The word “cyborg” tends to evoke one of two concepts in popular culture: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s emotionless Terminator or Star Trek’s collectively-minded Borg. But as intimidating and out-there as those images may be, the reality of cybernetics is both nearer than you might think and much less threatening—perhaps even a little mundane. While wearable tech such as Google Glass allows users to augment their reality and go full bore sci fi, a few people have gone even further—specifically, under the skin—to augment their physical selves. These individuals constitute the first wave of real cyborgs.
5 Kevin Warwick
Professor Kevin Warwick is a British engineer who specializes in the fields of robotics and cybernetics, teaching the latter at the University of Reading in the U.K. Having long had an interest in artificial intelligence and transhumanism—the process of using technology to “upgrade” one’s body and mind—Warwick spearheaded and took part in Project Cyborg. Beginning in 1998, Warwick and his team aimed to answer the question “What happens when a man is merged with a computer?” according to the professor’s page on the University of Reading’s website.
The first step—Project Cyborg 1.0—constituted implanting a radio-frequency identification (RFID) chip in the professor’s arm so the research team could learn how effectively implants could interact with nearby technology. According to a piece the engineer wrote in Wired, this allowed him to open doors in his lab and turn the lights off and on with just his presence. The second step, 2.0, took place in 2002, when Warwick had an array of 100 electrodes surgically implanted into his left arm, interfacing his nervous system with the Internet and allowing him to manipulate a separate mechanical hand and an electric wheelchair hooked up to the network. The University of Reading’s site said he was able to use the array to communicate with his wife Irena, who had a more simplified version of the array connected to her own nervous system.
4 Jens Naumann
Canadian Jens Naumann lost his vision after two separate incidents involving shrapnel, according to the Kingston Whig-Standard. He was adapting to a life without sight—tuning pianos, farming using guide-wires—until he heard of a study being conducted by the Portugal-based Dobelle Institute, which he said aimed to use cameras wired “straight to the brain” to emulate a primitive form of human vision. After being selected as a candidate for the program, Naumann said he spent $130,000 Canadian—less than half of that donated—to pay for the surgery in 2002.
The pair of jacks, when inserted into his skull, let Naumann experience a simulacra of vision for the first time in years, and he said he was able to drive around a parking lot shortly after the procedure was completed. However, the quality of his artificial vision degraded over time, and with the death of the institute’s founding doctor, William H. Dobelle, the implants could not be properly maintained or improved upon. Naumann had the largely titanium jacks removed when they began “infecting badly,” according to the Whig-Standard profile, thus losing his vision permanently. The former cyborg now works as a firewood-seller and designing and installing green energy technology for the home. He still has the implants in his possession, and wrote a book, Search for Paradise, about his experiences.
3 Neil Harbisson
Before he became a cyborg and founded the Cyborg Foundation, contemporary artist Neil Harbisson contended with achromatopsia, a vision disorder that impacts the ability to see colour. Complete achromatopsia, such as Harbisson’s condition, renders the world entirely in greyscale for those it afflicts. According to the Irish Times, the British-born Harbisson originally worked only in black and white, and in a profile in the Independent the artist revealed he used to dress exclusively in those two shades.
According to a piece in Internazionale, Harbisson met Plymouth University student Adam Montandon in 2003 at Harbisson’s school, Dartington College of Arts, where the latter was putting on a talk about cybernetics. Together, the two devised the “Eyeborg,” a sensory implant that could translate colours into frequencies of sound so a colour-deficient individual like Harbisson himself could experience colour as an artificial form of synesthesia (where an association forms between two or more senses). An article in the International Contemporary Art Magazine says that through numerous advances, Harbisson is now able to perceive over 360 hues using various tones and volumes; another piece in el País says that he is even able to sense infrared and ultraviolet wavelengths, which naturally cannot be seen as they are beyond the normal range of human vision. The current model of the Eyeborg is an antenna mounted to his skull via the occipital bone.
Harbisson is legally recognized as a cyborg, having won an appeal to appear in his passport photo with the Eyeborg attached, and as founder of the Cyborg Foundation he aims to raise awareness and knowledge of cyborgs in society and promote the creation of new sensations and interactions through technology.
2 Moon Ribas
Catalan dancer and choreographer Moon Ribas is a co-founder of the Cyborg Foundation, and has frequently collaborated with her fellow founder (and fellow cyborg) Neil Harbisson. Since 2008, Ribas has embarked on three projects that have utilized cybernetic implants to augment her perceptions. The first phase was a custom-made glove that could accurately measure the speed of nearby moving objects. This glove evolved into a pair of special “speedborg” earrings (pictured above) that, according to German publication Weltenschummler, vibrated in response to nearby presences. A television documentary showed that in time, Ribas was able to use her readings to determine the ideal speed for walking through a part of Barcelona without encountering a red light.
For the second phase, Ribas turned the speedborg earrings around, allowing her to detect if someone or something approached her from behind (later modified to a full 360°, according to BBC Radio). Phase three, “Seismic Sense,” saw Ribas attach a seismic sensor to her elbow, which a piece in mb! by Mercedes-Benz said would resonate if an earthquake occurred worldwide. The vibrations, which vary based on intensity of the sensed earthquake, have been incorporated into one of Ribas’ experimental dance installations called Waiting for Earthquakes.
1 Zoë Quinn
Best known for empathic text adventure Depression Quest, American independent video game designer Zoë Quinn entered the world of cybernetics in just the last couple months. Her first implant, or “augment” as she calls it—she tweeted that she felt “implant” had a very different connotation these days—was a magnet in the tip of left ring finger that allows her to attract loose change from an inch away as well as enable new intimacy with the technology she regularly works with, according to a Q&A on her blog.
Even more recently, she and her assistant inserted a specially-made NTAG216 near field communication chip into the same hand. The chip can interact with other NFC-capable devices at close range and can be reprogrammed on the fly using her smartphone. One of her first experiments was—quite fittingly—uploading a Steam key for the cybernetic-centric video game Deus Ex to her hand, which could be transmitted if a NFC device was held near it (or if someone else with a chip high-fived her). Quinn is attempting to “open source” her experiences, tools and devices so to make augments accessible to everyone and “not just people with money.”