The Eyeborg: Hearing Colors and Our Cyborg Future

Over on the Neuroanthropology Facebook Interest Group, a member posted this fascinating video about Neil Harbisson and the Cyborg Foundation. Harbisson was born seeing in black-and-white. Working with inventor Adam Montadon, he implanted the “eyeborg” into his skull and brain, a device that allowed Harbisson to hear colors as sound. I’ll let him explain the rest.

TED, being TED, has a list of six talks by “real-life cyborgs,” including Harbisson. In the near-future Harbisson looks set to experience the world of sight, including ultraviolet and infrared, much like some animals already do, as this nice Nautilus piece How Animals See the World shows us.

This image represents how Harbisson hears the colors that most people see. It comes from a TED blogpost called The Sound of Colors.
Harbisson The Sound of Colors TED

You can also read about Harbisson’s experience with the prosthesis here on BBC, as well as get a representation of the initial mapping scheme of color to sound (seven basic colors, seven sounds). He describes adapting to the input device:

At the beginning I had some strong headaches because of the constant input of sound, but after five weeks my brain adapted to it, and I started to relate music and real sound to colour… It has changed the way I perceive art. Now I have created a completely new world where colour and sound are exactly the same thing. I like doing sound portraits – I get close to someone’s face, I take down the sound of the hair, the sounds of the skin, eyes and lips, and then I create a specific chord that relates to the face.

Sensory extension looks to have a fascinating future, and doesn’t have to happen just through technology. Greg’s work focuses on how we culturally extend and shape our senses, whether that is human echolocation, Daredevil abilities for the blind, or the cunning balance developed by capoeira practitioners.

With the expansion of smart phones, software apps, wearable technology, and brain interfaces, the future envisioned by Harbisson is likely coming in one form or another. One of his main complaints about his set-up, that it is so visible, is one that is likely already solveable. Deep-brain implants for severe psychiatric disorders are often implanted under the skin, so they are not visible. And here’s another eyeborg, this one to replace a lost eye, so Rob Spence, a filmmaker, got himself a robotic eye.

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