We've been augmenting our bodies with technology for, well, ever, if you count clothing as technology. When you use your Apple Watch to make a voice call, it's a big step towards our bodies being the starting point we add useful equipment too.
So who has already added things to their body - and what do they do? Why did they do it? And bearing in mind the (sometimes aggressive) response to people sporting Google Glass in public, how will other non-augmented people feel about their super-human peers?
MONTAG's Kathryn Lawrence peers under the skin to find out what it takes to become a cyborg...
Extra Sensory Cyborgs
In the future, technology will give us extra senses that we can only dream of today. As it stands, our natural human senses are far inferior to those of other animals. Of course, what we lack in raw sense data, we can usually make up for with our much higher brain power, but that still doesn’t mean that we’ll ever smell as well as a dog, or see as many colors as a mantis shrimp.
Or maybe we can. With technology, anything is possible. These artists and scientists have hacked their own bodies to become cyborgs that have more senses than the average human being. Some of them are making up for deficiencies they were born with, and others simply want to see how far they can push the limits of what it means to be human.
Technologically Induced Synesthesia & Cyborg Art
If you aren’t familiar with synesthesia, it’s a rare psycho-physiological phenomenon that causes the senses to work in strange ways. Synesthetes automatically associate sounds with tastes, colors with numbers and words, smells with shapes, or any other pairing of sensory information. This involuntary cross-firing of the brain affects one in every 2000 people, with some experts suggesting that some mild forms affect one in 300.
Neil Harbisson has a form of technologically induced synesthesia. He was born with achromoplastia, and saw the world only in black and white until he was 21 years old. In 2004, he had an antenna implanted in his skull that vibrates corresponding to colors. He then feels these vibrations as sound frequencies inside of his head, including colors that human eye can’t normally perceive in the infrared and ultraviolet spectrum. These extra senses inform his art practice, and he talks extensively about the potential for this kind of technologically mediated synesthesia to revolutionize fashion, food, music, and other creative pursuits in his well-known Ted Talk.
But is he the “first cyborg artist” as some sources have claimed? Definitely not.
Stelios Arcadiou, also known as Stelarc, a performance artist born in 1946, has been augmenting his body with technology for much longer. Many of his performances have been extremely graphic in the way that he introduces technology to his body. For example, after two surgeries, he has had a third ear implanted on his arm with an embedded wi-fi enabled microphone inside, so that the ear can not only listen, but transmit sounds. He has also made performances with other, more conventional, cyborg apparatus such as a robotic arm and a massive exoskeleton.
Third Hand by Stelarc
Extra Sensory Perspectives
Moon Ribas, who is also a cyborg artist, has an augmentation that allows her to feel when there is an earthquake anywhere on the planet in real time. The implant under the skin of the inside of one of her elbows gets information from a custom iPhone app that aggregates data on seismic activity, and the strength of the vibration adjusts to translate the magnitude. She has described the sensation as “ akin to having a phone vibrate in your pocket,” and has had this extra sense for more than three years now.
She uses her seismic sense in her dance performances. In one piece called Waiting for Earthquakes, she remained still until prompted by the vibrations of the device to move. Very small earthquakes, much too minor to register for those of us without a constant stream of seismic sense data, happen approximately every 10 minutes.
Waiting For Earthquakes by Moon Ribas
Moon Ribas and Neil Harbisson are the co-founders of the Cyborg Foundation which advocates for the advancement of sense-enhancing technologies with the slogan “Design Yourself.” Along with the Cyborg Nest, which Moon is also a co-founder of, they promote technological augmentations and provide information and inspiration to aspiring cyborgs.
Cyborg Nest has developed the North Sense a $425.00 device which allows the wearer to sense magnetic north, a skill that many flying creatures such as birds and bats, already have. The sensor must be attached to the chest with two small titanium rods stuck under the skin, like a typical barbell piercing, and it vibrates gently when the wearer is facing magnetic north. It was designed to be an “entry level” cyborg device, as it doesn’t require surgery, and in fact can be installed by any licensed piercing studio.
The North Sense via Cyborg Nest
The most accessible and common cyborg augmentation today is undoubtedly a magnet inserted in one of the fingertips. When the nerve endings in the finger heal from this minor surgery, they become sensitive to electromagnetic waves. Neodymium magnets are most commonly used, and must be coated with a body-safe material such as silicon so that metals don’t leach into the blood system.
Biohackers Grindhouse Wetware have created a more advanced version that uses the magnet to transmit more complex data, such as sonar or other fields of energy. Being able to sense electromagnetic fields alone, however, can be quite useful for people who work with electronics or electricity. And there are now hundreds of biohackers who have had this procedure.
Grindhouse Wetware's Northstar Device via Wikipedia
Online retailers such as Dangerous Things and Digiwell sell body-safe magnets and implantable devices such as RFID transponders, which can be programmed to send all kind of information from inside of the body. One Swedish workplace is already using implanted RFIDs to let its employees open doors and use office equipment.
In the future, many have speculated we’ll be using implanted chips in the body instead of credit cards or IDs. An implanted chip could be used to store all of your medical records, for example. Market forces like using implanted technology for medical or financial purchases will most likely be what pushes this tech into the mainstream.
There will have to be a social function that necessitates having technology in the body for most people to accept it, and not just be an interesting – but ultimately personal and subjective – extra sensory perception.