split image Neil Harbisson

“My mother was very scared, and she didn’t like it,” admits the world’s first officially recognized cyborg, speaking about the antenna implanted in the back of his skull.

Neil Harbisson’s antenna, implanted in 2004 and dubbed the “eyeborg”, is considered part of his skeleton and appears in his official UK passport photograph. The passport authority initially refused to allow the photo, but eventually accepted it after conceding that Neil was officially part human, part technology.

Neil was born with a rare form of colour blindness, rendering him unable to perceive any colours other than black and white. His eyeborg is a flexible antenna with a fibre-optic sensor at the tip, which allows him to 'hear’ colour via bone conduction, as it converts light waves into sound waves and transmits them as audible vibrations into his skull.

It is also Wi-Fi and Bluetooth-enabled, allowing Neil to receive images, videos, music, or phone calls directly into his head from external devices such as mobile phones or satellites.

Neil Harbisson wearing colourful suit

In addition to detecting the entire visible colour spectrum, his eyeborg picks up light waves at ultra-high and low frequencies, meaning he can also sense ultraviolet and infrared light.

The colour red creates low notes, whilst purple, at the other end of the spectrum, creates high notes. Infrared is Neil’s favourite colour; he describes its sound as “serene”. By contrast, the “high-pitched” and “very irritating” ultraviolet is his least favourite.

Neil’s eyeborg is always on and is unable to be turned off, meaning Neil is constantly receiving audible vibrations into his head. “It’s just like smell; we are always smelling, we are always hearing, we are always tasting, so I am always sensing colour as well,” he explained.

The only way to stop it is to cover the sensor, which Neil likens to “blocking your nose or closing your eyes”.

He emphasizes that this sixth sense of his is distinctly different to his sense of hearing, and it does not interfere with his hearing ability when he is, for example, having a conversation or watching TV.

“It’s different because sound comes from outside, whereas colour comes from inside. It’s a different sense; it doesn’t clash,” he said. “It’s a vibration in the head that becomes an inner sound. So if I was completely deaf, I would still sense colours through this system.”

Neil Harbisson painting

For Neil, the moment he truly began feeling like a cyborg was when he started hearing colours in his dreams, around three months after getting the implant.

As an artist, he began producing artworks from the colours that he ‘saw’ in popular music pieces, as well as making audible sound-portraits of people’s faces, including several celebrities.

“Each face has its own peculiarity,” he said. “Some faces are rhythmic because the frequencies of the colour are very close to each other and this creates rhythm, and other ones are harmonic.

“King Charles sounds like a major chord; it sounds harmonious. Marina Abramovich sounds rhythmic; her frequencies are very close to each other.

“Al Pacino has infrared – this is one of the unusual things that I sensed. Judi Dench has silent hair.” 

Neil has also used his eyeborg to solve a Rubik’s cube: “I’m slow, but you can do it through sound,” he revealed. “Each face has a different note, so it’s a musical cube.”

And Neil’s eyeborg isn’t his only technological implant – he also has a Bluetooth-enabled tooth implant, which is paired with an identical one in the mouth of fellow cyborg artist Moon Ribas. When pressure is applied, the implants emit a signal which causes the other to vibrate, allowing Neil and Moon to communicate using Morse code.

Neil also has an implant in his knee which senses north, like a compass. “When you face north, you feel this subtle pressure in the knee,” he explained.

Neil Harbisson and Moon Ribas

The project he’s currently working on is perhaps his most ambitious to date, involving manipulating the sense of time passing.

“It’s this point of heat that takes 24 hours to go around the head and it allows you to sense the rotation of the planet,” Neil explained.

“Then when the brain gets used to it, someone will be able to change the speed of the rotation, and then this will be used to test if we can change the perception of time. So if you want a situation to last longer, or last less, you can change the speed, and this should alter your perception of time.”

Neil created a prototype in 2020, however, it had to be scrapped and reworked as it was burning his head. He aims to have a fully functional version completed in early 2024.

The Cyborg Foundation and Transpecies Society

As the world’s first cyborg, Neil co-founded the Cyborg Foundation in 2010, which he describes as “a platform to help people become cyborgs”. 

He said: “We put people in contact so that they can start teams to create new organs, and we also defend cyborgs as a cultural group.

“We also defend cyborg rights, which is the right, for example, to be free to decide which organs or sensors you want to have. So, it’s morphological freedom; defending the right that these implants should be considered organs and not devices.”

Removing the hurdles to becoming a cyborg is one of Neil’s main goals. In most countries, including Spain, where Neil lives, cyborg surgeries must be approved by a bioethical committee before they can be performed, and Neil says that most bioethical committees don’t approve them because they are deemed unnecessary.

“It’s hard to find bioethical committees that will accept these surgeries, so most of these surgeries have been done by anonymous doctors,” he revealed.

Neil Harbisson on blue background

Neil believes that everyone should be free to have any type of implant they desire, as long as it doesn’t cause harm to others.

The Cyborg Foundation has received numerous enquiries from people interested in becoming a cyborg, and Neil says around 10 people so far have gone through with it.

This includes Pol Lombarte, who has an implant connected to his heart which allows his heartbeat to be altered remotely; Manel de Aguas, who has weather-sensory fins installed in his head; and Moon Ribas – co-founder of the foundation alongside Neil – who has vibrating, internet-connected seismic sensors in her feet that allow her to feel earthquakes occurring anywhere in the world.

But it’s not just cyborgs that Neil and Moon are advocating for; they’ve also co-founded the Transpecies Society, an organization representing all “non-human identities”.

Neil felt compelled to create the Transpecies Society after being contacted by numerous people who “don’t feel 100% human”.

“Different people joined,” he said. “Some that, since they were born, haven’t felt 100% human for various reasons.

“Some of them feel trapped in the body of a human, and they identify as another animal that exists. Others identify as species that don’t exist. Some people feel they are not from this planet, but that they are alien and feel they are connected to other planets.

“Other people feel more connected to the elements that they are, not the species. For example, we are [made of] water, so some people identify as water, not as human. 

“It was more of a philosophical group that touched the theme of identity.”

Neil Harbisson in planetarium

Neil also considers robots equipped with AI consciousness to be a distinct species, and he embraced the idea of them joining the Transpecies Society. “If they want, they could join,” he said, laughing.

And although the idea is humorous now, it could very well become a reality within our lifetimes – an eventuality which Neil welcomes with open arms.

“We are all species of different organs and senses and different types of knowledge and intelligence, so yes, I think that’s what will happen – that AI will be considered a new species, and it will make humans more humble.

“It will be good for humans because humans think they are the most intelligent species. Most humans think that we are the best, but then if suddenly there is a species that is better than us, it will be good I think, to make us feel that there’s someone that knows more than us.

“It will connect us to other species much more, so I don’t fear AI.

“It will be interesting to see how they will deal with us.”

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