Future Tense

Is It Time To Take Cyborg Rights Seriously? A Q&A With Neil Harbisson.

Neil Harbisson can “hear” the orange (the color, that is)

Photo by Dan Wilton

This article arises from Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State University. On Feb. 28-March 2, Future Tense will be taking part in Emerge, an annual conference on ASU’s Tempe campus about what the future holds for humans. This year’s theme: the future of truth. Visit the Emerge website to learn more and to get your ticket.

At Emerge, Neil Harbisson will be discussing our cyborg future with Future Tense blogger Will Oremus and Frankenstein’s Cat author Emily Anthes. Harbisson was born without the ability to see color, but a device he calls his “eyeborg” allows him to now “hear” color. (He described this in a TED talk in 2012.)  In an email interview below, which has been lightly edited, he talks about his life as a cyborg.


First, tell me a little about your “eyeborg.” What does it do for you? 
Color is basically hue, saturation, and light. Right now, I can see light in shades of gray, but I can’t see its saturation or hue. The eyeborg detects the light’s hue, and converts it into a sound frequency that I can hear as a note. It also translates the saturation of the color into volume. So if it’s a vivid red, I will hear it more loudly. 
How has being a cyborg changed your life? 
It has changed the way I perceive the world. Color is everywhere, so everything has changed. I still can’t see color, but I can perceive it. I can experience it in a way that allows me to be a part of this reality, which I was excluded from before. Thanks to the eyeborg, I’ve made a career by combining music and art. I do concerts where I plug myself into a set of speakers and play the colors of the audience back to them. And I also started to perceive sound as color. Telephone lines became green; Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” song seemed red and pink. So I started to paint using the sounds around me. I’ve made pictures of pieces by Vivaldi, Beethoven, and Mozart among others. Now, we are developing a bag that you will be able to customize with your favorite song (using the same pattern I do with the artworks).

What does the word cyborg mean to you?
I believe that being a cyborg is a feeling, it’s when you feel that a cybernetic device is no longer an external element but a part of your organism. One can start feeling cyborg by simply attaching an infrared sensor at the back of the head, a sensor that vibrates when someone gets close to you. If you wear the sensor attached to your body permanently, the brain will gradually accept the new feeling as an extra sense that can enhance your own perception of the surroundings. 

You call yourself a “cyborg activist.” What challenges do cyborgs face that the rest of us might not be aware of?
There’s no legal protection for cyborgs. In 2010, I started the Cyborg Foundation to defend our rights. Cyborgs have been kicked out from several places because they are seen as a possible security threat. I’ve been kicked out from places such as Harrods, Casino Montecarlo, and many supermarkets. Most cinemas don’t let me in because they think I’m going to record the film. Some countries don’t allow you to appear with any electronic equipment on passport photographs. In 2004 I was allowed to appear with the eyeborg in my passport photograph, which has made things a lot easier in airports.


Will we all be cyborgs in 100 years? Or will it remain a niche in society?  
I believe that being a cyborg will be extremely normal in 100 years. I believe that one of the most common implants will be the ones that allow us to extend our perception via bone conduction. We could all easily have a bone-conducted ear to hear music or have telephone calls without blocking our ears. But the future goes beyond cyborgism. There will be the time when there will be no need to use cybernetics to extend our senses, perceptions, or abilities. Post-cyborgism will be dominated by a common use of genetic modification and the use of our own body as a resource of energy. 

What policies and social changes need to be made to make room for cyborgs?
The policies and social changes are similar to the ones that transsexuals have been facing for decades. We need cyborg hospitals, specialized clinics dedicated to cybernetic implants, where doctors and computer scientists work together. Now, if I can’t perceive a color I don’t know whether to go to an optician, to an otolaryngologist, or to a computer scientist. The biggest challenge for cyborgs is to be socially accepted. Society needs to accept that there are people who wish to use technology as part of the body. We need to get used to seeing humans with antennas sticking out of their heads.