I talked with a real life cyborg, and now I’m convinced ‘cyborgism’ is the future

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neil harbisson cyborgSkye Gould/Business Insider

A little over a year ago, a good friend of mine casually
mentioned over sushi that he can’t wait to have magnets installed
in his fingertips.

He said he wants to pick up silverware just by touching it.

At first, I thought the statement was pure fantasy — the kind of
harebrained idea this particular friend has become known for in
our circle.

Then, a couple months later, I
talked to Neil Harbisson
, and suddenly the idea seemed less
crazy.

Harbisson is a 32-year-old cyborg. Twelve years ago, he had an
antenna surgically implanted into his skull, which picks up
nearby light waves and converts them into sound. For Harbisson,
who was born colorblind, the antenna allows him to “hear” color.

He’s among the most recent guests on this season of Codebreaker, the podcast from
Marketplace and Business Insider. Harbisson’s episode, “The
Augmented Self,” includes stories from multiple cyborgs who are
modifying their body in high-tech ways. More than that, he says
cyborgism could help save our species. (Listen to a short clip
below.) 

“If we want to surive for thousands or hundreds of thousands of
years, we need to change our bodies,” Harbisson says. We need to
adapt to interact more intimately with our surroundings.


neil harbissonEnrique Calvo/Reuters

I believe Harbisson when he makes these far-reaching claims, as I
did last year when we spoke. Humans’ relationship to technology
is growing more intimate by the microsecond. Eventually —
Harbisson suspects within the next 10 to 15 years — part-human,
part-machine “cyborgs” will become the norm.

“I think it will happen in the late twenties that I will be able
to walk out in the street and it will be normal,” Harbisson told
me, referring to his antenna. “Just as it’ll be normal to see
someone else with a new body part.”

When Harbisson and I spoke, he talked about the Internet as a
“bodily sense.” In the same way we taste food and feel textures
to interact with the world, Harbisson believes humans will use
the Internet to understand the world through information and
data.

In reality, this already happens. When we want to know something,
we Google it. We outsource our brainpower to the Internet. In
Harbisson’s case, the internet lets him “perceive” sunrises sent
from Australia. He “hears” the colors of the sunrise and the
image is right there in his brain, creating the sensation that
he’s actually there.

For the general population, cyborgism represents the logical next
step in the evolution of tech’s role in our lives.

What’s the difference between a fitness-tracking wristband and a
microchip that performs the same function, but lives just a few
millimeters deeper, underneath your skin?

The idea may still violate some people’s ideas of personhood, but
new technologies always make the majority of people uncomfortable
at first.

In 1551, Swiss scientist Conrad Gessner
panicked
that humanity would suffocate from 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. Up until recently, if you used a
hands-free device
to talk on the phone, you looked a little
crazy.

“At the beginning it was weird to see people talking on
their own, and people would laugh or point at others because it
looked very weird,” Harbisson says. “Now you see people every day
talking without using the phone, so it looks like they’re talking
to themselves. And it’s become normal.”

Soon, chip implants will seem normal, too.

Listen below to the latest episode of Codebreaker, and subscribe on

iTunes
or wherever you get your podcasts. 

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