How to hear colour – and government recognition of a cyborg?

Has hearing in colour generated a new sense?

I had an interesting hour on Monday afternoon. BioCentre had invited me to join in a teleconference with Neil Harbisson. Neil has booked a slot on the international speakers’ tour by claiming to be the first government-recognised cyborg, and I was keen to examine the claim.

When he was born, Neil’s eyes did not enable him to see in colour, and that colour-blindness has stayed with him. As an artist he got used to seeing in shades of black and white. In 2004 someone gave him a piece of kit that has become known as the ‘eyeborg’. Neil calls it a “eye, attached to my head”. The technology is a camera on a flexible stalk coupled to a small processor. The camera detects colour and the processor turns the signal in to a tone. Different colours produce different tones. The kit has now been built into a headband and the tone is transmitted to Neil via a pressure pad held tightly against the outside of his head.

Neil wears the device 24/7 and claims that the effect has been profound. The constant input of tonal vibration to his skull means he now thinks and dreams in colour. This has become such a permanent feature that when the batteries go out, he still hears colours rattling around his head. As such, this is very much part of him. he is excited by “the union between software and brain”.

The technique is intriguing and extends his senses. It has altered his perception of the world.

But let’s look at a few claims.

Neil refers to the technology as an eyeborg, and the input device as an eye. In reality it is a simple low resolution camera – pretty much a light detector. Its aim is to pick up the average colour of the zone it looks at. An eye is much more complex – much much more complex.

He says that this has given him a new sense, that it isn’t using his sense of hearing. But the vibration will be sensed by the organs of the inner ear and transmitted to the brain by the auditory nerve. Ok, the vibration came through the skull and not the air, but so does most our hearing of our own voice. It’s a novel detector that feeds into the brain via an existing sensory route.

Press coverage and Neil’s phraseology imply that the UK passport office recognises him as a cyborg, and that he is the first person to receive this recognition. During the interview Neil confirmed that the passport office has never used the term cyborg, but has simply allowed the technology to be included in his photo. That in itself was an interesting step and took some negotiation. But having human-built kit on our faces is not novel – you can have glasses so long as the frame doesn’t obscure the eyes. Many people have plastic surgery and prosthetic items in their face that are very much part of their identity. Some have equipment such as cochlear implants and hearing aids that appear in the photo as well. Neil might have stretched the boundaries – but I’m not sure he has created a new world.

At the end of the call, I was really pleased to have been involved. Neil was charming and highly enthusiastic about his personal experiment. He has clearly captured people’s imagination and attention, and even has some practical spin-offs in the way it can analyse areas – Neil says that each city has its own colour: London is red/yellow; Lisbon turquoise/blue… His device does raise issues and questions. But it is a relatively straightforward piece of technology and the UK government hasn’t called him a cyborg.

“Why we are living longer” – are we?

I went to a pair of talks last night. The overall title for the evening was “Why are we living longer”. The title started from an assumption that we are living longer, and looked for the cause.

But I was keen to ask a prior question: “Are we living longer?” And to ask for evidence to support the claim. Ok, if that was established, then we could ask why?

You see, I’m not sure we are living longer. And the talks confirmed my suspicion.

The first speaker, Prof Tom Kirkwood, started with a slide showing a near linear increase in life expectancy for human beings over the last 50 to 60 years. His implication was that this linear increase should go on for ever. He hinted at the possibility. For the UK, life expectancy is now in the high 70s, and increasing.

But hold on. Humans have always had individuals who had life spans into the 70s and 80s. The second speaker, Prof Richard Faragher pointed this out. Research on the age of ancient skeletons found around Europe shows this 70-year lifespans stretch back through millennia. He concluded that we are not living longer.

The issue is who was meant by the ‘we’ in the title. Does it refer to us as individuals or species.

At an individual level, more of us are making it to the 80s and 90s – yes, we are living longer. At a species level, there is no evidence that the number of people entering super old age. The list of established supercentenarians (people over 110) currently contains only 70 names, with only 3 over 114. None are over 115. The record for a human is 122.

I asked for evidence that there is a mass of people about to join the list. There may be hunches, or beliefs or wishes – but as yet no evidence.

The evening was put on by the Medical Journalists’ Association. I’m a member, and I value our goals to make complex matters clear. So let’s be clear. At the moment the evidence that more people will live to 80 and 90 is clear. The evidence that the human species is about to stretch to new lengths is at best unclear – certainly not a certainty.

Yes, individual life expectancy is going up. No, as yet, the human species hasn’t changed.

The issue is more than academic. It rapidly becomes political and financial. For example, if you think the species limits are about to change, then there is a deeply troubling pension problem. If you think that we are going to have more 90-year olds, then yes, there is an issue, but it is of a much lower magnitude.

Correct representation of data is important.