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See the world from a cyborg’s point of view: A chat with Neil Harbisson

It’s not often that a self-professed ‘trans-species’ visits Australia.

In fact, he’s the only one of his kind. So naturally, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to chat to Neil Harbisson, the first government-recognised cyborg. The contemporary artist and cyborg activist will be speaking alongside renowned global speakers at the Creative Innovation 2017 event in November.

Harbisson has been adding features and perceptions to his antenna for a decade. He can hear and recognise colours, can recognise infrared and ultraviolet lights, and will soon tell the time with…his head.

The main question that came up from people in the office was, “Why?” I think it’s a good point to maybe start there. Why did you decide to augment your body in this way?

I did this in the context of art, because I was in art college, and I was studying music, but the school was pushing us to create new things and one of them was to use technology in our art.

I never liked the fact of using technology in the art itself, because I found that it didn’t connect with me. So I tried to use technology, but without using it in my art, I decided to use it in myself, so then this is an artwork that is actually inside my body, and that I’m the only one experiencing.

I see this as an art movement – the art of creating your own senses and the art of creating your own body parts, and the art of designing your perception of reality as cyborg art.

This antenna is an artwork, and the sense that it’s giving me is also my artwork, but the issue with this art is that I am the only audience of this artwork. So I see it as a new type of art where the artist is also the audience of his own art, and also the space where it’s happening because it’s happening inside the mind in my case.

It’s really interesting that you say that you’re singular in that way. You’re one of a kind. Do you foresee a future where this will be common? Where you’ll be able to establish a language, or a community built around people who have similar modifications?

Well, by adding senses and organs that are not traditionally human, you also become a trans-species, so I define myself as a trans-species because I’ve added senses and organs that are not traditionally human.

I am sure that in the 2020s, there’ll be many more trans-species, and people identifying as trans-species, because they’ll be able to add new organs and senses that are not traditionally human.

In the same way that there are transgender, now there’ll also be trans-species, and we also have the same issues with bio-ethical committees that transgender surgeries had decades ago. Transgender surgeries were not accepted by bio-ethical committees in many countries. We are encountering the same issues that bioethical committees are not accepting trans-species surgeries at the moment, so we need to find anonymous doctors willing to do these implants.

In my case, the antenna was implanted by an anonymous doctor, and this surgery was a trans-species surgery because we added an organ that is not traditionally human: an antenna.

How did you come to that understanding with that doctor? Were they willing to experiment, or did you just come up with this idea and see who wanted to help you out?

I created the antenna, and then I had to find a doctor willing to implant it.

I presented the antenna surgery to a bio-ethical committee of 14 doctors, and they said it was not ethical to have this antenna implanted in my head. So they rejected the surgery, then through them, I found a doctor that was willing to do it anonymously, so he’s the one that did the surgery.

You’ve had the antenna for ten years now. How do you think the technological improvements from that time until now have affected your standard of living, or even your sense of self?

Yes, the advantage of having a cybernetic sense, or cybernetic organ, is that it keeps evolving during your lifetime because technology keeps evolving.

For example, in 2004 I was able to sense just the visual spectrum, afterwards I added the invisible spectrum as well – so infrared to ultraviolet. Afterwards, I added internet connection, so I could receive colours from external devices, or connect to satellite. So it’s a body part that keeps evolving.

What do you think the next step for you is?

Well, I’ve designed a new sensory organ, which is a sensory organ for the sense of time. We all have a sense of time, but we don’t have an organ for the sense of time, so I’ve created this organ that will be implanted inside my head.

It’s circular, and it’s like an inner crown, and it gives me a point of heat that takes 24 hours to go around the head. It’s like having a solar clock inside my body, so I will know what time it is by feeling the point of heat around my head.

This is gonna give me a perfect sense of time. I will also know where the sun is rising because if I feel the heat on my left ear, that’s a place in the planet, or if I feel it in my right ear, it’s somewhere else. So it will give me a sense of… well basically, of time.

Then, when my brain gets used to this organ, I’ll be able to modify my perception of time by modifying the speed in which the heat goes around my head. So, if I want a day to last 23 hours, I could program it so it goes a bit faster, or a bit slower, I’ll programme the heat to go slower, or faster and this should change my perception of time.

In the same way that we can create optical illusions, because we have an organ for the sense of sight, I think we can create time illusions if we have an organ for the sense of time. So basically, it’s taking Albert Einstein’s theory of time relativity into practice, into an organ, and see if we can modify our perception of time if we have an organ for time.

Earlier this month, an open letter was submitted to the United Nations from a number of founders of artificial intelligence committees. I know that body augmentation and artificial intelligence are different issues, but I wondered whether you believe that artificial intelligence could ever become sentient?

I think that if artificial intelligence becomes more intelligent than humans, the most intelligent thing to do would be to ignore us or to escape. Maybe the technology will just run away from us, basically.

I don’t think artificial intelligence would waste its time trying to destroy us. I don’t think that’s very intelligent. I think that’s very human actually. We are already killing each other as humans, so if machines become more intelligent than us, they will not be killing, I’m sure they’ll be doing something else, like ignoring us, or running away from us.

But there are some points of differences when it comes to artificial intelligence. I’m not merged, for example, with artificial intelligence. I’ve never actually worked with artificial intelligence. What I work with is artificial senses, which is, I call it AS, instead of AI.

The difference is that, if the antenna was AI, it would be giving me the names of colours, but it’s not giving me the names of colours, it’s giving me the frequency of light inside my head, and then it’s up to me to create an intelligence or not, from this input.

So it’s a collaboration between technology and the brain. So, the difference between having an AS with your body, or an AI, is that if you add an AS, an artificial sense, your brain needs to create the ‘I’. So it’s a collaboration between the organism and the cybernetics.

Neil Harbisson will be in Melbourne between 13-15 November 2017 for Creative Innovation 2017.

About the author

Larissa is Techly’s Assistant Editor. She watches so much Youtube that she’s narrowed down her favourite categories – goats, innocent dads getting pranked, and toddlers falling over.

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