Rise of the cyborgs: 'I can feel events in Japan when I'm in New York'

Rise of the cyborgs: 'I can feel events in Japan when I'm in New York'
As a cyborg you can have colors beamed to your brain and wear earrings that sense what’s behind you – and more and more people are getting involved

By Jordan Riefe Sunday 3 July 2016 06.00 EDT

What’s a cyborg to do when customs officials ask him to remove his antenna for a passport photo? Or when the same antenna is damaged by a Barcelona cop who mistakes it for a video camera? If you’re Neil Harbisson you fight back, which is why he formed the Cyborg Foundation in 2010 along with collaborator and fellow cyborg, Moon Ribas.

“It’s basically to promote cyborg art and cyborgism as a social art movement, to help people become cyborgs and to identify cyborg rights – so the right to have surgery and the right to be identified as being technology,” he explains from their home in New York.

According to the foundation a wave of new cyborgs will be breaking at the end of the summer – and now you can be one, too. The foundation’s sister organization, Cyborg Nest, is currently taking orders for North Sense, an implant that detects magnetic north, which will become available in September for roughly $300. If this sounds nutty to you, perhaps it’s your age. According to Harbisson, young people are flocking to the idea of enhancing or adding to their senses through technology.

Born colorblind, Harbisson had his antenna surgically attached so that he might detect color. Not actually see it, but feel and hear notes and vibrations based on tone and saturation. Today, walking through a grocery store sounds like a percussive symphony and, if he chooses to, he can eat his favorite melody for lunch based on the colors of the ingredients.

“We focus on perception and sense, exceeding the mind by adding technology, extending hearing beyond human hearing,” he explains. “Ultra sounds and infra-sounds are two senses we could easily extend.” He also includes something he calls retroception, or sensing what’s behind you, tested by Ribas in 2010 when she wore a prototypical pair of earrings.

In more recent years she has been fitted with a chip implant in her elbow that wirelessly attaches to seismographs around the world, vibrating with varied intensity based on Richter scale readings. From such movements she choreographs dance concerts she calls Waiting for Earthquakes. Performed all over the world, the piece begins with her standing motionlessly until a temblor occurs somewhere near or far, which, thankfully (or not), happens every few minutes. But lest there should be an unexpected seismic lull, she is working on a way to receive quake readings from the moon to fill the gaps.

“Our senses don’t need to be attached to our body anymore. We can sense things that are happening very far from our body. Right now I can feel things that are happening in Japan even though I’m in New York. So why not go outside the planet and feel movement that is happening in space?” she asks.

Harbisson already receives signals from the International Space Station through his antenna, and can take phone calls from five of his friends around the globe. If there’s a beautiful sunset in Australia, his friend in Melbourne might stream live images to his head so he can hear and sense a sunset. “If someone sends violet colors at 3am and I’m asleep, I wake up in the morning and I realize I dreamt about violet people, violet houses,” he explains. “Sensing ultraviolet and infrared is now where I’m at and also having internet connection so I can receive colors from external devices from other parts of the world and satellites.”

According to Harbisson, cyborg art is two-fold. The first step includes conceiving of and implanting a chip that extends the senses or creates an altogether new sense. The second step involves creating art with the new sense and sharing it with an audience. As part of his electronic music compositions, Harbisson draws sound portraits, recording notes for the various colors and tones in a face. His subjects include Leonardo DiCaprio (“a major chord”), Woody Allen (“unsaturated”) and Macauley Culkin (“C-major”).

“As a person it’s changed the way I see life. When you add a new sense, any space that you were in forever changes,” offers Harbisson, who while physically altered claims a spiritual transformation as well. “It’s a new sway of exploring reality I can enjoy. I can also explore space without going there. So both Moon and I feel it’s interesting and exciting to send our senses to space and become sense-tronauts or mind-stronauts where you can explore without physically going there. It’s changed the way I see life, the planet, space. Everything is much closer than it was before.”


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