Neil Harbisson has achromatopsia, a condition that prevents him from seeing color — for him, 50 shades of gray has an entirely different and far less erotic meaning. Distinguishing between traffic signal colors is a problem, but beyond the logistical and practical difficulties, Harbisson has always struggled with the aesthetic limitations of his condition. Just think of what it’s like for this guy to watch cartoons or fireworks! Knowing that the aesthetics of color have a huge impact on people with normal vision, about 10 years ago he decided to fix the problem by augmenting himself. That’s right — he became a cyborg.
Admittedly, he’s not a fully hybridized half-human/half-robot cyborg. His augmentation is fairly small — it’s a device called an “Eyeborg” that mounts onto his head. It allows him to see color and then some — the device also enables him to hear and feel color by converting colors into soundwaves. Harbisson experiences a device-induced form of synesthesia, or a blending of the senses, enabled by bone conduction, a process by which sounds travel to the base of his skull where a vibration mechanism then transmits them to his inner ears. The Eyeborg assigns a specific frequency to each color, with infrared being the lowest and ultraviolet light the highest.
Certainly Harbisson isn’t the first person with such an augmentation, but many people who do have such devices elicit negative reactions from others, such as Steve Mann, sometimes known as the “father of wearable computing,” who was assaulted in a Paris McDonalds when employees there attempted to remove the permanently attached eyeglass computer from his head. People with this type of headgear are often forced to remove it (or have had it removed for them), or they’re denied entrance into places if they’re wearing the device. Basically, people tend to view these devices as accessories such as glasses, but Harbisson argues that this isn’t just an optional piece for him. He was compelling enough in his argument that he’s the first person to ever have a passport taken while wearing his cyborg gear, making him the first person to be recognized by the government as a cyborg.
Harbisson says that the device is a part of him now, especially because he now has emotional reactions to the colors he sees around him; he even dreams about colors. Given that every color he sees produces a sound, certain sights, faces, architectural styles, etc. produce music that enhances his experience of the world around him. Eventually, instead of charging the Eyeborg via a computer USB port, he wants to find a way to power it himself, perhaps using kinetic energy, brain energy, or bone inputs that operate much like cochlear implants. He wants to charge the device using his body’s energy, freeing him from reliance on computers, electricity, or anything external — he wants to complete the circuit, so to speak. Such devices could also eventually offer 360-degree viewing and sensing capabilities, which would definitely give cyborgs a leg up (and make them effective teachers and parents).
Harbisson established the Cyborg Foundation to help continue to crusade for cyborg rights and to connect cybernetics with the arts. Looks like another bit of science fiction is becoming science fact.