Neil Harbisson, A Real-Life Cyborg Who Can Hear Colors And Make Dirty Socks Sing

Asif Khan

Neil Harbisson is an evolutionary event.

But the event has unfolded in such a low-key, under-the-radar way that not many know about it, or even realise its importance. For quite a few it's even a joke.

For Neil Harbisson is the world's first officially recognized cyborg.

A cyborg, according to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is "a person whose body contains mechanical or electrical devices and whose abilities are greater than the abilities of normal humans."

Harbisson is a cyborg because there is an antenna implanted in his head, and this antenna gives him special powers, powers greater than those of everyday, normal humans.

And what will those powers be?

Harbisson, a colorblind person, can "hear" color. The antenna helps him do that. It acts as a "color sensor" of sorts that converts colors into sound vibrations and transmits these sound vibrations to Harbisson's brain so that he can "hear" them.

The antenna has been fused to Harbisson's head since 2004, and by now he sees it as an extension of his own body, not as an alien appendage. The thing has become so much a part of him that he has started dreaming "colored" dreams instead of the previously default black-and-white ones.

So from being a colorblind person whose world was completely black and white till 12 years ago, Harbisson has now become a person who sees color in a totally unprecedented way.

And this unique way of perceiving colors has led to some very interesting, never-seen-before artistic experiments.

In a video released online by Salon recently, Neil is seen collaborating with music producer Josh Craig to come up with a song based on the "sound of colors" found in a supermarket.

Earlier, Harbisson had conducted a concert where a choir actually sang in colors; he has even had a color concert based on different-colored socks (he named it "Socks Sonata No. 1").

Here are four of the most amazing things connected with Harbisson's tryst with the color-hearing sense.

The Color Of Humanity Revealed - Not Black, Not White

This may be the most important thing Harbisson has discovered as a color-hearing cyborg: Human beings are not black, brown or white, they are just the various shades of orange. Yes, we humans are orange-colored, as "heard" by Neil Harbisson the sonic cyborg. Blacks are darker shades of orange, whites are lighter shades of orange, but both are still orange.

Harbisson, a "Catalan-raised, British-born" artist currently based in New York, started a project wherein he traveled around various cities of the world trying to find their true colors. According to him, every city has its own dominant color. London is very "golden red," Lisbon is "light yellow and turquoise," Madrid is "amber terra-cotta" and Mumbai has "a shade of blue."

Sound Portraits

Not just colors, Harbisson has used his antenna to "hear" faces too. He brings his antenna close to a subject's face, hears the vibrations being emitted by various parts of their face -- eyes, cheeks, lips, forehead, nose, eyebrows -- and then notes all of it down on paper, creating a "sound portrait" of a person.

He has made sound portraits for a string of famous people, coming up with very interesting observations about their faces. For example, Donald Trump's face has many "discordant notes", Nicole Kidman's face "sounds good" and Al Pacino's face has a strange, possibly mystical "infra-red" glow hovering over it.

Body Apps

In 2010, along with Moon Ribas, Harbisson founded the Cyborg Foundation to help other people "extend" their senses like him and become a cyborg. (And there are quite a few interested parties, if proclamations on social media are anything to go by.) In his TED Talk in 2012, Harbisson spoke of a time not very far in the future when body-extending applications would be commonplace.

"Knowledge comes from our senses. So if we extend our senses, we will consequently extend our knowledge. I think life will be much more exciting when we stop creating applications for mobile phones and start creating applications for our own body. I think this will be a big big change that we'll see during this century."

Until now, the biggest fear about robots and Artificial Intelligence was that sometime in the future they will become their own masters and enslave the human race. This would happen when robotic intelligence became so advanced that it created an entirely new logic system, answerable only to itself, with no space for human considerations.

But with the making of the first "official" human cyborg, an alternate evolutionary pathway has opened up.

What if, instead of fearing robots, we incorporated the robot in our own body? That way, when robots and AI advanced, humans themselves would advance. It would be an extension of the human senses on a massive, unimaginable scale.

Neil Harbisson's act of getting himself a surgically implanted antenna, followed by his second act of getting himself officially recognized as a bona fide cyborg, followed by his third act of turning into a committed cyborg proselytizer, are three small but significant steps towards a very strange, very mysterious post-human future.

[Image via Dan Wilton/The Red Bulletin from Wikimedia Commons]