We see with our eyes and hear with our ears. At least that’s the conventional way to do things, but no one is calling Neil Harbisson conventional. Neil is colorblind. Unlike many colorblind people, who are unable to see just a few specific colors, like red or blue, Neil can’t see any colors except for grey. He has spent his whole life experiencing the world as only different shades of grey. That is until recently.
Neil now has the ability to see using his ears. He has implanted an antenna into his skull. It’s not attached to a headband or a hat. The antenna is attached directly to the back of his skull at one end, bends over the top of his head, and has a light sensor on the other end. This light sensor records the colors and sends this information to a chip embedded in his skull. The chip translates these colors into a sound. This allows Neil to experience each color as its own unique sound. The red of a traffic light translates into one tone, while the green of a tree translates into a different tone. In this way, he has created a sound vocabulary for all the colors we see with our eyes.
Neil’s translation of color into sound has become so deep that it also works in reverse. When he hears sounds, they translate into colors for him. When a telephone rings or a glass breaks, he experiences these sounds as color. As an artist, this blending of sight and sound has allowed him to create unique works of art. Neil is a trained musician, and he creates sound portraits by translating the colors in paintings and photos into sounds. He also is a painter and has painted all kinds of sounds including human voices. He once painted a speech by Martin Luther King and another by Hitler.
The definition of a cyborg is someone who is part human and part machine. Neil embraces his cyborg identity fully. He says, “I don’t feel like I’m using technology or wearing technology. I feel like I am technology. I don’t think of my antenna as a device – it’s a body part.” Some people believe that humans have stopped evolving, but perhaps people like Neil are on the cutting edge of a new type of evolution.