Cyborg Neil Harbisson: Why Grey Matters
CNME|March 2018

The world’s fascination with Neil Harbisson is never-ending. From a colour-sensing antenna that is connected to his brain, to a dial that will soon allow him to detect the earth’s rotation – and time – Harbisson is the global champion of cyborg rights. Visiting Dubai. he sat down with James Dartnell for a one-on-one interview and explained why space isn’t black, robots will remember us in 300 years, and embedding technology in ourselves will save the planet.

James Dartnell

An inescapable irony shapes Neil Harbisson. Born colour-blind, his grey scale vision defined him in his formative years. Now, 15 years after receiving a foot-long antenna that protrudes from his grey matter, Harbisson is able to experience colour in a way that none of us can imagine.

The colours Harbisson now feels are anything but dull. The grey scale remains, but is now supported by a symphony of yellows and reds transmitted by his Internet connected “organ”.

He is unequivocal in his belief that the world should embrace – and will be forced to adapt to – those who identify not only as owning technology, but consider it is as a part of themselves.

“My trans-species identity started long before becoming a cyborg,” he says. “The only species I connected with were those that saw in grey scale. Humans told me that I had a problem, or that I was disabled, but I didn’t agree. If you look at other species, it’s not a disability or a problem, but an advantage.”

Seeing in grey scale actually grants Harbisson certain superhuman capabilities. “It gives me night vision, I can see longer distances because colours don’t interfere, I can memorise shapes more easily, and detect camouflage more easily,” he says.

Determined not to be influenced by society’s norms, Harbisson set about collaborating with scientists and researchers in 2003 to find a new way that he could broaden his senses – even by the most unconventional means. “I wanted to find a new way of experiencing colour without changing my sight,” he says. “If you look at nature, insects have antennas that work 360 degrees, and aren’t limited to human vision.”

Harbisson’s antenna features Internet connectivity, which allows him to connect to – among anything else on the wide web – NASA’s international space station, which allows him to experience the colours of space. This, he says, is the most beautiful colour combination he has ever experienced. “Space is not black, it’s extremely colourful, but they are colours that we don’t see,” he says. “When I sense colours that are outside this planet, there are lots of ultra violets that I don’t sense here.” Ultraviolet rays – which Harbisson says he has experienced in Dubai – have the ability to penetrate the skin, and can even kill. That doesn’t bother him, however. “Sensing it, while my body is here but my sense of colour is in outer space – I like it,” he says. “We’ll see the Internet as a sense more often, and it will allow us to explore space without physically being there.”

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