Cyborg Enthusiasts Want to Redefine What Being Human Means


By Maggie Grimason

“People do not usually ask of themselves how human they feel,” Neil Harbisson says, his clipped English accent stuttering through the shaky Skype connection in the underground bunker from which he is speaking with me. “But once you ask this question,” he continues, “maybe you realize that you don’t feel 100-percent human, that there’s a part of you that feels something else.”

Harbisson has always felt that nagging something else—he was born with achromatopsia, a rare form of color blindness that causes him to see the world in grayscale. He embraces the condition as a unique advantage; he has better night vision than most people, for example, and can recall shapes more readily. Still, he wasn’t ready to surrender to a life in monochrome. Thirteen years ago, after developing the technology himself, he enlisted a surgeon (who must remain anonymous, as procedures like this are illegal) to implant an antenna into his occipital bone. Extending over his crown and resting above his eyes, it allows Harbisson to experience color as vibration, as well as frequencies outside of the human range of vision, including infrared and ultraviolet light.

“Sensing ultraviolet or infrared light is not a superpower; it is a sense many other species have,” Harbisson explains. The same goes for color blindness. This ability has led him to identify as transpecies. In fact, his underground studio in Barcelona is home base for the Transpecies Society—a social project of the Cyborg Foundation, which Harbisson and fellow Catalan cyborg artist Moon Ribas started in 2010. For Ribas’ part, she has sensors implanted in her arm and feet that allow her to feel earthquakes—even otherwise imperceptible tremors that register at a 1.0 on the Richter scale—as they happen across the Earth and on the moon. She incorporates the sensations in her body into dance and percussion performances.

“We’ve been augmenting ourselves through technology for millennia. This is just an extension of that.”

For Ribas and Harbisson, this technology has become a medium for their artistic expression and allows them to connect more strongly with the world around them. Beyond the burgeoning cyborg art scene, however, startups across the world are increasingly designing and marketing products with practical aims built into their business plans.

Grindhouse Wetware, based in Pittsburgh, has been building and distributing open source, implantable technology that allows anyone to become a cyborg since 2012. Spokesperson Ryan O’Shea sees the practice of human augmentation not as just a recent blip on our evolutionary timeline, but as the story of the human race. Fire, language, the internet and automobiles are all life-enhancing technologies that have expanded human horizons. “We’ve been augmenting ourselves through technology for millennia. This is just an extension of that.”

O’Shea isn’t the only one in the industry to see the potential of cyborg-style “biohacking,” which differentiates itself from other forms of biological enhancement by explicitly using technology to augment the body, as opposed to, say, nutrition. London’s Cyborg Nest, Melbourne’s, Seattle’s Dangerous Things and Elon Musk’s latest venture, Neuralink Corp., all have their sights set on capitalizing on a deeper union of humanity with technology.

One of Grindhouse’s primary projects is the second generation of the Circadia, a powered subdermal device that reads biometric data from inside the body and transmits it via Bluetooth to specialized apps, helping the user to gain “the intelligence to make sense of that data and find patterns in the noise to help you make sense of you.” O’Shea gives the example of an implant that could alert you when you’re starting to get stressed out by reading your body temperature, or even your biochemical levels. It could then sync with other smart devices to reroute you to a more scenic driving route home, play calming music or adjust the air temperature and humidity of your environment—helping to mitigate the situation rather than forcing us to remain “a slave to the biology that we don’t understand.”

There is also a slowly increasing acceptance of such technologies in the workaday landscapes of offices and shopping centers. Sweden’s Epicenter business hub and Wisconsin’s Three Square Market, for example, are allowing their employees to opt in to cyborgism. Implantable radio frequency identification (RFID) chips allow the wearer to seamlessly move through control systems without flashing physical credentials. The implanted chip works the same as a fob tapped to a keycard reader at the office, or waving your smartphone near a card reader to pay for something. The difference here is that it’s a bit more streamlined—you carry your bank account and your documentation with you internally in the form of a chip, usually implanted between the thumb and forefinger. RFID chips then use near-field communication to transmit personal data. While some applications of these chips do have a sinister corporate ring and major concerns have arisen around the fact that some can be hacked (though MIT did develop a largely hack-proof prototype in 2016), early adopters find convenient uses for the technology—using them to open car, home and office doors, unlock phones and more.

As RFID implants slowly gain footing in the world, it will take time for society to catch up with the technology. One man in Australia, for example, found himself facing legal trouble when he couldn’t produce his train pass—because his fare was loaded onto a chip in his hand instead. While many people with implants are unburdened from toting around the stuff of their life, others are running into issues created by incomprehension or slowness to adapt. Despite some inevitable issues arising around its early use, a lot of useful functionality is contained within a small chip that carries less risk than an ear piercing.

These kinds of implantable devices push the possibilities of personal technology beyond common wearables like the Fitbit and the Apple Watch—what O’Shea describes as “glorified pedometers”—and into the realm of permanent upgrades. There are implantable magnets that interpret UV and thermal information, and devices that create new senses in the human body, like the ability to sense electromagnetic fields and vibrate when the wearer faces true north. Although these specific augmentations may not be useful for the average person, they reflect Harbisson and Ribas’ vision of cyborgism—that is, integrated devices that offer increased awareness of the outside world and an expanded relationship with it.

“We are at the very beginning of this transformation—this renaissance of our species.”

The loosest interpretations of cyborgism—the melding of humanity with technology—make many of us cyborgs already. Some anthropologists have defined huge numbers of modern humans as cyborgs because of our attachment to smartphones; people with pacemakers and prosthetics fit even more squarely into the category.

Entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, through ventures such as Neuralink Corp., are expanding the immediate possibilities for what this melding might look like by developing the blueprint for a computer-brain interface. Dubbed “neural lace,” this still largely speculative technology could present a whole range of possibilities that once only seemed possible in cyberpunk novels. Such an interface could allow the human nervous system to directly communicate with computing devices, enhancing memory and potentially alleviating or eliminating symptoms of degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer’s. In wilder suppositions, researchers suggest that with neural lace incorporated into the brain, users could upload and download their own thoughts.

“We need to augment humanity if we want to remain relevant,” O’Shea says. Really, it’s happening whether we like it or not—our cell phones are getting closer and closer to us, implants are becoming more common and more useful, and artificial technology is growing up right alongside all of this, helping make sense of the data. “This is actually coming—it’s going to be here,” he says prophetically, but adds that this version of the future really isn’t scary to imagine.

For some cyborgists, it’s already here. “We are at the very beginning of this transformation—this renaissance of our species,” Harbisson says. For now, the early adopter artists and scientists are directing our evolution through their varied visions of what cyborgism will look like.

“The union between humans and technology is inevitable,” Ribas says. “We are the ones that need to make sure this union is positive, not negative.”