Imagine a life without colour. A sky devoid of blue, a monochrome city, a dish served in shades of grey.
A few weeks ago, I listened to a talk by Neil Harbisson. Looking at him, I soon realised that he was another eccentric speaker (see my post on Alain Robert). For one thing, he had a rather fetching bowl cut…and a third eye planted on his forehead.
Neil was born without the ability to see colour. He soon discovered that he wasn’t just colourblind like his schoolmates, but inhabited a world of grayscale. For him, flowers were always grey, and TV had never developed beyond black and white imagery. Now you might think that this isn’t the worst disability you could have, but colour is everywhere and is a significant part of social interaction. He gives the example of the following exchange: A woman walks over to me in distress, and says, “Have you seen a blonde man walk past, wearing a blue jacket with green eyes?”. He can only answer: “I saw a man walk past, he wasn’t naked and yes, he had eyes.”
To register colour, Neil decided to upgrade his body. Since 2004, he has been enhancing himself using technology to extend his sensory perception. By installing a eyeborg to his head, he can recognise colour through sound frequencies that resonate through bone conduction to his ears. After learning to distinguish 360 colours recognised by the human eye, he decided he wouldn’t stop there. He went beyond the spectrum to hear ultraviolet light, which is handy for knowing when it is a good day to sunbathe, and on the opposite end, infrared.
He became so integrated with his technology that eventually he began to dream in colour, which he recognises as the point where he realised he was a cyborg. An art gallery became a concert hall, faces would sing to him, cities had their own unique note, and he could create a symphony from a plate of food and ‘eat his favourite song.’
There was a knock on effect of this merging of senses, with Neil starting to paint music and voices with colour. Faces, speeches and music began to evoke colours and feelings for him. He predicted how the next US president would sound from the voice patterns of the presidents over the last 40 years and created art from iconic speeches from Hitler and Martin Luther King.
He finished his talk by encouraging us all to sign up to his Cyborg Foundation to enhance ourselves. He said he could not understand why so much effort was put into creating apps for our phones, when we could directly apply that technology to our bodies.
It left me thinking- what would I enhance if I could choose? Perhaps the ability to taste what I can see and enjoy the professional cooking on Masterchef!
Which sense would you modify?
Image from Stories by Williams,
To watch the man in action, view his TED talk, ‘I listen to colour’
This info graphic is also taken from TED: