Fred Freeman's portrayal of cyborgs in the July 11, 1960 issue of LIFE magazine Fred Freeman’s portrayal of cyborgs in the July 11, 1960 issue of LIFE magazine.

There are three domains where humans lack perception as a result of biological constraints. First, there is information outside of the human range, such as ultraviolet light undetectable to the naked eye. The second area is perception not within our proximity, such as a tree falling in a forest with no one around. The final area in which humans lack perception is in abstract systems, such as fluctuations in a stock market. We have tools that aid us in obtaining information from each of these categories: cameras can pick up ultraviolet light, video-chatting can transmit information across the globe, and screens show you what’s happening in your social network. Although these tools deliver information, they do not aid in perception. The differences between information and perception amount to the differences between air and breathing. Air exists with or without you, but breathing is the process by which your body consumes air. Similarly, information exists everywhere, but perception is the process by which your body detects and interprets information.

Perception is a skill, perception is empowering, and perception causes beauty. Information is finite, objective, and universal; perception is infinite, subjective, and unique. Thus humans think differently about the same information because of differences in perception. This leads to a diversity of thoughts, and what separates renowned individuals is their keen perception. Steve Jobs is not known as a skillful engineer, but rather as a gifted perceiver; computer trends were there for everyone to see, but it was Steve’s unique ability to see what others could not, along with his gifted orchestrating, that produced Apple. Being able to augment perception increases the potential of thought.

Our perception is currently grounded in the human umwelt [pronounced oom-velt], the environment that humans perceive in the world. The human eye can detect colors ranging from red at 390 nanometers (nm) to violet at 700 nm. This does not mean colors above and below this range do not exist, it means that our eyes have not developed the ability to pick up this information. Humans emit infrared light because of the heat of our bodies, and while we do not appear red to each other, certain snakes can perceive infrared through pits on their noses. This is part of a snake’s umwelt, and although it is not through their eyes, even blind snakes can “see” infrared. Every organism has a unique umwelt that allows it to interact, survive, and communicate. We use the phrase “blind as a bat” because a bat’s eyesight is terrible in comparison to human standards, but by that rationale, humans are blind compared to hawks. And although bats are “blind,” they do not constantly fly into cave walls because they see through sound, a process known as echolocation.

Daniel Kish lost the use of his eyes at 13 months old, but it would be false to categorize him as blind. Daniel learned to use echolocation, an adjustment on the traditional human umwelt by adding a new dimension that is not common for humans. When Daniel uses echolocation, the visual cortex of his brain activates, meaning his brain is seeing with sound the same way we do with our eyes. The ability to modify your instinctual umwelt is part of neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to change throughout life. Just as our minds can adapt to different environments, our bodies can change to suit new scenarios because of somaplasticity. Acclimatization is the process through which our bodies adjust to changes in the environment, such as when your skin darkens in response to increased sun exposure, thus preparing itself to better defend against harmful UV rays. Our bodies are hard-wired to acclimatize in order to maintain optimal performance, but we often introduce tools when our bodies reach their natural limits. Eye correction surgery is an example of technosomaplasticity, the shaping of our body using technology. Just as we can shape our bodies through technology, we can also shape our minds. Cyborgism is the process through which our bodies experience technoneuroplasticity, the adaption of the mind through brain and software cooperation. By combining technology with our bodies and minds, humans will soon be able to perceive in the areas we previously could not.

Daniel Kish demonstrates sonar to an audience at TED Daniel Kish demonstrates sonar to an audience at TED.

Humans are only able to perceive an infinitesimally small portion of their environment. Beneath our environment lies the unterumwelt, information that exists outside the range of our innate senses. All of our senses perceive only a sliver of what is around us. Neil Harbisson was born color-blind, but he now perceives color through the help of a new organ, a fiber optic cable installed in his head. The cable retrieves color information and vibrates bones in Neil’s head to produce sound1, with every color translating to a unique pitch. Fiber optics are superior to human eyes in detecting color, meaning Neil can understand more colors than regular humans can, including ultraviolet and infrared light. Many animals perceive in ways that we cannot comprehend; lobsters navigate using magnetic fields, an ability known as magnetoreception. Sharks have electroreception - they can detect electrical stimuli. Imagine being able to understand the state of your phone in the same way you understand the current alignment of your body. This form of digital proprioception extends beyond information conveyed in a status bar to an intimate subconscious connection between body and device, mind and software. Unterumwelt allows us to perceive information external to our natural senses, which gives humans the abilities necessary to gain a deeper understanding of the rules underlying the universe at a micro level.

Neil's cybernetic limb floats just above his head. Neil’s cybernetic limb floats just above his head.

All of our senses are further limited by the proximity of information. We frequently use technology to share information over great distance, such as making a phone call to someone across the globe. Beyond our environment is the uberumwelt, perception separate from space and time. Moon Ribas can feel earthquakes regardless of where on the earth they occur. Moon’s seismic sense is possible because of a haptic motor installed in her elbow that is connected to online seismographs. Teleportation is common in science fiction but remains out of reach in real life. Since teleportation is used to mean a single object moving around space instantly, being able to perceive at different locations at the same time goes beyond teleportation by allowing us to incorporate the environment from many places instantaneously. Can you prove, with absolute certainty, that your physical body is not just a sensor hub sharing perceptions with an owner? Having the ability to comprehend what is happening on a universal scale provides a strong macro understanding for how the universe functions.

In another experiment, Moon wears earrings that allow her to sense movement behind her. In another experiment, Moon wears earrings that allow her to sense movement behind her.

The final area where humans lack perception is the abstraktumwelt, environments that exist in thought and information, but have no physical manifestation. The unterumwelt and uberumwelt will help us understand the universe, but the abstraktumwelt will help us understand ourselves. David Eagleman and his team at Baylor College of Medicine developed VEST, a wearable that translates data into haptic patterns. As part of his TED talk, David showed how VEST could be used in conjunction with software that parses sentiment information from Twitter. Someone using VEST can perceive information occurring in abstract systems such as Twitter or the stock market. Being able to perceive the thoughts of a group or individual would be a dramatic leap forward in the field of communication.

David Eagleman wears VEST at TED David Eagleman wears VEST at TED.

Will we take up the challenge of discovering the bright side of dark planets, or will we restrict ourselves to the familiar sunny side rocks? In our explorations, we need to locate the places most distant to our current understanding, despite the paralyzing fear in the unfamiliar. The term Cyborg was introduced in 1960 in a paper on human survival in space by Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline. They proposed a robotic self-regulating system to keep humans alive in harsh extraterrestrial systems. What they did not discuss, is how humans will perceive in space. There is no air to transmit sound or scents in space. We are all handicapped in space. Cyborgism is not about survival, it is about expanding our minds as we explore parts of the universe previously unknown, whether on earth or distant planets. When our senses fail us, how can we adapt and continue to live in a universe too small for our ambitions?

  1. This technique is called bone conduction, and it is used in hearing aids as well as headphones.