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Design Indaba 2019: meet the world's first cyborg artist

Artist Neil Harbisson was born with a rare form of colour blindness called achromatopsia, meaning he sees the world in greyscale. Or, at least, did until he invented an antenna that converts colour in to sound and had it implanted into his skull. 

Speaking at Design Indaba 2019 yesterday, Harbisson explained to an intrigued audience how the antenna enables him to recognise colour via a sensor that picks up the light frequencies in front of him. These are sent to a chip at the back of his head that transposes the colour into sound waves, which he hears through bone conduction. 

While some might see this as an extreme measure, Harbisson made it clear that his antenna is not an addition but a very welcome new part of him. "I didn't want to wear technology, I wanted to merge with it," he said. He is the first person in the world with an antenna implanted in his skull and the first to be officially recognised as a cyborg by a government – although he admits it took him a while to convince the UK to renew his passport. 

Neil Harbisson on stage at Design Indaba 2019

Harbisson's interpretation of Martin Luther King's 'I have a Dream' speech 

Hearing colour means Harbisson is able to read people's faces and create harmonies from them. And he's read many a famous face, including Robert De Niro and James Cameron, and also translated various lyrics and speeches, including Martin Luther King's 'I have a Dream', into beautiful artwork. 

It also means he has a very interesting take on race. "People who say they are black are actually very, very dark orange," he said. And people that say that they are white are not white, they are actually very, very light orange. So there is no black or white, we are all orange.”

There is no black or white, we are all orange

Neil Harbisson

Part of his talk also included the introduction of his lifelong friend Moon Ribas, who has technology sensors of her own in the form of chips implanted in her feet that sense tectonic shifts. With a background in dance, Ribas' new senses have turned the earth into her soundtrack. With hundreds of shifts in the earth's surface every day, Ribas choreographs her dance moves based on the intensity of each shift. 

Moon Ribas performance

Moon Ribas performed specially for Design Indaba, reacting to the tectonic shifts that took place over eight minutes  

The duo believe that their artificial senses are a means to extend our knowledge of the world, something they call 'revealed reality'. And we don't know about you, but we can't wait to see how the pair explore the human senses beyond the five we're used to in the future. 

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