Neil Harbisson is the first person on the planet to have a passport photo that shows his cyborg nature — in his UK passport, he's wearing a head-mounted device called an eyeborg. The color-blind artist says the eyeborg allows him to see color, and he wants to help other cyborgs like himself gain more rights.
Anyone who has ever gotten a passport photo knows Harbisson has accomplished something that once seemed bureaucratically impossible. Other people with cyborg headgear, like Steve Mann, have had their gear forcibly removed and been refused entrance into buildings for wearing devices on their heads. But with a passport photo that shows the eyeborg as part of Harbisson's face, it will be harder for people to argue that his eyeborg is an optional accessory, like a camera or a hat. And somebody trying to take his augmentation off could be committing a violent crime equivalent to injuring his face.
Dezeen has a fascinating interview with Harbisson, where he talks about how his body adapted to the device he now thinks of as an integral part of himself.
Harbisson was born with a condition called achromatopsia, which means he sees everything in shades of gray. It's kind of like watching the world go by on a black-and-white monitor when everybody else has full color HD screens. He's missing out on safety cues like the color of traffic lights, but more importantly he felt like he was missing an aesthetic sense of his environment. As an artist, he's acutely aware of how aesthetics affect people's moods and behavior — and so, nearly a decade ago, he set out to augment himself to see what other people see.
The result is that he sees in a way that nobody has seen before. His eyeborg attachment converts colors around him into soundwaves, which are transmitted to his inner ear via a vibration mechanism on the back of his skull. Essentially, Harbisson hears and feels colors:
Each colour has a specific frequency that I can hear because of the Eyeborg. Infrared is the lowest sound and ultraviolet is the highest sound. I hear them through bone conduction. Basically, the sound goes to the back of the head and then my inner ear hears the different sine waves.
Harbisson felt that the device was fully integrated into his sense of self when he began to have emotional responses to colors in his environment. He also says that he "dreams" of color. Certain faces and buildings are particularly musical for him — their combinations of tones and colors create sounds that Harbisson finds pleasing. At last, he has the aesthetic sense he wanted. The most interesting part is that his sense of a pleasing color palette is inevitably going to be different from a person who sees color with his or her eyes.
And he's planning to make his eyeborg an even more integrated part of himself, by charging it using his own body motions:
I have like a USB-like connector that I put at the back of the head which allows me to plug myself in to the mains. I take three hours to charge myself and then I can go usually three or four days, but the aim is not to use electricity. One of the next stages is to find a way of charging the chip with my own body energy, so I might be using blood circulation or my kinetic energy - or maybe the energy of my brain could charge the chip in the future. That's one of the next things; to be able to charge the chip without depending on any external energy.
Bone inputs may be the wave of the future when it comes to sense augmentation. Already, cochlear implants make use of a similar kind of interface. Harbisson speculates about what may come next for cyborgs:
Having a bone input gives us a sense that doesn't block any other senses, so I think this gives us a lot of options. Also, just having sensors at the back of our body is something you can do simply with very simple technology. This enables you to have some sort of sense of what's behind you. Also, what we'd like to see is people using small, infrared sensors that vibrate so you know when there's someone behind which creates a 360 degree perception. Then there's other things such as orientation. Having a small compass implanted that vibrates whenever you face north could help a lot.
In the meantime, we need our social and political values to catch up with the technology. Harbisson founded the Cyborg Foundation to help other citizen cyborgs like himself protect their rights.
Read more, and see more pictures, at Dezeen.
Photos by Dan Wilton.