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our interview with neil harbisson: synesthetic cyborg – stretching the limitations of our species

Born in Britain, raised in Spain and based in New York, Neil Harbisson is an artist and cyborg activist.
An antenna implanted in his skull allows him to interpret sounds through his other senses, and he has received official government recognition as a cyborg. As an artist, he creates sonic paintings and audio works based on colors, notably, transferring celebrities’ faces into soundscapes. Here he shares his thoughts on his cyborg identity and its implications as humans and machines become ever more interconnected. Catch Neil speaking in our New Realities track.

The digital age is breaking down lifestyle boundaries. Do you agree that it is doing the same to our senses? If so, what are the implications?

We’ve been using technology and sensors only to apply them on machines, and now we can start applying them on bodies too. By adding sensors, we will ultimately change the limitations of our species. I think it’s going to be a huge change once we start applying technology as a sense on ourselves. The limitations of our sensual perception will no longer exist because we can now extend them as we like. This will lead to big changes in society: we will be able to decide what kind of senses we want to have. We must get ready for this up-and-coming diversity, since the diversity we know now willbe nothing compared to the diversity that is probably coming in the future. Especially the younger generation is less afraid of merging with technology and we’ll see more people merging their bodies with sensors, thereby adding entirely new senses.

If technology is no longer separate from us, but an intrinsic part of us as humans, how can we make sure we benefit from the good stuff while avoiding the bad?

It’s impossible to control it as it has nothing to do with technology itself, but rather the use of it. It’s basically the same with every existing body part, like for example a hand: it’s not a good or a bad thing, but it can be used to punch somebody or it can be used to write a poem. We can use our hands in different ways, as we can use technology differently. It’s not either good or bad. Therefore, being a cyborg does not entail new problems, as we already have problems even without the merge of human bodies and technology.

“By adding sensors on bodies, we will ultimately change the limitations of our species.”

What about privacy issues? How can
we ensure that by integrating tech into ourselves we don’t also invite unwanted surveillance and monitoring even deeper into our lives?

The most important aspect here is having cyborg rights. Each person should be allowed to decide who enters their mind or body. If you have a sensor that’s connected to the internet, someone could eventually enter your sense or your body part – but in the end, as a cyborg you need to be in charge of it. Some humans allow companies to enter their minds and body, but some might just not want that. Whatever you decide, you have to be the only one who’s in control.

According to the Universal Declaration 
of Cyborg Rights, “Human beings in the digital age are cyborgs; shared beings.” Do you agree, and can you expand a little on this idea?

No, I don’t agree with this: for me, being a cyborg implies a sense of identity. No one is entitled to tell anyone if he or she is a cyborg. There are people with technology implemented in their bodies not calling themselves a cyborg, while others might not have an implant, but refer to themselves as a cyborg. No one can tell me I’m a man or a woman either – I decide if I’m a man or a woman, regardless of my body. The same applies for cyborgs, it has nothing to do with the body, but the feeling of identity. No one is allowed to point at you calling you a cyborg, unless you de ne yourself as one. Most people with implants – mainly for medical reasons – would not de ne them- selves as a cyborg. For them the implant is only something external that’s been put in their body. In the end, it’s all about identity, and that’s something that goes beyond the human body.

Which speakers or talks at the me Convention are you most inspired about?

I’m really excited about seeing Buzz Aldrin as his work is very relevant to what Moon Ribas, the co-founder of the Cyborg Foundation, and I are doing. The origin of the word cyborg comes from space exploration: for surviving in space, we have to change our bodies and design ourselves in a new way. Buzz Aldrin was the first person to put seismographic sensors on the moon to examine the moon’s activities, like moon quakes.
My friend Moon is already having a sensor 
in her body to feel earthquakes, but by September, she will be having another implant in her body to feel moon quakes as well. So, whenever there’s a moon quake, her feet will start vibrating. So, the connection between us and Buzz Aldrin is pretty strong: he was the first man on the moon, and Moon Ribas will be the first woman to have the moon down at her feet.

watch neil harbisson’s talk at me convention

Synesthetic Cyborg: Stretching the Limitations of Our Species

Disclaimer: The views of me Convention speakers do not necessarily reflect the opinions of either Mercedes-Benz and/or SXSW.