online communities and is expanding into the larger consumer space. A survey by Ericson ConsumerLab on “10 Hot Consumer Trends for 2016” listed “Internables,” implantable technologies, as one of the in-demand emerging consumer technologies. “Judging by consumer interest, the next generation of body-monitoring technology may not be worn, but may instead be found within the human body,” the report said, “But this is only the beginning; eight out of 10 smartphone owners would like to augment their sensory perceptions and cognitive capabilities with technology – the most popular being vision, memory, and hearing.”

Though it will probably be some years, or even decades, before we see the first people walking around with augmentations and cosmetic implants in their bodies, Harbisson believes there is a cultural shift happening in younger generations that, coupled with technological advancements, particularly in 3D printing, will make cyborg technology much more acceptable and eventually ubiquitous.

From Ericsson Consumer Labs' report "10 Hot Consumer Trends 2016" 

“Things are changing slowly, very slowly. I feel the younger generations are much more aware of what's happening,” Harbisson said. “The 20th century was harmful in many cases in the way that technology was very negative. But now the younger generations don't' see this as so bad.”

But for Harbisson it's only a matter of time before we accept technology as being a normal part of our biology. “Once we can 3D print with our DNA we'll be able to print existing and new organs, he said. He even hopes that someday 3D printing will turn his antenna into an organic implant. “Instead of using chips we'll use biological organs. We are at the beginning of the renaissance of our species. Children will be born with new senses by the end of this century if we keep pushing.”

Neil Harbisson will be delivering a keynote, “The Art and Science of Extending Perception Through Cybernetic Technologyon December 7 as part of ESC Silicon Valley.

Chris Wiltz is the Managing Editor of Design News

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