Neil Harbisson – the cyborg who listens to colors

By August 3, 2018technology

Neil Harbisson was born with achromatopsia, a rare condition which means he sees in greyscale.

He didn’t feel his condition was an impairment, but decided to solve his curiosity about the world around him by developing a cybernetic implant that would allow him to add a new sense. Initially starting as an art project at university, he eventually found a group of European doctors to perform the surgery, on the condition of their anonymity. Now, through the implanted chip in his brain and an antenna in front of his forehead that acts as an eye, he can hear the colors that surround him. The chip is also internet-enabled and through satellites, Neil can receive colors remotely from 5 people around the world whether he is awake or dreaming.

In 2010 Neil established the Cyborg Foundation, with girlfriend Moon Ribas (who also has cybernetic implants), to inspire and assist people who want to integrate themselves with technologies.

CRISTINA: You’ve heard about Singularity University on our show before and they’re holding their Summit on exponential technologies here in Milan. We’re here today to meet a man who’s always seen the world in black and white and now, thanks to a cybernetic implant, he can hear colors. Neil, how did you become a cyborg?

NEIL HARBISSON: I started this project at university, when I was studying art. It initially began as an art project, I developed it with friends and it’s still in development.

CRISTINA: Are you the first person to have this kind of technology?

NEIL HARBISSON: Yes, I am.

CRISTINA: Tell us how it works.

NEIL HARBISSON: It’s a color sensor that picks up the light frequencies in front of me and then it sends the vibration of color inside my skull, then I feel the vibrations inside my head and these vibrations become sounds to my inner ear. I can hear the sound of colors, including the invisible colors such as infrareds and ultraviolets. There’s also an internet connection which allows me to receive colors remotely from other people or connect to satellites.

CRISTINA: What is it like to visit different cities? What does Milan sound like for example?

NEIL HARBISSON: Milan has lots of shades of “fa” and “sol“, which are different shades of red and yellow. So it’s types of yellow and red that are very dominant here.

CRISTINA: Has this implant changed the way you dress?

NEIL HARBISSON: Yes, now I dress in a way that it sounds good. I like this shirt I’m wearing, for example, because it’s very musical, so I wear it because I like the sound of it.

CRISTINA: I have to ask, what does my face sound like?

NEIL HARBISSON: You eyes sound “si”, like “do re mi fa“, your lips are “mi“, your face is between “fa” and “sol“, and your hair is a shade of “fa“. You sound good!

CRISTINA: Thank you! Do you dream in color, or in black and white?

NEIL HARBISSON: Since I’ve had the implant, I also dream in color, but the colors are these vibrations that appear as part of my dreams.

CRISTINA: You say we shouldn’t be creating apps for our smartphones, but for our bodies instead. What do you have in mind?

NEIL HARBISSON: It’s very different to use technology as a tool, or to become technology. In my case, I’m not using or wearing technology, I am technology. This is a huge difference, because I don’t feel that I’m wearing an antenna, but that I have an antenna, in the same way that I have a nose or I have ears and I don’t notice it. I believe the most comfortable way of merging with technology is to become technology.

CRISTINA: I think we can say that Neil is already looking out for the future!