Neil Harbisson, the World’s First Cyborg Who has been Legally Identified by the British Government

Whoever said nothing is constant except change was right on point. Change is what we see all around. The most change we see is in technology. From the invention of the wheel to the invention of driverless cars, from looking at the stars for the first time to sending rockets to other planets, technology has moved on at a fast pace. And now, we have a cyborg among us! His name is Neil Harbisson and he has an official declaration from the British Government of being a cyborg.

Neil Harbisson is an artist who was born with complete color-blindness. Although he considered his condition to be an asset, he wished to understand colors and sight in depth. So, he had a sensor implanted into his brain that enables him to translate wavelengths into sounds in his skull. The British Government has named him the world’s first official cyborg.

Neil Harbisson
Neil Harbisson. Image Credit: Dan Wilton/The Red Bulletin via Wikipedia

Neil Harbisson was born with complete color-blindness or achromatopsia. His was born with an extreme level of color-blindness where he could see objects only in a gray-scale. He developed an interest in music and art at a young age. When he was studying fine art at the Institut Alexandre Satorras at the age of 16, he was given special permission to make art without the use of any colors.

Neil Harbisson never saw his condition as a disability. but he wished to understand the various sensations of light and color. This made him design a sensor that captures wavelengths and turns them into vibrations. Harbisson then experiences the vibrations as sounds. In layman terms, Harbisson has been “hearing” visible and invisible lights for the past 13 years.

He had to face a few problems after the implantation. He was rejected for his passport renewal, but after weeks of correspondence with the UK Passport Office, they finally agreed to consider the antenna as a part of Harbisson’s body. The British Government has legally accepted Harbisson of being a cyborg.

Harbisson started developing the antenna at college in 2003 with Adam Montandon and had it implanted in 2004. He has five friends, one in each continent, who sends colors, images, videos, or sounds directly into Harbisson’s head. The technology is so advanced that if Harbission receives a color while asleep, the color of his dreams can get altered!

Sonochromatic paintings
Sonochromatic paintings created by Neil Harbisson. Image Credit: ArtPollockGallery via Wikipedia

Harbisson is an artist who designs sensory organs. Named “Cyborg Art,” he creates senses and organs and then merges them to create something that is not possible with the organs of our body. He started working on the sensor antenna in college in collaboration with Adam Montandon, a product designer and an inventor. In 2004, it was ready to be implanted into his brain. The implant surgery was rejected multiple times by bioethical committees but was nonetheless carried out by anonymous doctors.

The antenna sprouts out from the end of Harbisson’s skull. The sensor, known as the “Cyborg Antenna,” enables him to feel and hear colors in the form of audible vibrations inside his head. Not only the colors we see but also colors invisible to the human eye, like ultraviolet. The device also has internet capabilities which means it can receive colors from other sensors and devices.

Harbisson has allowed five friends from five different continents to send him colors, images, videos, or sounds to his brain directly. If he receives a color while asleep, the color in his dream also changes. How amazing is that? The Stream, a chat show on Al Jazeera, broadcasted Harbisson’s first public demonstration of the image transmitted directly to his brain. The first person to call Harbisson in his brain was Ruby Wax.

Harbisson’s art consists of the creation of external sensory organs. Apart from the Cyborg Antenna, Harbisson has also created the Solar Crown and the Bluetooth Tooth. The Solar Crown offers a sense of time and  Harbisson aims to create time illusions, just like optical illusions. On the other hand, Bluetooth Tooth is a device to communicate between two teeth via Bluetooth. 

Neil Harbisson conducting musicians with color
Neil Harbisson conducting musicians with color. Image Credit: PaulDter via Wikipedia

The Solar Crown is a small point of heat that rotates around Harbisson’s head. It takes exactly 24 hours to complete one rotation. When the heat point is in the middle of Harbisson’s forehead, it is midday in London. The aim of this device for Harbisson is to apply Albert Einstein’s theory of time relativity and create time illusions. According to Harbisson, time illusion would be practically similar to optical illusions as soon as his brain could grasp the sense of time. If this works, Harbisson will be able to control time and change the way his brain perceives age and time travel.

Another one of his inventions is the Bluetooth Tooth. As the name suggests, it is a mini vibrator infused with Bluetooth ability that is inserted into a tooth. It comprises a communication between two teeth, each infused with the device. When a button is pressed in one tooth, it sends a vibration to the other. One tooth was installed in Harbisson’s mouth and the other in his friend Moon Ribas’ mouth. They can now both communicate in Morse Code through their teeth only.

Harbisson considers his antenna as a part of his body. He also says that his understanding of the world has become more profound with the implant. Moreover, he finds himself more connected with nature and considers himself a trans-species. 

Neil Harbisson giving a talk at London's Science Museum
Neil Harbisson giving a talk at London’s Science Museum. Image Credit: Parentesis99 via Wikipedia

“The more you extend your senses, the more you realize exists. If you’re in the same house for years, there’s a repetition of what you perceive there. If you add a new sense, though, the house becomes new again,” said Harbisson in an interview with National Geographic. He also feels that the antenna is not an alien device attached to his body. It’s a part of his body. He argues that many organisms in nature carry antennas which means that having an antenna is perfectly normal. After the implantation, he feels more connected with nature and now thinks of himself as a trans-species.
[source: 1,2]

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