Transhuman rights is a burgeoning idea, and many self-described cyborgs see a battle brewing over the right to engineer their bodies and minds, expand their senses, or become “trans-species” by adopting the senses of other animals.
In 2004, cyborg activist Neil Harbisson had a Wi-Fi-enabled antenna osseointegrated into his skull. It allows the colorblind artist to hear the light frequencies of color, from visible to ultraviolet and infrared, and to receive images from this world and beyond. The operation, rejected by a bioethical committee, was eventually performed by a surgeon who required anonymity.
“The amount of people who want to become technology is growing,”
Harbisson writes. “In a way, we are all consciously or unconsciously in transition of becoming biological cyborgs —you can notice it in language. Before one would say, ‘My mobile phone is running out of battery,’ but now most people would say, ‘I’m running out of battery’ … We are already talking about technology as if we were technology.”Harbisson is not alone in taking wearable technology to its logical conclusion. In 2010, to promote the extension of the senses and protect cyborg rights, he cofounded the Cyborg Foundation with Moon Ribas. She had a seismic sensor implanted in her arm in 2013, so that she could feel earthquakes around the world. Wirelessly connected to online seismographs, the sensor translates earthquake data into vibrations that vary in intensity depending on where a quake falls on the Richter scale.
People around the world have been experimenting with body hacking for years, whether to compensate for a disability or enhance an ability. For Harbisson and Ribas, the decision stemmed from the desire to employ extended senses in their artwork.
Ribas, a choreographer, began experimenting with sensory extensions while studying experimental dance at Dartington College of Arts in England, where students were encouraged to incorporate technology into their performances.
“I always found the use of technology to be cold and distant, but I realized that if you unite technology with the dancer it could be something more personal and natural,” she says.
Harbisson and Ribas appear at Moogfest this week, as part of the festival’s transhumanism theme. On Thursday at PSI Theatre, Harbisson will give a pedicure to his friend Pau Riba, amplifying the sounds of the colors on Riba’s nails as he hears them for the audience. At the same venue Friday, Ribas will improvise a dance and percussion piece based on the movements of the Earth’s tectonic plates, as she feels them through her arm.
“For this piece, the Earth is like the composer, and I’m interpreting the rhythm,” Ribas explains.
Also on Friday, Harbisson will lead a panel discussion on becoming technology, “The Future of Our Species,” in which panelists discuss such questions as, “Are we prepared to become the designers of our own bodies and perception?” and “Will merging with technology increase our survivalpossibilities in Earth and outer space?”. Other panelists include Rich Lee, who has headphones permanently implanted in his ears; Daniel Lock, an expert on the intersection between humans and other animal species; and B.J. Murphy, a futurist and “techno-philosopher poet.”
Harbisson and Ribas believe much can be gained from incorporating technology into the human body; Harbisson cites the potential of harnessing blood flow as an energy source or the use of night vision to reduce the need for artificial light.
But—perhaps unsurprisingly, at a time when North Carolinians still can’t agree on something as relatively straightforward as transgender rights—the transhumanism movement has its critics, including people who believe that human beings have a God-given essence that should not be altered.
“Some people fear that becoming a cyborg will make us less human, but I believe the opposite,” Harbisson writes. “Becoming a cyborg will make us feel more human—it will make us feel closer to nature and to other animal species.”
Phil Torres, a Carrboro-based author and scholar at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, is an advocate of a position called”morphological freedom.”
“Morphological freedom holds that people have the right to manipulate and modify their bodies however they see fit—that is, on the one condition that such modifications don’t impinge on the rights of others,” Torres says. “As body hacking becomes more widespread, we might expect greater conflict between those who interpret it as a utopian movement and those who see it as an apocalyptic shift away from God’s intended state for humanity.”
This year the Cyborg Foundation will launch Cyborg Nest, a company that will create senses you can buy, the first of which will be the sense of orientation of a bird. The partial implant will vibrate whenever the person faces north.
But that’s beginners’ stuff. For Ribas and Harbisson, the next stop is the moon.
“Because our senses no longer need to be attached to our body, we can feel things that are happening very far from us, so my next project is to connect to the seismic activity of the moon,” Ribas says. “In one arm, I’ll be feeling earthquakes, and in the other, moonquakes.”
This article appeared in the May 18, 2016, issue of Indy Week.