Impromptu Man

History, bioethics, neuroscience and culture

The Artist, the Bull, and the Implanted Antenna

Is a color-blind artist with an artificial body part performing the future?

It had to happen. Color-blind artist Neil Harbisson has been reported to have had an antenna surgically implanted that allows him to “see” colors by having visual frequencies converted into sounds. The contraption curls up over his head from the back of his skull. There is a kind of vertical halo effect to his antenna. He needs an extra four inches of clearance when he walks under tree branches or through doors.

In a CNN interview, Harbisson acknowledges that it wasn’t easy to find a surgeon willing to implant the device, noting that “there’s bioethical committees that don’t really agree.” He’s right that “enhancement” is a matter of furious debate among bioethicists. However, unless the innovative procedure was part of a formal clinical trial or if the device were not already approved for use, it wouldn’t necessarily be subject to regulation. But no surgery is risk-free. At the very least there is always the possibility of infection. Whoever agreed to do this for Harbisson (who doesn’t disclose the surgeon’s identity), had to have made a calculation that the risks were worth the benefits to his patient. Other medical risks will be incurred if and when the device is removed, either because it stops working or because Harbisson forgets to duck.

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One has to credit Harbisson for his commitment to his art. It’s not a risk I would have taken. My guess is that he found a surgeon in Spain, where he reportedly lived before moving to New York City, and where there are far fewer lawsuits than in the U.S. that could discourage innovative surgery for purposes of enhancement rather than therapy.

The Spanish connection would have a nice historical resonance. In 1963, armed only with a radio-equipped transmitter, an audacious neuroscientist named Jose Delgado stepped into a bullring in Cordoba with an animal bred to fight. As the bull charged at Delgado, he pushed a button on the device he called a stimoceiver, which activated an electrode implanted in the bull’s brain, causing it to stop dead in its tracks but otherwise unharmed. Not satisfied to perform this feat of scientific courage once that day, Delgado conducted the same demonstration with bull after bull, each one halting in its tracks as the button was pushed.

Harbisson thinks of himself as a cyborg, a combination of human being and machine. He notes that he doesn’t merely wear his metal antenna but is connected to and inhabits it, as it inhabits him. There are lots of cyborgs around these days, from cardiac, hearing impaired, and spinal patients with various kinds of electrical and mechanical implants to do-it-yourselfers who hope to get some cognitive edge with transcranial stimulators. What sets Harbisson apart is that, as an artist, the very act of implantation and public display is a kind of performance art, not unlike the performance of the matador who waves a cape in front of the bull on the assumption that he is not color-blind.

 

Jonathan D. Moreno is a the David and Lyn Silfen University Professor of Ethics at The University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. more...

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