The future of cyborgs and human augmentation

Once found only in science fiction, cyborgs are now a reality. A growing community of people using technology to enhance and expand their human capabilities. Neil Harbisson, a cyborg himself, cofounded the Cyborg Foundation in 2010, an international organization to help humans become cyborgs and defend cyborg rights. Reporter Andrea Vasquez speaks to Harbisson via Google hangout.

TRANSCRIPT

Once found only in Science Fiction, cyborgs are now a reality, a growing community of people using technology to enhance and expand their human capabilities.

Neil Harbisson, a cyborg himself, cofounded the Cyborg Foundation in 2010, an international organization to help humans become cyborgs and defend cyborg rights.

Up next, reporter Andrea Vasquez speaks to Harbisson via Google Hangout.

And joining me via Skype is Neil Harbisson.

Neil, thanks for being with us.

Thank you.

How did you become a cyborg?

How did you even get the idea to approach your color blindness in this way?

Well, my aim was to perceive color without changing my sight, 'cause, to me, seeing in grayscale has many advantages 'cause I see better at night.

Also, I see better distances.

I memorize shapes more easily.

So not seeing color was an advantage for me, so I wanted the new sense to perceive color that wouldn't modify my sight or my hearing or any of my other senses.

So, the aim was to create a new sense for color, and for doing that, I needed, also, a new sensory organ.

So, and then I designed an antenna that goes inside my head, and then a doctor drilled the head, and then there's a chip inside that allows me to perceive the light frequencies of color through vibrations in my head.

So then I memorize the vibrations for each color, and then I can sense color through this new sense, which, actually, allows me to also hear color, 'cause the vibrations in the head become inner sounds, so I hear the sound of each color, and, also, it allows me to go beyond the visual spectrum, 'cause it also includes infrareds and ultraviolets, and also Internet perception.

So Internet then allows me to receive colors from other devices or other people that can send colors to my head.

Can you show us how it's kind of connected and where it goes?

So this is an antenna that picks up the light frequencies in front of me, and then it goes at the back of the occipital bone, and then there's four implants in the back -- one for the chip that vibrates depending on the light frequency in front.

Two other implants are to hold this structure, and the fourth implant is Internet connection so people can send colors to my head, or I can also connect to satellites so that I can then sense the colors from space.

So, people can send colors to your head?

They can send colors anytime of the day or night, so if there's a beautiful sunset in Australia now, my friend from Melbourne can actually stream light images from the mobile phone to my head, and then I suddenly sense the colors of a sunset, or if someone sends colors at night, and I wake up, and I realize that my dream was very violet, then it's probably 'cause someone was sending violet colors at night.

And do you find that things that people say look beautiful tend to also sound beautiful to you?

Uh, not always, no.

Like, sunsets sound a bit sad 'cause it's like a descending note.

So it sounds like 'do-o-o-o' -- a bit sad, whereas supermarkets sound much more exciting.

I like the sound of supermarkets much more than the sound of a sunset.

You're hearing a whole spectrum of noises beyond what we're even seeing.

Do you feel it there constantly?

Do you forget it's there?

Do you shower and sleep with it?

Yeah, there's two things.

One is the sense.

The new sense is completely integrated with my brain.

So the software in the brain feel like one, so that's one union, and the other union is the union between the body part and my head.

It's just like any other body part, and, yes, it's waterproof, so I can shower, and I just had to get used to the new height, and also the fact that people are not used to seeing humans with antennas, but I think in the 2020's, we might see more people with new body parts, and it will become normal to meet people with new sensory organs.

And you and cofounder Moon Ribas from the Cyborg Foundation, you guys have really sort of spearheaded this effort.

So, what is the motivation here in promoting cyborgism?

Is it about fixing things?

Is it about enhancing and pushing the boundaries of human capability?

It's about extending our perception of reality.

We are, I guess, the first generation that can actually design how we want to perceive life in a very profound way.

We can design new senses, we can design new body parts, and we can design our perception of reality.

So we see this as an art, cyborg art -- also, something that can change our species.

I've read about something called North Sense, which is one of these extensions, and read an explanation that it can add to your memories in the sense of you remember where you were, maybe what you were wearing, what you were hearing when something happened, and then now this added layer of which cardinal direction you are pointing.

What are some of the other senses that we can add to our experiences?

The North Sense now, people are buying it at Cyborg Nest, and it's something that will allow you to feel the magnetic North of our planet, and this will change the way we sense orientation.

It will gain the way we perceive our context, and, also, it's a sense that other species have.

Sharks and some birds can feel the magnetic North, and this helps them orientate, but, yes, there's many other senses, like feeling what's behind you.

All of our senses are focused in front of us, but if you have a small sensor that allows you to feel vibrations at the back, like the senses that we give to cars, it will give you a sense of presence behind you.

Also, sensing ultrasounds or infrasounds, or ultraviolets or infrareds, like the antenna, or also something very simple like magnetoception, feeling the magnets around us.

So it's just extending a bit more of the senses that we have or adding completely new senses, like the seismic sense that Moon has.

She can feel all the earthquakes of the world by an implant in her arm that allows her to feel the vibrations of the planet.

So she feels a strong connection with the earth 'cause whenever the earth shakes, she shakes.

So she feels like she has, like, two heartbeats -- Earth beat and her own beat.

And part of the human experience is that our brains, without us realizing, are ignoring a certain amount of stimuli as we go through our day, and it would be too distracting for us to do what we needed to do if we were hearing everything.

Is there any kind of concern that we could end up overstimulating ourselves if we start adding all these senses?

At the beginning, it might be a bit more predominant.

Having a new sense will dominate your daily life, but then, after some months, this sense will integrate with the other senses and it will become normal to have this new sense.

So, how do you see this cyborgism expanding in the population, and the other side of it, the cyborg rights that you and Moon have been pushing for?

Yeah, the cyborg rights is having the right to have surgery is one of the main points 'cause some of the cyborg surgeries are still not bioethically allowed.

The aim is that these surgeries should be allowed, and they should be ethically approved by the Bioethic Committee.

So that's one of the basic cyborg rights -- the right that we should all have to extend our senses and our perception of reality, and I think we'll be seeing this in the 2020's.

The union between humans and technology will not only be psychological union, it will be a biological union, and many people will merge their bodies with technology in order to have permanent new sensory organs and new senses.

A whole new world.

Neil Harbisson, thanks again for joining us.

Thank you.