The First Government-Recognized Cyborg

harbisson_cyborgThose who follow tech news are probably familiar with the name Neil Harbisson. As a futurist, and someone who was born with a condition known as achromatopsia – which means he sees everything in shades in gray – he spent much of his life looking to augment himself so that he could see what other people see. And roughly ten years ago, he succeeded by creating a device known as the “eyeborg”.

Also known as a cybernetic “third eye”, this device – which is permanently integrated to his person – allows Harbisson to “hear” colors by translating the visual information into specific sounds. After years of use, he is able to discern different colors based on their sounds with ease. But what’s especially interesting about this device is that it makes Harbisson a bona fide cyborg.

neil_harbisson1What’s more, Neil Harbisson is now the first person on the planet to have a passport photo that shows his cyborg nature. After a long battle with UK authorities, his passport now features a photo of him, eyeborg and all. And now, he is looking to help other cyborgs like himself gain more rights, mainly because of the difficulties such people have been facing in recent years.

Consider the case of Steve Mann, the man recognized as the “father of wearable computers”. Since the 1970’s, he has been working towards the creation of fully-portable, ergonomic computers that people can carry with them wherever they go. The result of this was the EyeTap, a wearable computer he invented in 1998 and then had grafted to his head.

steve-mann1And then in July of 2012, he was ejected from a McDonald’s in Paris after several staff members tried to forcibly remove the wearable device. And then in April of 2013, a bar in Seattle banned patrons from using Google Glass, declaring that “ass-kickings will be encouraged for violators.” Other businesses across the world have followed, fearing that people wearing these devices may be taking photos or video and posting it to the internet.

Essentially, Harbisson believes that recent technological advances mean there will be a rapid growth in the number of people with cybernetic implants in the near future, implants that can will either assist them or give them enhanced abilities. As he put it in a recent interview:

Our instincts and our bodies will change. When you incorporate technology into the body, the body will need to change to accommodate; it modifies and adapts to new inputs. How we adapt to this change will be very interesting.

cyborg_foundationOther human cyborgs include Stelarc, a performance artist who has implanted a hearing ear on his forearm; Kevin Warwick, the “world’s first human cyborg” who has an RFID chip embedded beneath his skin, allowing him to control devices such as lights, doors and heaters; and “DIY cyborg” Tim Cannon, who has a self-administered body-monitoring device in his arm.

And though they are still in the minority, the number of people who live with integrated electronic or bionic devices is growing. In order to ensure that the transition Harbisson foresees is accomplished as painlessly as possible, he created the Cyborg Foundation in 2010. According to their website, the organization’s mission statement is to:

help humans become cyborgs, to promote the use of cybernetics as part of the human body and to defend cyborg rights [whilst] encouraging people to create their own sensory extensions.

transhumanism1And as mind-controlled prosthetics, implants, and other devices meant to augment a person’s senses, faculties, and ambulatory ability are introduced, we can expect people to begin to actively integrate them into their bodies. Beyond correcting for injuries or disabilities, the increasing availability of such technology is also likely to draw people looking to enhance their natural abilities.

In short, the future is likely to be a place in which cyborgs are a common features of our society. The size and shape of that society is difficult to predict, but given that its existence is all but certain, we as individuals need to be able to address it. Not only is it an issue of tolerance, there’s also the need for informed decision-making when it comes whether or not individuals need to make cybernetic enhancements a part of their lives.

Basically, there are some tough issues that need to be considered as we make our way into the future. And having a forum where they can be discussed in a civilized fashion may be the only recourse to a world permeated by prejudice and intolerance on the one hand, and runaway augmentation on the other.

johnnymnemonic04In the meantime, it might not be too soon to look into introducing some regulations, just to make sure we don’t have any yahoos turning themselves into killer cyborgs in the near future! *PS: Bonus points for anyone who can identify which movie the photo above is taken from…

Sources: IO9.com, dezeen.com, eyeborg.wix.com

The Future is Here: The Cybernetic “Third Eye”

neil_harbissonAchromatopsia is a rare form of color blindness that effects one in thirty-five thousand people. One such individual is Neil Harbisson, who was born with the genetic mutation that rob him of the ability to see the world in anything other than black and white. But since 2004, he has been able to “hear” color, thanks to a body modification that has provided with him with a cybernetic third eye.

EyeborgThis device is known as the “eyeborg”, and given that it constitutes a cybernetic enhancement, some have taken to calling Harbisson a genuine cyborg. For others, he’s an example of a posthuman era where cybernetic enhancements will be the norm. In either case, the function of the eyeborg works was described in the following way in an article by Nautilus entitled “Encounters with the Posthuman”:

It transposes color into a continuous electronic beep, exploiting the fact that both light and sound are made up of waves of various frequencies. Red, at the bottom of the visual spectrum and with the lowest frequency, sounds the lowest, and violet, at the top, sounds highest. A chip at the back of Harbisson’s head performs the necessary computations, and a pressure-pad allows color-related sound to be conducted to Harbisson’s inner ear through the vibration of his skull, leaving his outer ears free for normal noise. Harbisson, who has perfect pitch, has learned to link these notes back to the colors that produced them.

Harbisson’s brain doesn’t convert those sounds back into visual information, so he still doesn’t know exactly what the color blue looks like. But he knows what it sounds like. As he explained to an audience at a TED Talks segment, he used to dress based on appearances. Now, he dresses in a way that sounds good. For example, the pink blazer, blue shirt and yellow pants he was wearing for the talk formed a C Major chord.

neil_harbisson1This may sound like an abstract replacement for actual color perception, but in many ways, the eyeborg surpasses human chromatic perception. For example, the device is capable of distinguishing 360 different hues, he can hear ultraviolet and infrared. So basically, you don’t need a UV index when you have the cybernetic third eye. All you need to do is take a look outside and instantly know if you need sunblock or not.

These and other extension of human abilities are what led Harbisson to found the Cyborg Foundation, a society that is working to create cybernetic devices that compensate for and augment human senses. These include the “fingerborg” that replaces a finger with a camera, a “speedborg” that conveys how fast an object is moving with earlobe vibrations and–according to a promotional film–a “cybernetic nose” that allows people to perceive smells through electromagnetic signals.

steve-mann1In addition to helping people become cyborgs, the foundation claims to fight for cyborg rights. While this might sounds like something out of science fiction, the recent backlash against wearers of Google glasses and the assault on Steve Mann are indications that such a society is increasingly necessary. In addition, Harbisson wants to find ways to fix devices like his eyeborg permanently to his skull, and recharge it with his blood.

For more information on the eyeborg and Project Cyborg, check out Harbisson’s website here. Neil Harbisson’s Project Cyborg promotional video is also available on Vimeo. And be sure to watch the video of Neil Harbisson at the TED Talks lecture:


Sources:
fastcoexist.com, nautil.us, eyeborgproject.com