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Bruno Dubuc, Patrick Robert, Denis Paquet, and Al Daigen

Tuesday, 29 April 2014
A “cyborg” which hears more than what we see

Since 2004, Neil Harbisson has regarded himself as the first “cyborg” to be recognized as such by the government of a country—in his case, the United Kingdom, which has given him permission to appear in his passport photo with the small portable camera that he always wears on his forehead. This camera enables him not only to see colours, but also to hear them!

Harbisson was born in 1982 with a rare congenital vision disorder called achromatopsia—the inability to see colours. This disorder can also arise following a brain injury, as neurologist Oliver Sacks reported in his writings. But Harbisson has seen the world only in black and white ever since he was born.

After getting to know some people who were interested in cybernetics and informatics, Harbisson helped them to develop a prosthetic device that converts the various colours of the visible spectrum into specific frequencies of sound. Harbisson has been wearing this device for about 10 years now. As a result, his brain has completely associated these frequencies with the names of the various colours, which he perceives directly, in the form of sounds. This is a spectacular case of what scientists call sensory substitution.

In Harbisson’s case, this substitution has some strange results, as he relates humorously in the two videos to which links are provided below. For example, for him, going to an exhibit of paintings is like attending a concert. The distinctive skin tones of people’s faces generate distinctive sound patterns as well. And when he walks down the aisles of a supermarket, all the colorful packaging generates such rich, saturated sonorities that it’s as if he were walking through a discotheque!

And because the association between the particular frequency of a sound and the particular wavelength of a colour is constant for Harbisson, it necessarily works in the other direction as well. Thus, since Harbisson is also a visual artist, he uses lines of colours to paint the frequencies of the voices that he hears. In this way, he has transformed some famous speeches into multicoloured. nested rectangles.

But Harbisson’s device was working so well for the narrow band of frequencies in the electromagnetic spectrum that are visible to the human eye—the range from red to violet—that he and his collaborators figured, why stop there? Instead, they made his camera sensitive to infrared and ultraviolet light as well. As a result, he can now hear colours beyond the range that the rest of us can see. In other words, this is no longer just sensory substitution, but also sensory augmentation.

Of course, devices that enhance our senses are nothing new—microscopes and telescopes have been around for centuries. But Harbisson’s device arguably represents a different kind of enhancement, because it is integrated into his own visual perceptual system. It is no surprise, then, that he now even has audible dreams of coloured objects! Once philosophers have disposed of the question “What is it like to be a bat?“, maybe now they can grapple with the question “What is it like to be a cyborg?”.

i_lien Neil Harbisson: I listen to color
i_lien Cyborg Foundation
i_lien Neil Harbisson
i_lien Neil Harbisson Is A Cyborg Who Hears More Of The World Than We See
a_lien Achromatopsia

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