Neil Harbisson. I’m a cyborg and I have nature at heart

Neil Harbisson is the first recognized cyborg in history: he can hear colours thanks to an electronic eye. We met him and discovered he’s also an environmentalist.

Artist Neil Harbisson, born in Northern Ireland and raised in Barcelona, Spain, was born with a rare form of colour blindness – achromatopsia. Then something changed and since the age of 21 he’s been living with a technological antenna attached to his head that can turn colours into frequencies and, thus, sounds. His new condition allowed him to combine different forms of art and create music from all coloured things he meets in his life: from a human face to food, from a supermarket shelf to a tree. He can even hear the music of a painting, of a Picasso’s work of art. His condition led him to become the first person with the cyborg status at the UK civil registry.

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The project of his “electronic eye” is a result of the collaboration between innovation expert Adam Montandon, Slovenian Peter Kese and Catalan Matias Lizana. We met Harbisson in occasion of the Singularity University Summit held on 27 and 28 September in Milan, Italy, and we also talked about his commitment to the environment.

What was it like to “hear” the green of the leaves on the trees for the first time?
Nature in general is very microtonal, there are different shades of green and brown. The frequencies of nature are very close to each other, there are a lot of waves that touch each other. It’s surprising to feel that nature vibrates a lot, because the frequencies of colours are close to each other. A forest has a lot of vibrations that create rhythm, whereas in supermarkets is very different. You hear different notes that are very different from each other, they don’t touch each other. But in nature colour are touching each other very closely.

Some indigenous communities in the Amazon have up to 16 words to say “green”, as the area is so rich in biodiversity that one word isn’t enough. Can you also perceive the shades of the colours?
There are so many greens and so many blues. There’s less yellow and red: I have like 30 reds, 30 oranges, and 30 yellows. But I have like 90 different greens and blues. The spectrum is much wider in green and blue than in red or orange. So we have more variations. In nature there are a lot of shades. Artificially, we have a very pure green, in the middle of the spectrum. In nature you have a lot of variations.

What is your favourite colour?
My favourite colour is infra-red, an invisible colour for humans. I can sense it through my antenna, it’s present in many spaces. I can also sense ultra violet and its level in some flowers. Sometimes a flower doesn’t look interesting, but it has a high level of ultra violet and it suddenly becomes very interesting. I like the antenna because it connects me with nature in a deeper way than my body does. That’s why one of my favourite colours is infra-red, it’s a colour that our species could not sense.

You saved three trees in Mataró by climbing and living in them for several days. Did you go back to see those trees (and their colours)? Are they still there?
Yes, they’re still there. They were planted in 1882 so they are more than a hundred years old now. When I climbed on them was 2001, so 16 years ago and they’re still there. The city hall said that they were ill and so they had to cut them. I thought it was a lie. I protested but the city hall wasn’t paying attention so I climbed on the tree and I lived there for several days. This brought a lot of attention – even the national television came. So it became national news that not only me but other people climbed (there were three trees). So we were a group of teenagers on trees and in the end the city hall said that they would not cut them. It was a very special period for me. Because you see life differently when you are on a tree. It’s very simple but when you are on top of the tree everything becomes different. You see life from above, surrounded by nature, as trees have a lot of leaves. I could also see the daily routine of people, waking up at 5 and going to work. First it was the immigrants, many African taking the train at 5 a.m.. Then you could see people going to the supermarket or to church. Then I could see children going to school. Then people working and then the siesta time. That was very simple but really interesting.

Have you joined other forms of protest to protect the environment?
Always, since I was a child, to protect animals and nature. I am a vegetarian since I was allowed to be a vegetarian. I was 6 or 7 and my mother told me that what I was eating was an animal. I felt sick, I felt it was wrong eating another animal. But my parents didn’t allow me to become a vegetarian until I was 11. I’m still vegetarian, I don’t eat other species because I respect them. I would never kill another animal.

I’ve always been interested in nature and I became a cyborg because I’m interested in nature, not technology. I have no interest in technology. Technology is only the way I can connect with nature in a deeper way. I can sense nature in a much deeper way now that I have an antenna than before. And that’s my aim. We, as a species, have been changing the planet for thousands of years, redesigning it in order to survive. And I think this is wrong. Instead of designing the Planet we should design ourselves. For example, we use artificial light as we are unable to see at night. But this is wrong. We should not create artificial light, we should have night vision. If we had night vision, cities will be dark and this will be better for the environment and other species because at night it should be dark.

Technology should not change the environment but the individual. And this would be the biggest benefit to Earth. Another example is air conditioning and heating. In the summer we put air conditioning so the Planet gets colder and in winter we warm up the Planet. And this is ridiculous. We should be able to control our own temperature. It should be much more practical. If we can control our temperature there won’t be air conditioning and heaters.

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