31 Jul 2013

The Bionic Man - Sensing The Extraordinary

Neil Harbisson’s presentation at the TEDxGateway, Mumbai last year is an inspiring tale of possibilities that encompasses passion, creativity and determination. Born with acromatopsia, a condition that caused Harbisson to see the world in black and white and shades of grey, he helped develop a head mounted sensor or eyeborg that picked up colour frequencies and transposed them into sound frequencies. In 2009, the eyeborg was developed into a chip which was implanted into his head and that allowed him to also perceive infrared and ultraviolet colours which are ordinarily outside the range of human perception. It is widely accepted that Harbisson became the world’s first cyborg in 2004 when his passport photograph wearing the eyeborg was officially recognized and accepted.

The bionic implant has allowed Harbisson to pursue his passion and continue a career in contemporary art and music. This article is not limited to Neil Harbisson’s art but also touches upon the incredible transformations that are possible when science and technology are applied to enhance and assist human life experiences and to impart dignity in living.


Harbisson’s early works employ a black and white and grey palette, however his later works, not surprisingly, explore the relationship between colour and sound and our response to colour. His artworks have been exhibited during the 54th Venice Biennale, at London and Barcelona and other cities. He creates sound portraits of people by listening to the colours of faces, a fascinating concept where he listens to the different micro tone chords depending on the colours. His eyeborg picks up the different notes from the different parts of the face which he writes down on a special 360 lined manuscript paper. He has created sound portraits of Prince Charles, Leonardo DiCaprio and Woody Allen amongst others.

Harbisson created a series of paintings ‘City Colours’ by scanning capitals of various countries and representing them through two main hues. He also created a series of paintings titled ‘Colour Scores’ by transforming the first hundred notes of well-known musical pieces into colour.

I feel Harbisson’s art offers a unique perspective on abstract concepts that are precisely translated into paintings - where geometric patterns of colours follow a determinate code and progression. It is fascinating to note that Harbisson perceives the human skin not as black or white but as varying shades of orange, what an astounding discovery that must be such a blow to racists!

Social Relevance

Harbisson’s contribution in the field of cybernetics is also of great humanitarian value as it can be directly applied in medical therapy. His foundation provides an open source platform for development of software to assist people in creating individualized solutions which is a crucial step in empowering the user. The foundation is also working on creating a device that can aid the visually impaired and eliminate the need to use Braille. 
The scope of cybernetics in medicine has tremendous possibilities to aid and to restore vision, limbs and perhaps the most important of all dignity of existence. For those who have impaired faculties, it is not just the trauma of day to day living, but also the stress of having to deal with being ‘different’. A recent episode where an amputee was made to remove her artificial leg at the Mumbai Airport was widely reported in the media, but one cannot even begin to imagine the distress caused to the person in question. Harbisson takes pride in being a cyborg and it helps to reiterate the normalcy in being ‘different’ and his work is critical to sensitizing society to the differently abled.

The future is now

I am a great proponent of technology and a few years ago turned to a speech recognition tool after a minor injury and now use it for all my writing! ‘A Brief History of Time’ and other scientific contributions by Stephen Hawking may not have taken place had there been no technological intervention to assist the wheelchair bound theoretical physicist. Cybernetics has revolutionized life and health of human beings whether it is pacemakers, artificial limbs or bionic implants; it has the capacity to alter lives and sensory experiences and to allow people to pursue their passions and inculcate normalcy in their lives.

What makes an idea great is the intention behind it and an appreciation of its magic that has the power to sustain life or to eradicate it!

Franklin Templeton Investments partnered the TEDxGateway Mumbai in December 2012.
Watch the video here

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