A lot was going on during the week of March 22, 2004.
“Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed” was the No. 1 movie in the US. “Yeah!” by Usher, featuring Lil Jon and Ludacris, was at the top of the music charts.
And 21-year-old Neil Harbisson was getting a metal antenna surgically implanted into his skull.
A total of 4,189 days have passed since that surgery, and not a single one has gone by that Neil, now 32, hasn’t spoken to at least one person on the street about the long, curved cable that slopes over his head. Sometimes it’s a rude comment strangers spit at him, Neil told me recently. Sometimes they’re genuinely curious.
That has to be exhausting, I say.
“Yes,” he sighs. “But I have to get used to it.”
There is a name for people like Neil, who are part human and part machine.
Neil is a cyborg.
As a cyborg, Neil is one of an uncounted, though growing, population of people who hope to extend the paltry five senses we humans are gifted at birth.
Generally speaking, cyborgs want to experience a heightened reality. Some put microchips under their skin to replace lock-and-key entries of their homes and cars. Others use brain stimulation to improve their focus. Neil, a British-born, Catalan-raised musician and activist who now lives in New York City, has decided his antenna — known as an Eyeborg — will be his ticket to higher planes.
Once simply a tool to help him overcome his congenital colour blindness, the antenna has been upgraded over time. The camera on the end picks up nearby colours and converts the light waves into corresponding sound waves, whose frequencies Neil has memorized.
Neil still can’t see colour, but he says the antenna lets him hear and feel it.
The most recent upgrade came in 2013, when Neil’s sensor got rewired to pick up Bluetooth. Now that he has an internet connection, Neil can sync the sensor with external devices in the same way a smartphone can play music wirelessly through a speaker. He says this enables him to receive colour from other parts of the world — or completely outside it.
“There’s someone in Australia now that could use his phone and send live images of the sunrise to my head. I’d be talking to you now, but I’d be perceiving a sunrise,” Neil says. “With my mobile phone I can connect to NASA’s International Space Station and perceive the colours live from space.”
Since I am completely unable to conceptualize that idea, I ask Neil to try and clarify what he means by “perceive.”
“To me, colour is not visual,” he says. “Colour is an inner perception. Depending on the combinations of colours, I imagine something visual. So if I hear specific hues that sound very similar to a supermarket, then I suddenly feel that I’m in a supermarket. Or if someone sends the colours of a sunrise, I can imagine and visualise the sunrise because it has a very specific sound.”
Mastering that skill is proving tricky.
“It’s overwhelming” he explains. “I have to get used to hearing colour permanently, even when I sleep, since the colours from space never stop. I have to get used to that, and I think it will take around two years.”
Once he has that under his belt, he plans to install small turbines in his blood vessels so that he can charge the antenna with the energy produced by his own body.
“The sensor has its own evolution,” he says.
In the past that has made travelling around the world quiet the hassle.
“In airports it can be a bit stressful because they don’t like technology,” he tells me. “So if you are technology, then they don’t like you.”
Living in New York City leaves Neil with no shortage of social encounters. People lob insults from across the street, while kids rush up wide-eyed. Quiet social gatherings suddenly find new life whenever Neil walks in the room. Even if the guy with the antenna isn’t talking about it, someone else probably is.
And right now, that’s what Neil wants: a conversation.
In 2010, Neil co-founded the Cyborg Foundation with fellow cyborg Moon Ribas. Moon has a seismic sensor implanted in her elbow that connects to online seismographs. Whenever an earthquake strikes around the world, a vibration lets Moon know.
Neil admits the Cyborg Foundation’s stated goals — of helping people become cyborgs, defending cyborg rights, and promoting cyborgism as an art movement — are still in their infancy.
“Interest is not enough,” he says. “What we need are people willing to become cyborgs.”
But Neil is anything but pessimistic. Disruptive technology always makes people uneasy.
In 1551, Swiss scientist Conrad Gessner panicked that humanity would suffocate beneath the information overload brought on by the printing press. In his 1909 book “Are the Dead Alive?” author Fremont Rider questioned whether the voices people were hearing over the phone were actually ghosts. And only until recently, if you used a hands-free device to talk on the phone you were considered a weirdo. (Some still hold that opinion.)
There’s further evidence of early adopters. Futurist Zoltan Istvan is running for president as a member of the transhumanist party, and he plans on dropping a “cyborg bill of rights” off at the White House. He told Tech Insider that a key element of his platform is “morphological freedom”: As in, you should be able to modify your body in any way, so long as it doesn’t hurt anybody, as Neil is doing.
By the late 2020s, Neil expects that cyborgs like him will be in great company.
“I will be able to walk out in the street, and it will be normal,” he says. “Just as it will be normal to see someone else with a new body part.”
That transition may already be afoot with the advent of wearable technology. Even 10 years ago, if you wanted to keep track of how many miles you’d run that day or how many calories you’d consumed, you needed separate devices and the time to tabulate it all. Now you can store that information in your phone, watch, bracelet, tablet, or computer and have the data available immediately.
“The next stage of wearable technology will be biologically united with us,” Neil says. The internet won’t just be this ethereal force that disappears once we put our devices to sleep. It will be a direct extension of our existing senses.
To the uninitiated, that idea could sound totally frivolous. Surely the world is awesome on its own, and tinkering needlessly with what comes stock in the human body is both risky and a waste of time. Neil freely admits, for example, that he doesn’t want to live forever — a common goal of the future-obsessed.
The deeper truth is that Neil’s goal of advancing his senses is couched directly in his mortality. He knows he’ll die. He just refuses to accept the limits of human perception as it’s currently presented.
“Anything you’ve already seen or heard — if you add a new sense, suddenly reality becomes new,” he says. “It’s a new way of exploring life.”
NOW WATCH: This real-life cyborg can hear colour
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.