When colours become sounds: Cyborg Neil Harbisson at the launch of The Sound of Data

Neil Harbisson is colour-blind but can hear colours with the help of an implanted antenna. The world’s first official cyborg will demonstrate how he uses this technique at the Rockhal on 1 May.

Neil was born with achromatopsia. This means that he only sees the world in black, white and grey tones. In 2004, the Briton underwent an operation: he had a chip with an antenna implanted in the back of his head. As a result, Neil Harbisson still cannot see the colours, but he can hear them. The antenna detects the colours of his surroundings, which are then transmitted as vibrations to the skull bone, producing sounds. The Briton is considered the first cyborg officially recognised by a government and has even confirmed this status in his ID card. And he will also be present at the launch of the Esch2022 project “The Sound of Data” on 1 May at the Rockhal.

Science.lu spoke to him in the run-up to the event.

Neil, you were surgically implanted with an antenna and chip, and since then you have described yourself as a cyborg, i.e., a hybrid of a biological organism and technology. Did you also feel like a cyborg immediately after the operation or was it a rather gradual process?

The transition to cyborg was indeed a rather longer process for me, which was not directly connected to the operation. When I realised that technology was becoming part of my identity, influencing my mind and my thinking, I also started to feel like a cyborg. In the beginning I also called myself an “eyeborg” because at first, I saw the component as an extra eye. In fact, however, it is not an eye but an antenna.

You are a musician and have also studied piano. Is that an advantage for your cyborg technique, which converts colours into tones?

I think that in general it is more of a disadvantage if you are musically trained. Because you are trained to hear the sound in twelve notes. That makes it more difficult to accept microtones, i.e., tones between the conventional pitches. And colours are full of these microtones. So, I think it’s easier for people without a musical background to cope with the microtones at first.

How does your sensor work? How close do you must get to an object to hear it? And is the antenna always activated or can it be removed and put back on?

The camera permanently detects the dominant colours in front of me. So, I don’t necessarily have to get very close to an object to hear the colours. I have a chip implanted in my skull bone, which is connected to the camera via a fibre-optic cable. The technology is hence an integral part of my skeleton.

Would the colours sound the same for everyone, or does the colour spectrum as we know it also correspond to the musical scale?

The spectrum of colours that I can register ranges from infrared to ultraviolet. And the tone is also based on this light spectrum. For example, red is F, blue is C sharp, and magenta is D sharp. So far, I am the only one with such an antenna. But the sound or the vibration in the bone that is triggered by the respective colour has not changed since the beginning.

Can you also expand your abilities through updates?

Yes, after my antenna was implanted in 2004, I had an upgrade in 2008 in the sense that my colour spectrum was extended to 360 colours. Later, I also had an upgrade to perceive infrared and ultraviolet radiation. And in the meantime, I also have an internet connection so that I can perceive colours from all corners of the earth.  While the normal human organs are ageing, the technology is getting better and better. So, the older I get as a cyborg, the better I can perceive reality. Because I can always upgrade my sensor.

You also hear colours that the human eye does not perceive, like infrared and ultraviolet. Does that have any practical advantages?

Well, it connects me with other animals that can also perceive these colours. And it also connects me more with nature. Because I can detect ultraviolet light, I can also hear what the sun’s rays are like, for example. So, I can tell whether it’s a good or a bad day for sunbathing.

Is the antenna your only artificial organ?

No, I have another implant in my knee, a kind of compass. Therefore, I can always feel where the geographic north is. I have also developed an organ for recognising the passage of time. It’s a sensory headband that allows the wearer to feel the passage of the 24-hour clock on the circumference of their head. And I have also done projects with teeth. For example, I implanted a tooth that allows me to communicate via Morse code with other people who also have such a tooth.

You are not only a cyborg, but also an artist. To what extent is your art influenced by your cyborg abilities?

The development of these organs is the real art – we call it cyborg art. It’s about expanding the abilities of our perception. Furthermore, these developed senses can then of course be used additionally to express ourselves artistically. In my case, I can use the sensor to create music from colours – or from faces. So, I can also create concerts from faces. Conversely, I can also paint what I hear. Because for every colour there is also a sound.

On 1 May you will come to Belval for “Science meets Music”, the kick-off event of the Esch2022 project “The Sound of Data”. What can the audience expect at your Futuristic Talk?

This talk will be about cyborg art. I want to show people what possibilities of expression arise from these additional organs and senses. Because this also gives rise to new forms of culture and art. Hearing colours can also influence other areas, such as fashion. This is true for my antenna, but also for many other artificially created organs.

In addition, a performance with Paul Lombarte is also planned for the event at the Rockhal….

Yes, Pol is also a cyborg. He creates art with the help of his heartbeat. Pol has implanted electrodes that allow him to transmit his heartbeat live on the internet. So, his art project is that he sells his heartbeat. We will make music together at the event in the Rockhal, Pol with the help of his heartbeat and I by using the colours from the faces of the audience.

The project The Sound of Data is about the sonification of data, i.e. converting data into sounds. What do you think about the possible applications of sonification?

Everything around us produces a vibration, so everything is suitable for sonification. We can discover and hear music everywhere. I do it with colours, Pol with the help of his heartbeat and others use other possibilities for it. Therefore, music doesn’t necessarily have to be composed, because we are already surrounded by it everywhere.

You can find out more about Cyborg Neil Harbisson on 1 May at the Rockhal.

Published On: April 20th, 2022