Listening to Color

Life will be much more exciting when we stop creating applications for mobile phones and we start creating applications for our own body.

These are Neil Harbisson’s words from when he presented at TEDGlobal 2012. A sentiment that is at once compelling and slightly scary. [Note: He’s not just talking about wearable technology – read on.]

A dynamic and fascinating life. Unable to “see” colors, he has a chip implanted at the back of his head that allows him, through the power of cybernetics, to “hear” them now. The condition is known as achromatopsia, where Harbisson’s entire world was just black and white. Till he got an eyeborg permanently attached to his body. Brave man. Now, he can identify colors by their musical tones, even discerning them beyond normal visual range. It wasn’t an easy road either, given how he had to learn all the various sounds, associate them with the appropriate colors and manage people’s responses and reactions to him as he went about his daily world.

As the most well-known face of cyborg activism now, Harbisson is also a unique artist, creating sound portraits of people based on their appearances. He’s also getting into sound and theater performance. The man’s imagination knows no bounds.

Adam Montandon, who co-created the eyeborg with Harbisson, explains more of the science behind it.

Cybernetics is one of the frontier fields these days. All the fantasies that sci-fi writers of the 20th century wrote about is very possible in this century. Whether we will eventually be able to fit people with exoskeletons that allow them to fly or become invisible or this even more possible cyberskin that will allow a Spiderman-like sensory perception. Or whatever. Only time will tell. In the meantime, if science can help people with disorders that rob them of the simplest of pleasures in life, that should be a hundred times more valuable than the next multi-million social media startup.

Harbisson’s Cyborg Foundation, started in 2010, aims to work with both disabled and non-disabled people as he believes that we all need our senses and perception enhanced to better experience our worlds and to create / perform at greater levels. And, already, there are words like “activism” and “rights” being associated with some of the projects that are underway. There are also various camps setting up for and against this kind of work. Some argue that this kind of work can help increase / improve multi-literacy – where people with learning disabilities get to learn through different modes besides oral (e.g. visually, aurally, etc.). Some argue that such technologies will give unfair advantages to those who can afford them (somewhat like the argument against artificial limbs in sports). And, we won’t even get into the even more polarized ethical and religious viewpoints.

Of course, till there are some significant advances, ethical, religious, political, legal and regulatory debates are all theoretical. And, so, till then, perhaps we can still allow ourselves to take a few minutes to appreciate how technology can change a person’s entire life. Although, I daresay, his sharp wit, intelligent curiosity and infectious passion are 100% just his inherent nature. By the way, take note of his technicolor sartorial choices – a long way from the childhood where he only wore black and white clothing. Doesn’t that part alone of his story make you want to cheer for him?