Wednesday marked the release of Google Glass, the augmented reality headset in development at Google. The slim-profiled glasses, currently only in limited release for testing and trials, give users hands free-access to all the typical information they might want to get from Google (maps, weather, messages and search results, for example) as well as the ability to take photo and video by speech command. The official release was not only a step in a positive direction for Google, it was also a success for people like Neil Harbisson, the president and founder of the Cyborg Foundation.
Neil Harbisson was born with the ability to see in only black and white. Unsatisfied with experiencing the world this way, he worked in conjunction with Adam Montandon to develop the first eyeborg. Just a small cybernetic camera, the eyeborg is worn on a head mount that allows wearers to experience colors by emitting different frequency sounds to correspond to different colors. When his passport photo was taken with him wearing his eyeborg, Harbisson considered himself to be the first officially recognized cyborg.
Harbisson didn’t stop the eyeborg project at just seeing a selection of normally visible colors. To start, eyeborg lets wearers distinguish a large variety of color hues by tones and differing levels of saturation by volume. On top of this, the eyeborg can even be configured to detect infra-red and ultra-violet light, extending even the best human vision capabilities. The creation of this super-human ability highlights Harbisson’s goal in starting the Cyborg Foundation. The foundation’s mission is not directly to aid the disabled, though their work does that, but to support “projects related to extending and creating new senses and perceptions by applying technology to the human body.”
This mission is surprising, as the most common and well-received cyborgs are generally those with prosthetics or medical implants which help them work towards leading normal lives. Some applications are particularly impressive, such as the C-Leg system, a leg replacement which helps amputees to walk better by using sensors to help replicate a natural walking pattern. Cochlear implants that attempt to replicate a natural hearing experience for deaf patients are also an incredible medical development. Until recently, however, these types of cyber implants were simply trying to regain senses or abilities that had been lost or were missing.
Harbisson with his super eyeborg, or Kevin Warwick of Project Cyborg, who had electrodes which linked his nervous system to the internet, are pushing the boundaries of how humans and technology can interact. These cyborgs are trying not to replicate the average human experience, but to augment it in ways that would be impossible without advanced technology. Whether this is fair or ethical is generally still undecided. Google Glass may not yet seem like all that serious a project, but it’s not far from the same ethical questions often posed to Harbisson or Warwick.
If what Harbisson said is true, that “it’s not the union between the eyeborg and [his] head that converts [him] into a cyborg but the union between the software and [his] brain,” then cybernetic implants represent a pressing ethical dilemma that’s difficult to pin down. There is something many people find unsettling about altering the human experience in such a fundamental way as creating what is basically a sixth sense. Thanks to mass market products like Google Glass, however, cyborg technology could become so ubiquitous that the average person might someday have access to it. For people like Harbisson, Google Glass represents a step towards a mainstream discussion of cyborg rights. If this happens, the human population could quickly become a cyborg population and, in an act of evolution much quicker than any of the world has seen, acquire a sixth sense and more.