Meet the world’s first cyborg artist


Soooo many questions

Trans-species cyborg Neil Harbisson has come up with a novel technological solution to colour blindness

Imagine a world where colours translate into song – and where music is perceived on a radiant visual palette.

That’s everyday life for Neil Harbisson, a colour blind artist and voluntary synaesthete for whom a surgically implanted antenna translates colours into sound.

33-year-old Harbisson has a rare form of colour-blindness called achromatopsia that means he naturally sees the world in grayscale. For the last 13 years, an antenna embedded in his skull has detected the colour frequencies around him and translated them into sound vibrations that he ‘hears’ as musical pitches through the bones in his head.

This is not a joke.

Harbisson persuaded an anonymous doctor to embed the antenna in his occipital bone in 2004 after developing an interest in cybernetics at music college. Subsequent upgrades to the device have enabled him to access the internet and, he claims, to detect colours beyond the visible spectrum, including infrared and ultraviolet.

In future, he plans to have a bluetooth chip embedded in his jaw – a literal bluetooth – to control his antenna’s movement.

Still not joking.

Harbisson’s ability to ‘hear’ colour has affected him in various ways. For example, he tends to make clothing decisions based on what he wants to sound like, rather than how he will appear. And despite a background in piano and composition, he doesn’t listen to music much any more, claiming that he has pretty much been living in a music composition since 2004.

From what we’ve managed to piece together so far, Harbisson perceives red as F and orange as F sharp. Purples are high-pitched, and C major is a mix of pink, yellow and blue. Altogether, his antenna can produce 360 different microtones linked to individual shades, while volume is dictated by colour saturation: the brighter the colour, the louder the note.

More incredible still, Harbisson has developed a mobile app that people can use to stream images, sounds and video directly to his head. He has been able to identify an image of a face sent to him by sound alone, and says that images sent to him while he is asleep affect his dreams. Understandably, he has extended app permissions to only five people.

Is your mind blown yet?

In a recent video for Salon, Harbisson teamed up with a musician to demonstrate how even a trip to the supermarket is an involuntary exercise in composition – with every red pepper, green apple and orange detergent bottle sounding a distinct note in his head.

Apparently, the cleaning products aisle tends to be the most exciting, musically speaking.

The cyborgs are coming

Harbisson sees his antenna as a body part just like any other, and is a vocal activist in the, let’s face it, fairly niche realm of cyborg rights.

A British national who grew up in Catalonia, his self-identification as a cyborg has even been recognised (sort-of) by the UK Government. In 2004, the artist won a rare administrative victory over HM Passport Office when they were finally forced to accept a passport photo featuring his antenna. He also identifies as trans-species, pointing out that his antenna enables him to access sensory experiences not available to humans.

And he’s confident that it won’t be long before others join him. A few days ago, he told a live web audience that devices – or ‘extra-sensory organs’ – like his are a natural next step for a world that already accepts wearable technology.

‘We are at a stage in history where we can design our own senses, design our own body parts, design our own perception of reality,’ he told Nowthis Future on Facebook Live. ‘You can extend your perception of any sense as much as you want – the technology is out there. Wearable technology is becoming normal: the next stage is that we will become technology.

‘We are already psychologically united to cybernetics; we are all already psychological cyborgs. People are losing their fears about merging with technology. This will allow us to have a more profound connection with reality.’

We have some questions, Neil

Needless to say, we’re completely fascinated by Neil’s story and all the implications it has for our understanding of perception, both of colour and of music. And we have a LOT of questions.

Who designed the implant? How does the quality of bone-conducted sound compare to traditional sound information? Did Neil have perfect pitch before his antenna – and is his sense of pitch now irrevocably linked to colour? Does he hear chords when his antenna picks up multiple hues simultaneously? How do octaves work? Can he connect individual colours to each note of a musical scale? WHO ARE THE FIVE PEOPLE ALLOWED TO TEXT HIS HEAD?