The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Meet the cyborgs who are redefining what it means to be human

Neil Harbisson uses the antenna implanted in his skull so that he can perceive infrared light. (Dan Peled/EPA)
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A future in which man and machine merge together — the so-called “Singularity” scenario proposed by futurists such as Ray Kurzweil — might be closer than we think. Just consider some of the self-proclaimed “cyborgs” already living amongst us, two of whom made an appearance at the recent Robotronica event in Australia.

There’s a colorblind artist, Neil Harbisson, who has an antenna permanently implanted in his skull so that he can detect color frequencies in front of him, turning his grayscale world into a world filled with colors. There’s a choreographer, Moon Ribas, who has an online sensor attached to her skin that can be activated in real-time anytime there’s an earthquake in the world. And there’s a performance artist, Stelarc, who has developed a third ear for his arm (soon to be complete with Wi-Fi and microphone) so that others on the Internet can hear what he’s hearing.

In each case,

. The Internet, in a way, has become our sixth sense. (Moon Ribas refers to her new sense as a

.) The artist with the antenna attached to his head, Neil Harbisson,

, something the rest of us can’t do. He also “hears” colors rather than “sees” them, which means that he coordinates his choice in clothes not by the way they look together, but by how they sound together. He can draw pictures of speeches or faces based on how they sound to him.

Except for the antenna on his head (something that he says drunk women can’t resist pulling on), Harbisson could be any millennial in any city in the world, experimenting with cutting-edge technology to see how it might be able to change the world.

The best way to think about “cyborgs” is the same way we think about any currently or formerly marginalized group in society -- whether by race, gender, orientation or ability. When they are unable to fight for their rights, society rejects them. But when they are part of a movement, anything is possible. As Harbisson explains, the inspiration for starting the Cyborg Foundation in 2010 came after so many other colorblind people contacted him, asking him how they could also become cyborgs.

But, just as with any other marginalized group, it’s not always easy being a cyborg. Harbisson has been harassed by police at protests, booted out of movie cinemas (they thought he was making a copy of the film), and told to leave retail stores (they thought he must be doing something nefarious). He also says that checking out the laundry detergent aisle of a supermarket can be dangerous -- the riotous display of colors is so loud (literally) that he describes it as similar to being in a nightclub.

In many ways, antennas sticking out of our heads are the extreme tech version of tattoos -- a way for people to self-identify or express themselves in ways that biology cannot. The first digital improvements to humans, in fact, were essentially tattoos -- sensors or chips embedded just below the surface of the body. Think of plastic surgery, implants, transplants, or any of the myriad ways that humankind has consistently looked for ways to change what nature gave us, either for health, performance or aesthetic purposes.

What’s different now is that technology has become so advanced. We’re now able to hack the human body in ways that were never before possible. As Stelarc, the performance artist with the third ear, explains, some humans are now no longer content with the “biological status quo.” We want ways to extend our human senses -- or even to create a new sixth sense powered by the Internet.

Think of all the technology that we carry around that’s connected to the Internet – our smartphones, tablets and fitness bands – now imagine all of them embedded inside us. Stelarc refers to this as part of the transformation of humans into “extended operating systems.” In the future, Stelarc says, he can envision a future in which this technology is not just “embedded” inside of us, but also genetically hardwired into us. With genetic engineering, any type of body hack might be possible.

As Ray Kurzweil, one of the foremost proponents of “The Singularity” said in an interview: “Our technology, our machines, is part of our humanity. We created them to extend ourselves and that is what is unique about human beings. We are the only species on the planet that extends our reach that transcends.” And that’s what’s different now -- instead of using technology just to overcome deficiencies, we are now using it to transcend our capabilities.