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.