VIDEO: Cyborg-activist Neil Harbisson - Meet the Cyborg | Big Ideas Lecture Radboud Reflects @Inscience * 2024
VIDEO: Cyborg-activist Neil Harbisson - Meet the Cyborg | Big Ideas Lecture Radboud Reflects @Inscience * 2024

Neil Harbisson the cyborg activist and his early life

Is a Catalan-born British-Irish-American cyborg artist and activist for transpecies rights. He is best known for being the first person in the world with an antenna implanted in his skull. Since 2004, international media has described him as the world’s first legally recognized cyborg and as the world’s first cyborg artist. His antenna sends audible vibrations through his skull to report information to him. This includes measurements of electromagnetic radiation, phone calls, and music, as well as videos or images which are translated into audible vibrations. His WiFi-enabled antenna also allows him to receive signals and data from satellites.

In 2010, he co-founded the Cyborg Foundation, an international organization that defends cyborg rights, promotes cyborg art and supports people who want to become cyborgs. In 2017, he co-founded the Transpecies Society, an association that gives voice to people with non-human identities, raises awareness of the challenges transpecies face, advocates for the freedom of self-design and offers the development of new senses and organs in community.

Harbisson is the son of a Spanish mother and a Northern Irish father. He was born with achromat vision. He grew up in Barcelona, where he studied piano and began to compose music at the age of 11. At 16, he studied fine art at the Institut Alexandre Satorras, where he was given special permission to use no colour in his work. His early works are all in black and white.

As a teenager, Harbisson lived in a tree for several days in Mataró to save the trees from being cut down. His initiative was supported by over 3,000 people who signed a petition to maintain the trees. After days of protest, the city hall announced the trees would not be cut. At the age of 19, he moved to England to study music composition at Dartington College of Arts.


Neil Harbisson and his work

Neil defines his work as cyborg art, the art of designing new senses and new organs, and the art of merging with them. He compares his practice with sculpture; his aim is to mould his mind in order to create new perceptions of reality.

Sound Colour: Cyborg Antenna

The Cyborg Antenna is a sensory system created to extend colour perception. It is implanted and osseointegrated in Harbisson’s head, and it sprouts from within his occipital bone. It has been permanently attached to Harbisson’s head since 2004, and it allows him to feel and hear colours as audible vibrations inside his head, including colours invisible to the human eye such as infrareds and ultraviolets.

The antenna also allows internet connection and therefore the reception of colour from other sensors or from satellites. Harbisson began developing the antenna at college in 2003 with Adam Montandon, and it was upgraded by Peter Kese and Matias Lizana, among others. The antenna implant surgery was repeatedly rejected by bioethical committees but went underway regardless by anonymous doctors.

In 2014, Harbisson executed the world’s first skull-transmitted painting. Colours sent from audience members in Times Square as they painted simple coloured stripes onto a canvas were received live via internet directly into Harbisson’s brain. He correctly identified and painted the same colour stripes onto a canvas in front of an audience at The Red Door, 10 blocks away from Times Square.

Neil Harbisson, the first cyborg legally recognized by a government

Neil Harbisson had always been unable to see colours, so in 2004 he had an antenna implanted in his head. Since then, he can not only hear colours, he also became officially recognized as a cyborg by the British government.

In 2004, Harbisson’s British passport renewal was rejected. The UK Passport Office would not allow him to appear with an electronic device on his head. Harbisson wrote back explaining that he identified as a cyborg and that his antenna should be treated as an organ not a device. After weeks of correspondence, Harbisson’s photo was accepted.

Awards of Neil Harbisson

  • 2018 Guinness World Record. Guinness Book of Records.
  • 2016 Tribeca X Award.Tribeca Film Festival, New York.
  • 2015 Futurum Award. Futurum, Monaco.
  • 2014 Bram Stoker Gold Medal. Trinity College, Dublin.
  • 2013 Focus Forward Grand Jury Award. Sundance Film Festival, USA.
  • 2010 Cre@tic Award 2010. Tecnocampus Mataró.
  • 2009 Phonos Music Grant. IUA Phonos, Spain.
  • 2005 Best Performing Story. ResearchTV, UK.
  • 2004 Innovation Award, 2004. Submerge (Bristol, UK).
  • 2004 Europrix Multimedia Award. Vienna, Austria.
  • 2001 & 2010 Stage Creation Award. IMAC Mataró, Spain.

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