These Cyborg Artists Use NFTs to Manipulate Their Biological State

Mint S2E2 transcript: Imagine giving a stranger on the internet control of your color vision and heart rate 24/7/365; Neil Harbisson and Pol Lombarte plan to do just that using NFTs.

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Mint Season 2 episode 2 welcomes Neil Harbisson and Pol Lombarte, two biohacking artists leveraging NFTs to remotely alter their bodies. Cyborg-artist Neil Harbisson was born color blind but he can ‘feel’ and ‘hear’ colors, thanks to a WiFi-enabled bone-conduction antenna that is permanently implanted into his skull.

Together, Neil and Pol experimented with a new state of NFTs where the buyer can directly send colors into Harbisson’s head. On the side, his friend, Pol Lombarte sold ‘access’ to his heartbeat as an NFT where the buyer can alter his heart rate from afar at any point in time of the day.

In this episode we talk about the early days of transitioning into a cyborg, the curiosity behind selling access to one’s body, fears and concerns behind this level of biological manipulation, how much he’d consider selling the NFT for, the vision behind this level of experimentation, and so much more.

Thank you to Season 2’s NFT sponsors!

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Adam Levy: Cool, Neil and Pol guys welcome to the podcast. Thank you so much for being on how you guys doing? 

Neil Harbisson: Good, thank you. 

Adam Levy: Good, good. I’m so excited to share your story. You guys are two unique individuals in your own respect. So why don’t we just get right into it? Give me a quick brief about yourself, how you kinda got in the NFT world. And we can kind of go from there. We can start with Neil and then go to Pol. 

Neil Harbisson: Well I’m Neil Harbisson and I’m a cyborg artist . So my art is to create new senses , new organs and embed them in the body. Like this antenna is an example is an antenna that allows me to extend my perception of color beyond the visual spectrum. So it’s an antenna that allows me to sense from infrared to ultraviolet vibrations we might have then and I create an NFT that gives access to my tablets.

Adam Levy: Awesome you guys are the first people that I came across to introduce like a bio-hacking element to an NFT drop. Right? What, like what prompted you? I guess you’ve all, even before we even get to that, can you talk to me more about the relationship between between you guys? Like, how did you guys meet? How did this collaboration come to life? Share with me a little bit about that. 

Neil Harbisson: Well Pol is an art student and, we both live in Barcelona and we were both interested in NFTs. Well, we were interested in creating a type of NFT related to cyborg art. So we thought that the best way to mix both arts crypto art and cyborg art would be to create an NFT that connected. The owner of the NFT to our bodies. So that’s why we came out with a lot, to explore that union between these two arts. 

Adam Levy: Yeah. And I guess the, the relationship, I know, Pol, you mentioned as an art student and you guys met at the art school that he was studying at, or how did you guys kind of come in contact with each other?

Neil Harbisson: The street.

Adam Levy: Just like that? 

Neil Harbisson: I was working in this way, then I see him . Well, cause I, my aunt then, sometimes, I meet people because of the internet. So I guess we met because of the antenna and then he was interested in creating his own organ, cyborg organ. So he started project creating this heart, a digital heart. A second heart. And then while he was creating it we thought it would be good to mix both things NFTs and this type of effort , this actual project is to create works of art with the digitalization of these heartbeats. So it’s like, how have you going use these heartbeats to create other, other artworks. Like he’s, he’s grading a clock that keeps going forward depending on his heartbeats. So that’s, if his heart goes fast, the clock goes faster. So, and then he’s also creating a light that works with his heartbeat. So he’s working with his heart and time. 

Adam Levy: Yeah, it’s a super fascinating one. When did you guys get kind of like fall in this, into this fascination of biohacking? When did that start for each of you?

Pol Lombarte: When Neil and me I’m was on a train going, from Barcelona to Matera and talking and talking. We think about NFTs and first Neil said , I want to build , I an NFT of my perception of God. 

Neil Harbisson: But, and then we kept talking, but yeah, my introduction to biohacking or what I say more is neuro hacking because my aim is not to hack my body, but to hack my mind by creating new senses. I started in 2003, when I was studying music and I was interested in using technology even a different way and then I thought that would be interesting to create a type of technology that would alter my perception of reality. So since 2004, I’ve been hearing colors afterwards. I agreed that the, another implant in my knee that allows me to sense the magnetic. And now I’m also creating another, organ that will allow me to sense the passage of time, but by the next 24 hours to go around the body. So it’s the fascination of opening up our senses with technology and exploring new forms of art. 

Adam Levy: where do you find the doctors to kind of do these procedures? I feel like these are very, very unique things to conduct on the, on the body and I remember seeing one of your interviews at Google and basically a lot of doctors actually rejected you from the start, right? They didn’t want to conduct these types of operations. Where do you find these individuals and how do you kind of convince them to go forward with something like this?

Neil Harbisson: It’s the other way around. Some doctors read articles about this movement and they get in touch with me, interested in helping or collaborating. And then we have now a network of doctors and nurses and biohackers that are interested in helping us create these type of surgeries, because most of them are still not accepted by bioethical committees. So we need to do this, procedures, underground for now. Yeah. Pol , I remember 

Adam Levy: I read in the article that talked about your NFT drop, that you were messing with an EKG sensor, right? And you were still experimenting whether or not to install it permanently in your body. Have you actually gone forward with that? Have you done the surgery?

Pol Lombarte: No, that I did not do. We are still developing my music not to be as practical as possible. This is the first prototype. 

Adam Levy: So can you, can you explain it to me a bit? So what am I looking at exactly? I see a few lights flashing. I see a few wires. Can you walk me through it? 

Pol Lombarte: This is a electrocardiogram. We started doing, you know et cetera. And I am-

Neil Harbisson: He’s sending, this work here. Yeah, so this is the exact thing he used heartbeats, and then it’s sending, sending these heartbeats by Bluetooth to the internet. You can see his heartbeats, wherever. If you have the connection, the link you can see his heartbeats live. So now it’s quite the big system. It’s his first prototype , but he’s next. They just know to make it smaller. And then at some point it might be able to have it invented here in this area. And that’s his first prototype now. Okay. This stage, next stage is also that he will be able to receive vibrations in his body so that the person that owns the, NFT will not only be able to see his heart rate, but also heartbeat, but also he will, or she will be able to do an outer heart, his heartbeat by sending vibrations to his body.

Adam Levy: Got it. And Pol , do you, do you have to charge that device? Is it run by batteries? How, how does it get its electricity and its power? 

Pol Lombarte: It was with, this battery and that’d be good. It can be charged. It can be charged, is very big as you see. It will be more practical the aim is to use body energy, not external energy, but now this is the fastest way of creating this system. But it’s, as you say, it’s not very practical yet.

Adam Levy: Mm sure. Can you can you share with me more about the story of you guys kind of discovering NFTs for the first time? What was that first instance of an NFT you came across? Was it a piece of art? Was it a piece of music? Tell me a little bit more about that. 

Neil Harbisson: Hmm. Wow. People kept emailing me, asking why I have you done any of these though? Have you got an, I have no idea what it was. So I kept trying to understand what it was. And it took us quite a few days. We both started to understand the system and then we wanted to find out how to make them ourselves. And then it was a, because people kept asking if I had any NFTs . That’s how I suddenly became interested in NFTs . And then once we learned about it, we find it very, very relevant. It’s an art that’s going to live forever. So it’s. A very interesting area for us to explore also a good space where you can innovate because it’s such a new art movement that you can actually create new types of art forms with there. 

Adam Levy: Yeah, no, for sure. I think when I, when I came across your story of how you guys were basically, I know you don’t like to call it biohacking, but basically whether it be messing with your mind, messing with your heart, right. In attaching a crypto primitive to it, that’s like the first of its kind that I’ve come across. Right. And did you guys have any, any fears or any concerns kind of going down that route with allowing that level of experimentation in the hands of someone else, even though you guys purchased each other’s NFTs. Right. But let’s talk about scale for a minute. If you guys plan or when you guys plan to do that, and we can talk about that as well. Is there any fear, any concerns that come to mind when taking this and scaling it? 

Neil Harbisson: Yes, because we are basically selling access to our body and to our minds. So it is that’s why we decided to buy each other first, but then we need to be very careful of who will help. Well, I mean, we can’t do anything about it, but once we, once I sell access to his heart and he sells access to my head it will be, yeah. Anything can happen. The person that purchases this access can potentially annoy us a lot basically or alter my perception of color. In a way that might alter my life. And also if we finished this access to his body so that people can other, his heartbeat so it can alter his life, but it’s an art that has some risk. And we both like art that has a little bit of risk there’s many cultural things like sports that have risk or learning social activities that have risks, like finding mountains. This is an art that has some risks, both because we don’t know who will buy access to our bodies and how they will treat us that secondly because this merging with technology also has the a bit of an unknown. 

Adam Levy: Yeah, sure. Actually let’s backtrack for a minute, right. Because I don’t think we got into the full story of what the NFTs were. Exactly. So can you, can you quickly tell me like the story from a to Z on what you guys put out on open sea and into the crypto verse and both you and Pol and how that kind of collaboration.

Neil Harbisson: So I have an antenna implanted in my head then allows me to perceive the vibrations of color from infrared ultraviolet and the other one has internet connection. So my NFT is basically access to my head via the internet. So the person that purchases this NFT . Send colors to my head, which is with a mobile phone, you can use your camera and then you can just string like images directly into my app. So I can certainly sense the colors from the mobile phone. So people can alter my perception of color by sending colors to my head. And then Pol sold an NFT where you can visualize and see his heartbeat, real value. And the next stage is that the first one will also be able to alter his heart rate by sending vibrations through his heart. So he has sold his heartbeats in a way, and then I’ve sold my perception of color. 

Adam Levy: Crazy. Absolutely like absolutely crazy. That’s so cool. That is such a cool use case to attach to a non fungible token. And I know it feels like an everyday thing for you guys, but from an outsider, who’s not really in tune and ingrained with your level of experimentation, your level of art, right? That risk art that you talk about. I see NFTs as either music pieces as either a digital art or video pieces. And you guys are really introducing like a new level and you add a new layer into the crypto verse that you don’t, you don’t really see. Do you guys ever think about that or has it just become so ingrained in your process that you don’t really think twice about it?

Neil Harbisson: You know, the. We just, yeah, we just thought it was, it was the best way of merging our current art form because if we were musicians or even white papers, I guess we would have done something. But if our art use our body, if we want to create NFTs related to our art form , you have to be an NFT connected to an organism because it’s, we see the cyborg. Cyborg art is not only cybernetic. It needs an organism. So the NFT have to be connected to a living organism, which is us. Now, the thing is what will happen when we die? Cause the NFT will still be alive, but we won’t. So that’s also something that we have to to think about. And the, when you purchase the, the NFT, this is also state that what happens because at some point our organisms will die and then the NFT will still be alive. So but then surely you will still be able to send colors to my head once I’m dead and you will still be able to send vibrations to his body once he’s dead.

Adam Levy: Yeah, that’s going to be an interesting experiment and how that plays out.

Neil Harbisson: Our cybernetic organs can then continue being alive once the rest of our body dies. But there’s different ways that we can solve this problem, but the, the NFT will still be able to work properly.

Adam Levy: I understand the concept. I understand what the NFT is, but how would I actually, okay. Let’s say someone purchases an NFT. How do I go about changing the color that you actually hear ? Right? It’s not necessarily see it’s the vibrations that in the frequencies, right. That go to that, your inner ear. Right. That’s how it works from how I understand it. Right. So how do I actually go about doing that? What does that process take me through that flow? So I purchased this NFT. What’s next? 

Neil Harbisson: You have a link that allows you to use a camera or from your phone to send colors to my head . So it’s a unique link that allows you to connect to my connection in the back of my head. And then the mobile phone. It’s just, it’s an app that allows you will see and hear the colors that you’re sending. It’s the vibration of the, of the actual color .

Adam Levy: Got it. 

Neil Harbisson: It was a thing that I already used before there was five people that had permission to send colors to my head with, with their mobile phones, but now it will only be one person and it got it being done through an NFT .

Adam Levy: And the same process is for Pol as well, if I want to change his heartbeat. 

Neil Harbisson: Yes.

Adam Levy: Okay. So, there would be a similar link that I would go to and. Got you. But how do you actually, and I guess this one’s more for Pol , how do you actually alter your heartbeat? How do you do that? Like does the NFT holder need to do an action that will then increase it? Do they send heat waves that spike up your temperature? Or like how does that work? 

Pol Lombarte: Well, that is still my NFT. Then send me and we arranged them in, in a part of my body once I got here. And when I received the duration I’m sounding as big as it is. It’s something unexpected. Exactly is not expected. So these are done by fabrics and the owner of my NFT can visualize, in my car. So it basically, I view it if someone, yeah, I don’t know if it’s unexpected, if you receive an unexpected vibration in your body, even if it’s a small vibration. If it’s unexpected, you won’t be able to alter his heart rate is something that they.

Adam Levy: Got it. Got it. That’s, let’s, let’s play more in this scenario where now it’s in the hands of the open public and someone random purchased it. You guys are sleeping, right. And they start increasing your heartbeat. And some person starts changing the colors that you hear and you feel. Does that worry you at all? Like one day you’re gonna wake up, like at three in the morning, you know, let’s say it were to happen. Let’s just say, okay. And your heartbeat starts accelerating and you start hearing all these frequencies and all these vibrations. Does that concern you at all?

Neil Harbisson: A little bit, but I mean, in my case , the person might be able to wake me up or annoy me while I was sleeping or this person might be able to color my dreams. If these colors interact with my dreams, this person might be coloring or altering my dreams by sending specific colors the same way that if he’s sleeping and someone I’ll just hear his heartbeat, it might wake him up or it might alter his dreams. So I think as long as we see as a, an art performance then, and we keep track of what, how we are experiencing those interaction with the stranger or the owner that is interacting with our bodies. I think we willlike it. I mean, we won’t be, I mean, and if it’s an, if it’s a bad experience at least it will be an interesting experience. 

Adam Levy: So cool how you guys are ballsy and daring like that. Because to the average person, that sounds like a nightmare, but you guys actually welcome that level of experimentation, that level of risk taking. And with high risk comes high rewards and great stories. So I really applaud you. I I’d be curious to follow up later when you guys do decide to scale it and you do decide to put it in the hands of the public and kind of retrack and hear what those stories that you probably didn’t really estimate or expect kind of occur. Let’s talk about more I know you guys are very vocal on cyborg rights. It’s something that you’re very vocal on and you talk to a lot of governments about and recognition from the materials that are in your head to to how you should be treated and how you should be classified, et cetera, et cetera right. What is the current state of cyborg rights? What does that look like right now?

Neil Harbisson: The basic right would be the freedom to decide which body we want to have as a species, which is a right that we still don’t have. If you want to have an antenna implanted, in your head , for example, you will find it very challenging to find a way of doing it legally or in a clinic. Even if you want to pay it, it will be difficult to do it in a way that it’s legal right now. So that’s the first right we think we should. Allowed to decide which organs and which senses we want to have as a species. So that’s a basic, right. And there are still no countries accepting these type of experimental surgeries most bioethical committees will not find it ethical if you go beyond visual perception or if you go beyond human perception or if you add new body parts. So that’s one of the challenges. A country that will, at some point accept adding new organs and new senses. And then also accepting that these implants are parts of ourselves, not property but organs. This is also another challenge. So if someone pulls the antenna out . It shouldn’t be treated as damage to property, but physical aggression, that’s something that we’re not accept that in any legal, not legally. I mean, it would be challenging to see that. So it’s slow a process, but I think it will, we will see. In the near future when now we have laws regarding humans, laws, regarding technology, and we will soon find laws regarding humans that are technology. 

Adam Levy: Sure. Do you, do you feel the same way, Pol? Do you feel differently? 

Pol Lombarte: Yes, I am.

Neil Harbisson: He doesn’t identify so much as a cyborg. 

Pol Lombarte: Yes because at the moment I’m not feeling like cyborg cyborg. I am, I am doing cyborgs.

Neil Harbisson: He’s just creating, he’s a cyborg artist, but his sense of identity is still, he still doesn’t identify as a cyborg. I defined it as a cyborg doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to have an implant. It’s just, if you include technology as part of your identity, I think you are already a cyborg. Many people have implants and don’t identify these implants as part of them. And that’s why they don’t identify as cyborg and then many, people don’t have implants, but they identify technology as part of their identity. So, and they identify as a cyborg.

Adam Levy: Yeah, no, it makes sense. Makes sense. Do you guys see NFTs kind of improving the future rights of cyborgs somehow?

Neil Harbisson: Probably. I mean, in NFTs, this can be used for legal documents and legal things that once this is normalized, I think we will see yes, a way of using NFTs also to help cyborg rights , you know. 

Adam Levy: Yeah, cause right now, the way I guess they’re being used right now is through art through fashion, digital, real estate music. Like I said, you guys are the first instance that at least I’ve came across where there’s some bio element to it and sooner or later legality in transferring ownership through NFTs for larger assets. I could see it bridging into human rights. I’ve worked rights and whatnot. And so I guess like what’s in store for you guys in the future, when it comes to integrating your way of life and how you guys identify as with this new form of technology, what do you guys have in store? Share with me some alpha leaks. What can we expect in the future? 

Neil Harbisson: Well, the fact that the NFTs . Never really died because once they’re in the blockchain, they’re very undestructible. If we enter the blockchain, we ourselves enter the blockchain then which inspired me we’ve started to go by, in my case. My sense of color is in the blockchain now in, in, a part in some way, my color perception won’t ever die. If his heartbeats are in the blockchain, Part of his heart will never die and so, you know, the way we try to find ways of entering the blockchain, not only this example, but many, maybe more parts of ourselves can enter the blockchain and how to connect the blockchain with our bodies. Once our bodies, die. This is something that we’re thinking about. 

Adam Levy: Yeah. Yeah. How would you go and price these I guess interactions? Cause again, I know you guys went ahead and purchased each other’s NFTs just for the test run, but, do you have like a dollar amount in your head? What does that look like?

Neil Harbisson: No idea. We use the smallest possible amount of in .00001 Ethereum this area we bought each other. And after that it’s really. No idea how to.

Adam Levy: I feel like if you’re going to let someone take over your state of mind, right. Or your state of your heart, that comes at a big price tag, especially if they’re able to alter that your perception of reality and your, your heart speed at any given time. Right? That’s a, that’s a premium type of feature, right? Do you think a hundred thousand dollars for an NFT of that sort is too much? Do you think it’s too little? I know you said you don’t really know, but let’s, let’s tinker with them. Let me test your mind for a bit a million dollars too much? 

Neil Harbisson: We would sell for 100,000 for sure. 

Pol Lombarte: No, no, no. I mean a hundred thousand. 

Adam Levy: Paul Paul’s like, no, at least 10 million.

Pol Lombarte: 100,000 Is a lot. I think I would. 

Adam Levy: You would do more or less?

Pol Lombarte: More 

Adam Levy: More. Okay. 200,000? 

Neil Harbisson: I don’t think if you, if you had an offer now, I don’t know. I would, I would, that’s a lot. I there’s there’s that you can buy a house here. yeah, but yes, it’s maybe this thing, I like this. I we’ve put ourselves in a situation that makes us think, and that’s why we enjoy it so much. It makes you think of, and also where does the level of cross as well? We need to trust each other now because I have his heart. He has my head. So at least we trust each other, but from the moment we have to trust strangers is yeah, we have to trust that they will be good to us. They won’t be annoying. Part of the it’s. Yeah. 

Adam Levy: Yeah. Wow. I really stumped you with this. 

Neil Harbisson: I have no words of describing this , especially when we talk to our parents, it’s really difficult . Your parents don’t understand what you’re doing. 

Adam Levy: What was the reactions when you guys will Neil for you transitioning into a cyborg and Pol kind of tinkering and experimenting with your, your heartbeat? What, were the reactions? 

Pol Lombarte: So reactions they understand, or my friends they understand that what is, what is that I am doing. But my parents after two months they understand they like it. 

Adam Levy: They like, they like it. They’re like, okay, this is cool. 

Pol Lombarte: Yes, yes they like it. 

Adam Levy: Wow. Hmm. Interesting. 

Neil Harbisson: Parents, I don’t think they, they understand the NFT thing. Yeah. But then this was in 2004 and my mother was a bit scared. You can just ask for that? Well, lots of news about the dangers of mobile phone antennas. And that was when I said my mother will have a, I will have an antenna implanted into my head that in my head, she said, this was not, not a very good idea, but now they’re completely used to it. We never talk about the, antenna just a part of my body for over 17 years. So it’s completely normal, but that at the beginning, my mother especially didn’t like it. 

Adam Levy: Crazy crazy. Are you open to talking about, cause I know it takes a specific unique surgeon to do this type of surgery. Are you open to sharing how much it costs to do something like that? Are you public about that? 

Neil Harbisson: The surgery was free

Adam Levy: It was free? 

Neil Harbisson: He did it for free. Yeah. 

Adam Levy: For free?

Neil Harbisson: Yeah. Yeah. 

Adam Levy: Just to be, but he also stayed anonymous too, right? 

Neil Harbisson: Yeah. 

Adam Levy: So free and anonymous, 

Neil Harbisson: I paid for the materials. Renting the space. So in total, it’s less than like around 7,000 or 6,000, having all the material within didn’t have to be done very small, the biocompatible material the machine to drill the head renting the space, was around 7,000. But that doesn’t mean that this past 7,000, it could cost much, much, much less. I mean yes, all the new organs on your senses can be done in, very variety of prices, because it depends on the material you use. How big, where you have it done. If the rent, the space you rent is more expensive, less expensive. It’s difficult to say how much it’s not like a, it’s not like a mobile phone that big cost.

Adam Levy: Yeah. And is that $7,000? What, what currency? 

Neil Harbisson: Euros. 

Adam Levy: Euros. 7,000 euros. Okay. Yeah, super. Super cool. Yeah, guys, I’m excited to see your journey in the NFT space and what you guys come up with. And before I kind of let you go and we conclude the interview quickly, tell me where we can find you guys and kind of stay tuned with what’s next.

Neil Harbisson: Instagram. We both are in Instagram, like my name’s Neil Harbisson and because this long back there and a hash definitely. That’s why we are constantly posting story. 

Adam Levy: Amazing guys. Thank you so much. I, and I, and I hope to have you again. 

Neil Harbisson: Thank you. 

Pol Lombarte: Thank you.

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