The First Officially Recognized Cyborg

“He could still be a robot. Check him for batteries.” —Beast Boy, “Teen Titans”

In A Nutshell

Neil Harbisson is a real-life cyborg. The man actually has a device implanted in his skull that transforms colors into sound. And not only is he a living, breathing sci-fi character, Neil is also the world’s first legally recognized cyborg, courtesy of the United Kingdom.

The Whole Bushel

Cyborgs aren’t just the stuff of sci-fi anymore. Ever since Professor Kevin Warwick implanted a silicon chip into his arm back in 1998, more and more “biohackers” have modified their bodies with all sorts of magnets and machines. One of the most prominent figures in the field of “cyborgism” is Neil Harbisson, a 32-year-old man who made history after becoming the world’s first legally recognized cyborg.

Raised in Catalonia, Spain, Harbisson lived in a world that was drab and gray. Why? Well, Harbisson was born with a condition called achromatopsia. That means he’s completely color-blind. The reds, greens, and blues most of us enjoy were completely foreign to him. It wasn’t until 2004 that Harbisson actually started to understand the concept of color, thanks to one incredibly odd invention.

While studying at Dartington College of Arts in Devon, Harbisson and a computer scientist buddy spent their spare time building an “eyeborg.” It wasn’t shiny or fancy looking, but this little device would revolutionize Harbisson’s life. The so-called “eyeborg” was originally a small computer attached to a long antenna that looped over Harbisson’s head. Imagine the electronic eye probe from War of the Worlds.

Just like that Martian machine, there was a camera at the end of the antenna that transmitted data back to the computer which, in turn, transformed the incoming colors into 360 various sound waves. The noise was then sent through a pair of earphones for Harbisson’s listening pleasure. While he couldn’t see yellow and purple, he could suddenly hear them. Each color had its own unique sound.

As you might assume, all this aural stimulation was a bit much at first. Harbisson suffered from headaches for weeks, and it took several months to differentiate each sound. But as he grew used to all that noise, Harbisson was eventually able to associate each individual color with its matching frequency. Suddenly, the world opened up in new ways, and Harbisson could identify orange, pick out purple, and get a “glimpse” of gold. He even hears colors like infrared and ultraviolet.

Over time, Harbisson has made quite a few modifications to the eyeborg, altering it from a mere Walkman to truly sci-fi technology. After a few tweaks, Harbisson actually implanted the computer software into his body and placed the eyeborg inside his skull. The device is now fused to bone and sends vibrations to his eardrums via a tiny screw. And thanks to this incredible implant, Harbisson has become a pretty important person in the history of cyborgism.

If you look at his UK passport, you’ll spot the antenna drooping down in front of his forehead. Essentially, the British government recognized the eyeborg as part of his body, allowed the machine to be part of his official photograph, and snapped the picture. In other words, Harbisson is the first legally recognized cyborg in the world.

Of course, Harbisson doesn’t spend all his time rocking out to rainbows. He’s a very busy guy. These days, he operates the Cyborg Foundation, a group that promotes biohacking and stands up for cyborg rights. He’s also busy working on new inventions like the “earborg” which is like the eyeborg in reverse. Instead of translating color into sounds, it translates sounds into colors. He’s also developing an eyeborg app for Android so other people can experience the world like he does. And according to Harbisson, cyborgism is the way of the future, and soon we’ll be living in a world full of upgraded humans, and no one will think twice about it. “It will become normal to have tech inside our bodies or have it implanted,” he told CNN. “I think it just needs time.”

Show Me The Proof

Featured photo credit: Mribas
Motherboard: The Cyborg: Kevin Warwick is the World’s First Human-Robot Hybrid
CNN: World’s first cyborg wants to hack your body
NY Times: A Surgical Implant for Seeing Colors Through Sound

  • Joseph

    I don’t get it. The only way he’s officially recognized is that it appeared in the photo for his passport. Is that right? That seems more like some guy not caring what the weird thing hanging off his head was than an actual attempt to make a “cyborg official”.

  • Hillyard

    I’m sure this guy is happy but I think I would just learn to live with the color blindness.

  • Ken O

    Ghost in a Shell