Jul 29, 2013

The third eye that hears - about Neil Harbisson

I live with a few friends in a bachelor bunk and we had a small screen TV at our home. One fine thunderous night, it lost its ability to show colour and typically impeded by the bachelor negligence, none of us cared to get it repaired or replaced. Every time when India plays a cricket match, we assemble in front of the TV and make a resolution to do something about the TV within a week. And thus we spent almost a year! We were so used to watching TV in black and white that when we finally replaced the TV with another one, we were collectively amazed by the phenomenon of color. It almost brought tears of wonder to my eyes to see a familiar movie song in TV but in colour for the first time. That one year taught me what magic colour can do to your senses.

My grandfather witnessed the magic when black and white movies were replaced by colour movies. My father witnessed the magic when black and white television sets were replaced by colour TVs. It was a magical experience for me to see colour display in a mobile phone after being used to the black and white displays of the early phones. What I witnessed in Neil Harbisson's speech recently took the magical experience of color to the next level.  This is stuff taken straight from the sci-fi stories! But in reality!

Neil Harbisson delivered this speech at the TEDxGateway Mumbai in 2012 and Franklin Templeton Investments partnered the event. 

Neil is a colour-blind person who had a tough time adapting to life in this colourful world before becoming a cyborg. Colour-blindness is never considered to be a very serious physical handicap by us but an affected person like Neil would know what it means to live off-stream. The world speaks in colour. We have colour codes in traffic signals, national identities, food labelling and several other areas in everyday life. Colour-blindness is like touring a foreign country without knowing its language. You are very much there but never there! The painful fact is that the colour-blind ones have to spend all their life as a mere tourist in this colour-speaking world. Neil has made the Cyborg technology his permanent visa to stay in the world and be part of the mainstream with a greatly unique identity to himself.

What did Neil do? In 2004, he became the first person ever to wear an eyeborg- a device that allows him to perceive colour through sounds. He has programmed a unique frequency to each colour depending on its wavelength. Over a period of a decade, he has developed the ability to 'hear' colours and he has overtaken us all by his ability to perceive colours beyond even our visible spectrum. #WhatAnIdeaSirjee

Imagine living a life with a constant feed of colour-related sounds into your ears and translating all that sound into colour real-time! Looks very tough. I would rather be colour-blind than be this! But that is the mistake I did while I tried to put myself into his shoes. I was trying to 'translate' sound into colour. He does not! Tell a number in billions to a normal Indian and he will not understand its magnitude until he converts it into crores mentally. If you are a native billion-user, you won't have a problem. Neil is a native-colour-hearer now! It is a new sense!

The brain is such a stubborn cockroach. It will adapt to anything. How has it adapted in Neil's case in ten years! He varies from the rest of us only in the input mode of colour sense but on the surface we are all the same. You can now tell him the joke about the guy with the pink pants on the street and he too will laugh. In fact, he can even find the guy who farted in the room with his infra-red vision. Poor Homo sapiens, we will never discover the truth! The only problem that I can perceive in Neil's case is when he attends a concert where people are dressed in all possible hues. It should be fun for him to differentiate between the music of colours around him and the music of the concert.

The journey of being a cyborg has given Neil several insights about technology and humanity. He has the best seat in the world to observe the oddities in human perception and the reluctance to accept something extra-ordinary. He has seen enough faces now to declare that there is no white skin or black skin in the world. Every skin is a variant shade of orange as per his observation and how blind have we all been till now?! In fact, I still remember when I was wondering what colour to use for painting the face of a person in a drawing class in childhood. Eventually I chose orange that day. Perhaps, children know the truth already, being closer to the Almighty.

Every face has a signature sound that Neil can interpret. If you manage to get well acquainted to him, he will even compose the ring tone corresponding to the colour tone of your face. He has mapped several cities around the world with their dominant colour codes. He casually says that he selects dresses that sound good to him rather than looking good. How different is he seeing the world?! How blessed is he?! Thank God he had an artistic side in him in addition to the technological side.

What made him blessed is the cyborg technology to which he is a passionate ambassador now. He set up the Cyborg Foundation in 2010 and has since then been involved in taking the technology to help people who are 'different'. Cyborg strikes me as a giant leap in evolution. If only man can choose what kind of a cyborg he wants to become, which may happen in all surety very soon from now, what possibilities open in front of us?! The traditional five senses shall be redefined and the lines of human perception and capability shall be redrawn.

Neil inspires me in being weird and being noted for it. He faced his problem with courage, chartered his own path to live a normal life and eventually ended up in a superior inspirational path. In the future, cyborg technology will no longer be limited to being gentle and helping the differently-abled to correct their differences. Just like the sci-fi movies, the technology can also be used to empower armies of mass destruction or create unequal balance in power among humans. As the torch-bearer of cyborg technology to humans, I also hope that Neil and his Cyborg Foundation will pave the way for constructive use of the technology so that my grand sons can live in an empowered world!

I end this post with a quote from Neil that gives a glimpse of his dreams and gives me goosebumps at the mere thought of the possibilities. “Life will be much more exciting when we stop creating applications for mobile phones and we start creating applications for our own body"- Neil Harbisson

Out of curiosity, I would give Neil two more tasks to fulfil before feeling that he has seen it all.
1. Interpret this song

2. Go saree shopping in T Nagar with my mother and assist her in selecting the matching blouse for her saree.



  1. Wonderfully written and explained :)

  2. This is amazing! Thank you for sharing this! It's interesting to think how differently he experiences the world compared to the way I do. I'll probably be thinking about this for the next several days!