Technology TED Talks

Behold, 6 real-life cyborgs

Neil Harbisson: cyborg

“I feel like a cyborg,” Neil Harbisson declares in a fascinating talk from TEDGlobal 2012.

Born color-blind, Harbisson lived in a “grayscale world,” he says — until 2003, when he began working with computer scientist Adam Montandon on an electronic eye that renders color as sound. Always attached to him, the appliance allows Harbisson to look at colors — purple, green, orange and more — and hear the shades as specific frequencies. Looking at a face or a painting is like listening to music. To him, even going to the grocery store is “like going to a nightclub.”

“At the start, I had to memorize the names you give to each color and I had to memorize the notes, but after some time, all this information became a perception,” Harbisson says of having worn the eye for eight years now. “When I started to dream in color, I felt the software and my brain had united.”

To experience the world the way Harbisson does, watch his exciting TEDTalk, “I hear color.” Below, read about other human beings who have, at least partially, melded with machines.

Steve Mann vs. McDonald’s

Steve Mann, a professor of computer engineering at the University of Toronto, pioneered the EyeTap Digital Eye Glass, a contraption that fits over his eye and allows him to “mediate reality.” EyeTap not only records real life as it’s happening for Mann, but also allows him to interact with his surroundings as if they were on a computer screen. Mann made international news this week after reporting on his blog that two employees at a McDonald’s in Paris had assaulted him, trying to take off his EyeTap and damaging the device in the process. While McDonald’s has investigated and denied the claim, Mann released a picture to the media on July 18, showing one of the employees reaching for his face. [MSNBC]

Michael Chorost: “part computer”

Born with impaired hearing, writer and technology theorist Michael Chorost was stunned when he went completely deaf in 2001. And so he had a computer implanted in his head, enabling him to hear once again. Following the experience, he wrote the book Rebuilt: How Becoming Part Computer Made Me More Human. In it, he writes, “My body is full of etched silicon crystals computing away like mad. I know what animates my ear, I know the millions of clock cycles it executes every second to connect me to the world and the people I love.”

Stelios Arcadiou and his extra ear

In his TEDTalk, Neil Harbisson suggests, “Let’s stop building apps for mobile phones and start building apps for our bodies.” Australian performance artist Stelios Arcadiou, better known as Stelarc, agrees. In 2009, he had a third ear — reportedly grown from cells in a lab — surgically implanted in the flesh of his arm.  It took him 10 years to find a doctor willing to perform this surgery. Eventually, Arcadiou plans to install transmitters in his new ear so that it can actually “hear.” [The Guardian]

Rob Spence, the Eyeborg

Filmmaker Rob Spence injured one of his eyes in a shotgun accident. And so, he had the eye replaced with a prosthetic containing a video camera inside. While it doesn’t connect to his optic nerve or brain, the camera is able to record what Spence sees—pretty handy for a filmmaker. Spence hosted a video series, sponsored by game maker Square Enix, where he traveled the globe interviewing others with futuristic body parts. He chronicles the project on his website Eyeborg. As he says in one video, “I am now filming your bionic hand … with my bionic eye.” [Popular Science]

Jerry Jalava’s handy USB port

After a motorcycle accident, Jerry Jalava needed a prosthetic index finger. However, Jalava hoped for a more useful appendage. And so he embedded a 2GB USB drive in the tip of the prosthetic. When not in use, the drive is covered by a plastic and looks just like an average finger. [Gizmodo]

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Or is everyone technically a cyborg? The term is defined as an “organism to which exogenous components have been added for the purpose of adapting to new environments.” While this includes anyone with a pacemaker or prosthetic, in a talk given at TEDWomen, anthropologist Amber Case suggests: “You are all actually cyborgs, just not the ones you think.” What makes us all cyborgs? The external electronic brains we call smartphones …

“You are not RoboCop or The Terminator,” she continues. “But you are cyborgs every time you look at your computer screen or use one of your cell phone devices.”