Neil Harbisson

How did a talented pianist become the world’s first officially recognized cyborg? The answer: colour blindness. Neil Harbisson turned a weakness into a strength, creating art in the process.

Should we become superhuman? For artist Neil Harbisson, it’s an unequivocal ‘Yes!’ The unconventional story of his life begins in the Catalonia region of Spain, where the son of an Irish father and a Spanish mother was born and raised. The youngster’s artistic talent was apparent from an early age. But his colour blindness – Neil Harbisson sees only in black and white – was a barrier to the visual arts. This only made him even better at the piano and everyone raved about his playing. He learned from the best and was on the cusp of a great career as a pianist. Until, at Dartington College of Arts in England, where he was studying experimental composition and piano, he encountered cybernetics pioneer Adam Montandon.

Together, they developed an implant, an antenna, which allows him to hear colours. That was in 2003 and Neil Harbisson has been wearing the eyeborg ever since. The implant enables him to perceive colours without seeing them. And that’s not all he hears. The very unique problems that the eyeborg entails are just one of the topics that Neil Harbisson covers in his fascinating keynotes.

There have, for instance, been confrontations with angry members of the public who ripped out his eyeborg. And when Neil Harbisson wanted to apply for a new British passport, the UK authorities refused to issue one because he didn’t want to take out the eyeborg for his passport photo. Only when a wave of protest erupted at the university was he given his passport and recognized by the government as a cyborg, making Neil Harbisson the world’s first official cyborg.

The cyborg artist, who now resides in Brooklyn, also calls himself a cyborg activist. He is a passionate advocate of cybernetics and the possibilities it opens up. Harbisson is, for example, co-founder of the “Cyborg Foundation”, which was established in 2010 and champions the rights of cyborgs as well as the expansion of physical capabilities.  

Today, the 35-year-old is in demand as a keynote speaker on cyborgism and is also an interesting performance artist, who transports the audience into his frequently ‘out-of-this-world’ world.