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The sound of colours

For Neil Harbisson colours are vibrations he perceives in his skull. Interestingly, he can hear the sounds of colours that we cannot see, like the ones in infrared and ultraviolet. Credit: TED

First of all this is nothing new: Neil Harbisson was born (in 1984) with a genetic anomaly that does not allow him to see colours. His world was a palette of greys. Neil made the headlines in 2004 when he had an antenna implanted on his skull with a chip that converted the colours captured by the antenna (made of optical fibers) into vibrations, sounds.  He is a musician, with a natural and educated capability in appreciating the subtle nuances of sounds. That is why he decided to have colours translated into sounds, music, a language he understand.
Over time his brain adapted and started to “see colours” matching them with specific vibrations. In 2010 Neil co-founded the Cyborg foundation and in 2017 the Transpecies Society to foster the evolution towards the expansion of human senses and interaction with non human beings, including artefacts.

I stumbled onto Neil’s case as I was researching for a number of posts I am planning in the coming weeks on “transhumanism”. One of the characteristics of humans 2.0 will be to have expanded sensing capabilities. Now, you might say that Neil had a restricted, limited sensing capabilities since he couldn’t see colours. Correct. However, the prosthetics he had implanted captured a broader light spectrum, including ultraviolet (visible to bees but not to humans) and infrared (visible to snakes but not to humans).

Hence, with that visual prosthetics Neil got superpower! He can see the light emitted by a remote control (infrared) and he can see many more hues in a daisy, as a bee can do.

It would required just a few little modification to his chip and to the antenna for him to be able to see radio waves, look at a smartphone and see when it is talking or when it is connected to the internet!

Take a look at the presentation Neil gave at one TED to hear from his voice how it “looks like” to hear the sounds of colours. It is surely something that made me think, and I bet will make you think!

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.