Harbisson uses technology, vibrations to explore senses

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British artist and activist Neil Harbisson was the opening speaker for CAAD’s “Sonic Cyborg” lecture series. As a self-named “cyborg,” Harbisson is redefining what it means to be a human. Photo courtesy of TED Conference via Flickr

For the past two years, Vassar’s Creative Arts Across Disciplines Initiative (CAAD) has funded interdisciplinary lecture series and student projects exploring one of the five senses–vision, hearing, taste, touch and smell. With “hearing” as the theme for the 2015-2016 academic year, Professor of Physics Jose Peril­lan and Professor of Music Justin Patch joined together to organize a series of lectures and events entitled “Sonic Cyborgs.”

“Sonic Cyborgs,” in short, refer to individu­als who have incorporated cybernetic elements into their bodies that utilize soundwaves to produce perceptions beyond what average in­dividual can experience. The first installment in the series occurred in February, with lec­tures by author Michael Chorost and Professor Trevor Pinch of Cornell University. The second opened on April 11 with a lecture by British art­ist and activist Neil Harbisson, a self-identified sonic cyborg and co-founder of the Cyborg Foundation, an international organization that aims to help humans become cybernetic organ­isms.

Harbisson was born with achromatopsia, a complete inability to see color. Grayscale vi­sion throughout his childhood never presented Harbisson with any significant problems–even today, he is appreciative of the fact that his grayscale vision allows him to see objects from greater distances and in conditions of lower light than can normal-sighted individuals. As a young adult, however, Harbisson began to real­ize the importance of color perception in daily life. In his lecture, Harbisson stated, “I couldn’t ignore color. So then, I started thinking that I should find a way of sensing color.”

Harbisson’s research soon led to the devel­opment of an antenna capable of transducing color into physical vibrations within his skull. The “color” of an object, as perceived by the human eye, is produced through the object’s reflection of light. When light hits an object, the amount of light that is reflected back and the amount of energy it contains, measured in wavelengths, produces the visual perception of color within the human brain. For Harbisson, each wavelength of light is detected by the an­tenna that was surgically implanted in his skull in 2004. The antenna then produces a particu­lar frequency of auditory vibrations in his head.

High-energy wavelengths (i.e., blue and pur­ple) emitted by an object correspond to vibra­tions of higher frequency and thus produce a high-pitched sound; lower-energy wavelengths (i.e., red and yellow) correspond to vibra­tions of lower frequency and thus produce a lower-pitched sound. In this way, Harbisson “hears,” rather than “sees,” color.

Using a smartphone app (aptly named “Eye­borg App”), people across the world can trans­mit pictures to Harbisson’s antenna, which is connected to the internet. When an image is transmitted, a distinct series of vibrations of different frequencies are produced within his skull. In this way, Harbisson says, he has “seen” an image of an Australian sunset from his home in London.

More recently, Harbisson has worked with NASA to virtually connect his antenna to the International Space Station, allowing him to ac­tually sense colors (both visible and invisible, such as UV and infrared rays) from space. Har­bisson said, “I’m actually training my brain to have this connection be permanent so that I can use the internet connection to sense the colors from space and to have the antenna to feel the colors from Earth.” Speaking for the Cyborg Foundation, he says, “Our aim is to have our senses in space…so that we can explore space without having to physically go there.”

Because of its high frequencies, UV light emits a high-pitched sound, so Harbisson said that he can only last two to three hours before becoming overwhelmed with the sensory in­put. “It’s overwhelming. There are so many ul­traviolets out there, which are so noisy for me, that I have to train my brain to get used to the sound of the colors from space.” He estimates that he should be able to make this connection to the International Space Station permanent by 2019, giving his brain several more years to adapt to this new input.

While many individuals with technological implants (e.g., prosthetic legs, cochlear im­plants, pacemakers) continue to identify them­selves as “human,” Harbisson has incorporated the technological features of his body into a novel conceptualization of his own identity. As articulated by Perillan in his introductory re­marks to Harbisson’s lecture, “Neil Harbisson readily identifies himself as a psychological, as well as biological, cyborg. He feels both his mind and body are united with cybernetics. He doesn’t feel as though he is wearing or using technology–instead, he feels he is technology.”

Further nuance exists in Harbisson’s self-identification. While he refers to himself as a “cyborg,” or a technological being, he is resistant to the using the terms “bionic” or “superhuman.” “Becoming a cyborg is not be­coming closer to a machine,” Harbisson em­phasized in his lecture.

In fact, as described by Patch, “[Harbisson] likens more to being an insect than anything else.” Indeed, while some may describe his identification as a form of transhumanism, Harbisson insists that he is instead fundamen­tally “trans-species.” His antenna and his novel perception of color transcend the boundaries between human and non-human animals, and insects in particular.

He said, “Since I have an antenna, I feel a closer relationship with insects that also have antennas, because we share a body part. I also feel closer to animals that can sense infrareds and ultraviolets.” He added, “I feel a connec­tion with other species that I didn’t have be­fore.”

Perillan concluded, “[H]e’s making a state­ment about categories, and about how we think about the world in front of us.”

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