INTERVIEW: Harbisson, from colourblind to human who can 'hear' colours

Abeer Fouad Ahmed, Monday 17 Jul 2023

Have you watched Transformers or X-Men? These movies showcase heroes with extraordinary abilities. But what if science fiction became reality? Meet Neil Harbisson, the first "cyborg" with both biological and technological organs. He can "hear" colours, making him an exceptional human being.



Neil Harbisson, a 38-year-old Spanish man, became a global sensation when he implanted an "antenna" in his skull that enables him to "hear" both visible and invisible colours. This is especially extraordinary because he has been completely colourblind since birth, a genetic deficiency that has limited his ability to see anything other than shades of grey. As a result, he cannot distinguish the colour of the sky at dawn or dusk, only viewing it in grey.

Interested in learning more about Harbisson's reality? Read his first interview with the Egyptian press, Al-Ahram newspaper, where he discusses his experiences during the Global Summit for Information Technology Managers in Cairo. Check it out below:

Al-Ahram: You consider the technology as part of you, not a tool that you use, could you elaborate more?

Neil Harbisson: In 2004, I underwent surgery to implant a permanent chip in my skull connected to a sensor device that can convert the frequencies received from colours into vibrations inside my head, each sequence of vibrations is related to a specific colour. This makes me able to hear colour more than see it practically.

Simply, this technology is essentially optical fibres that can capture colour and then send its frequencies to the chip, which in turn converts the incoming light into vibrations in the skull, and then translates them into a distinctive sound for the colour that I can hear. I used to wear a device like a collar to perform this function, but it was not fully successful.

AA: Tell us more about how could you accept the risk of undergoing this different and transformative surgery. And what is the scientific basis behind it?

NH: For me, it's a kind of art, and any art contains some level of risk. Therefore, undergoing the surgery was a kind of experiment that was part of my artistic expression. In fact, we have many theories about the relationship between colour frequencies and their distinctive colours, such as the mathematical calculations of Newton and Beethoven's attempts to assign a distinct colour to each musical note. These hypotheses, thanks to modern technology, are now more testable and experimental. So, when we talk about gaining new perceptions or acquiring organs with new qualities, it gives us as humans a new and different perception of the physical world around us. It's an amazing and fascinating thing that made me accept the experiment with its benefits and risks.

AA: Can you share with us your experience of how you listen to the colours around you?

NH: For me, colours are different musical notes, with each colour having its own distinctive musical note. For example, the colour red corresponds to the musical note A, the colour yellow corresponds to the note G, and so on for each colour has its own unique tone. And what happens with me is that the colour gives off different frequencies that are translated into various musical sounds and tones.

Also, technology has allowed me to connect the implanted chip to the internet, which means receiving many colours from other devices. For example, I can receive colours sent to me from other people's mobile phones. Moreover, thanks to this technology, I have the ability to distinguish between infrared and ultraviolet rays, in addition to receiving colours from photos or videos that are sent directly to my head via an internet connection. I can also connect to NASA and hear the sounds of colours in space without the need to be there physically present. Therefore, the internet helps me to expand the range of colours that I can sense, despite the distance.

AA: Is this enough to classify you as the first human who is half human and half technological?

NH: Yes, definitely. I am not just using technology; it is part of my body. I have new qualities and characteristics beyond human perception and the ability to receive from the surrounding environment through new sensory inputs in an exciting and unique experience.

In fact, I don't feel a difference between the software and my mind. I have come to deal with this antenna as part of my body, like my nose. Therefore, technology is a part of me. In fact, I am the world's first recognized "cyborg," meaning a human who possesses "cybernetic organisms" (organs that are made up of both biological and technological parts), or in other words, the organs inside me are integrated with technology.

AA: Now, after about 20 years since you underwent this transformative surgery, how has your daily life been affected?

NH: It took some time to adjust to the new situation. For example, my brain had to adapt to the new inputs it received after implanting the device. And it took some time for my body to adapt to the implanted chip as a new organ of the body. However, the biggest challenge for me is social interaction. It's the reaction of people when they meet me on the street, starting to look, asking questions, expressing surprise and giving comments and opinions every day.

And it’s challenging, let me give an example of what happens at the airport, usually, there are questions about this device and I was asked to remove it. Until I got my passport with my ID picture including the antenna as part of my identity, which greatly facilitates the discussion during my travels.

AA: What message do you share with people?

NH: My message is that technology helps us understand nature better. It makes us perceive nature and its elements around us in a different way that we couldn't imagine before. And it's time to show people that technology is not a barrier between us and nature, but on the contrary, it can be a positive means of communication and interaction. and I am an example of that. I can feel many colours that for other people are invisible but present in nature.

AA: How does the experience of integrating technology into the body benefit the positive understanding of nature?

NH: Because many technologies help us adapt to our planet, rather than having our thinking confined to changing the planet for us. Imagine the amount of energy and electricity consumed to change the temperature of the atmosphere through coolers and heating methods. When relying on technology, it is possible to change the body temperature to adapt to natural changes around us.

There are many examples, as there are humans with technological organs that enable them to sense gravity, weather changes, and many others who form better exploration and communication with the universe. Most of these people I talked about are artists and therefore use this new awareness in their art.

But there is another equally important aspect, thanks to this human-technology integration, we have been able to develop teeth that can transmit messages from one person's mouth to another, benefiting paralyzed patients. And there are implants that can determine the four directions, which can help people with blindness. In other words, we have become faced with advanced solutions to medical problems thanks to human-technology integration.

Let me clarify that the response to what I say is often described as strange. It's difficult for many people to see technology as part of their body, as in my case, and it's a new and unusual thing. But I feel the interest of people when I talk to them and answer their questions about how it happened and its consequences in making a positive change in our lives. So people are interested but they feel that we may still be far away - or moving slowly - towards the idea of tangible integration with technology and nature.

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