Tech & Science

Part Human, Part Machine, Cyborgs Are Becoming A Reality

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08/08/14
In the Magazine
Colour blind Neil Harbisson is the first person to implant a cyborg antenna in his skull Campus Party Brazil

Meeting a cyborg for the first time is a nerve-wracking experience. We had arranged to meet in an area of London known as Silicon Roundabout. Near Old Street, the district is home to high-tech start-up firms, giving birth to Britain’s recent software industry boom. In its coffee bars, internet entrepreneurs and programmers share hot drinks and electronic dreams.

Neil Harbisson walked into the cafe wearing a bright orange blazer and a 12-inch metal antenna curved over his head. Daylight glinted from the camera implanted in the tip of his antenna as it surveyed the room. Odd as it was, his presence barely registered with the tech-denizens of Old Street. Harbisson, from Northern Ireland, is one of an estimated 200 people who have altered their bodies with technology.

“For me, a cyborg is someone who feels their technology is a part of their biology,” he says. “They have integrated a device or devices into their body and this has added something to their senses or capability above and beyond what’s ­currently normal for humans.”

In Harbisson’s case, his is an antenna. He was born with a rare form of colourblindness called achromatopsia, which means he could only see in the grayscale with no ability to perceive colour. After some experimentation with antennae, Harbisson had his colour-detecting antenna surgically implanted into his skull. Last year he had Bluetooth added to the device which was originally embedded in 2004. This allows his antenna to receive information from his mobile phone, so people across the world can send him images.

The implant was not sanctioned by the medical profession. The operation was performed by a surgeon who remains anonymous, fearful of possible repercussions. Harbisson pointed out the similarities with Victorian back street abortionists and doctors performing sex change operations before each was legalised. The implant was a success and he has been able to “hear” colour frequencies in his head and has memorised the spectrum in order to tell colours apart.

“My antenna allows me to detect not only colour visible to the human eye, but also beyond,” he adds. “I can sense infrared and ultraviolet light from my camera, but also from cameras owned by friends across the world who send information to it. In future I will receive signals from satellites and hear light from objects in space. My mission is to expand my sensory perception and communicate this to my audience through multimedia demonstrations.”

Harbisson became known for being the first “officially” recognised cyborg when his passport photograph showing his antenna was accepted by the British Passport Office.

Other cyborgs have also become high profile thanks to their implants. Last year in Pittsburgh, USA, the software developer Tim Cannon implanted a chip into his arm capable of monitoring his biological functions. Once again, no doctor was willing to perform the implant. Instead, he relied upon body piercers and used ice to act as an anaesthetic. A Circadia 1.0 chip the size of a deck of cards is now stitched under Cannon’s skin, feeding information on his body temperature to his Android mobile phone.

It’s no accident that cyborgs work in the field of technology. In Finland, Jerry Jalava, a computer programmer, lost his finger in a motorcycle accident in 2008. A year later he became an online sensation after replacing his missing digit with a 2-gigabyte USB “finger drive”. Jalava uses it for storing personal information, digital photos and videos.

So what’s it like to live as a cyborg? Is it really life-enhancing? And worth the pain? As Harbisson admits, implants do not always bring dramatic improvements. Harbisson is still colourblind, he has merely hit upon a different way of coping with his particular disability.

Keen to learn more about how real-life cyborgs are able to share their sensory experiences with other cyborgs, I decided to contact Moon Ribas, a childhood friend of Harbisson. “I have an attachment to my arm, which allows me to detect earthquakes,” she says. “Growing up with my friend Neil Harbisson meant we were exchanging ideas constantly. Technology allowed him to become better at detecting colour. I came from a family of theatrical performers, so I began to imagine how I could apply technology to myself. I envisaged myself alone with the planet and imagined what I would feel.”

Earlier this year Ribas had a device permanently attached to her arm. “I call it my seismic sense,” she says. “It’s a chip connected to my phone. The phone collects seismic data from the internet and the receiver in my arm vibrates in reaction to it. From this I know when the earthquake is occurring and how big or small it is.” Ribas has turned her chip into performance art, working as a dancer and choreographer.

“In my dance series, ‘Waiting for Earthquakes’, the audience and I pause for an earthquake. These are happening almost all the time somewhere in the planet. When one occurs while I’m on stage, I move with the intensity of the earthquake. It’s a collaboration with the Earth, a choreography with our planet and my body, which I communicate to the audience.”

In common with other cyborgs, Ribas’s quest to integrate her body with technology is a work in progress. “Eventually I’ll fully implant the system into my elbow. But the device will be more advanced. I’ll be able to detect the proximity of the earthquake and appreciate how close it is to my physical location.”

Harbisson sees the cyborg movement as part of a wider move towards increased consciousness. “As a group we in the cybernetic community are a branch of the transhumanist movement, who want human consciousness to continue beyond biological death within technology.”

First articulated by the British philosopher Max More in 1990, transhumanists generally advocate a post-human condition where humanity is replaced by the next stage in evolution: a human-machine hybrid. Some, like futurist writer Ray Kurzweil, even imagine uploading human consciousness into a machine so we can “live” for ever within computer systems as networks of information.

This view is not that far-fetched. Dr James Hughes of Hartford, Connecticut’s Trinity College, sees a gradual acceptance of cybernetics as a realistic future for humanity. “For the moment wearable technology has more advantages,” he says.  “We’re living in an era of rapid technological improvements. So once wearable technology is obsolete, it can be simply taken off and upgraded. Technology implanted into the human body would have to be cut out to be upgraded.”

So put away the scalpel and ice. But not for long, suggests Hughes. “Once bionics becomes so advanced as to overtake the organic original in ability, we could well see a shift to cybernetics becoming more popular. If they could afford it, who wouldn’t want arms that were stronger, legs that were faster or a heart that could last for ever? One day we really could see a bionic man becoming a reality.”

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