A small silicone gadget attached to the chest gives its wearer the ability to sense which direction they face. Could it prompt a ‘cyborg’ evolution in human ability?
Liviu Babitz opens his collar to reveal a small silicone gadget, the size of a matchbox, attached to his chest with two titanium bars that sit just under the skin. Most resembling a compact bike light, the North Sense that Babitz has attached is an artificial sense organ that delivers a short vibration every time the user faces North. Babitz and Scott Cohen, co-founder at Cyborg Nest, the company that created North Sense, are currently the only two using the product, which will soon be shipped out to clients who have pre-ordered it over the last few months.
“Around us is an entire universe we don’t perceive,” Cohen explains. “As we walk down the street there’s radiation, X-rays, infrared and ultraviolet, as well as the electromagnetic field of the planet. So we want to create new senses to become aware of our environment.” Although many people are experimenting with modifying their bodies using technology for medical or experimental purposes, Cyborg Nest are more interested in creating and extending human senses. Two of their other co-founders, Neil Harbisson and Moon Ribas, have both already installed superhuman senses – Harbisson, who is colourblind, has an ‘eyeborg’ that allows him to “hear” the light spectrum (including infrared and ultraviolet), while Ribas has a sensor in her elbow that vibrates when an earthquake occurs anywhere in the world.
Northness has always been important to humans as a way to navigate, giving us our most basic system of plotting the world. In fact, speakers of the Australian language Guugu Yimithirr explain all locations using cardinal points (rather than left and right). Knowing where north is has had great significance for humans across cultures, and but it’s always been something that we discover, rather than sense directly.
Many animals, on the other hand, do have this capacity.There’s even a possibility that humans already have this sense, even if we don’t consciously use it. Homing pigeons, as well as bats and fruit flies all possess magnetoreception, although what receptor they use to sense the magnetic pole is not clear.
While it’s useful to know whether you’re heading in the right direction, its use as a navigational tool is limited, compared to, say, Google Maps. Cyborg Nest, however, do not intend the North Sense to be used solely as a tool. “It’s about the whole sensory experience that we are having as people,” Babitz explains. They are less interested in the practical, mundane uses of the North Sense than they are in how it will affect our enjoyment of reality, in the same way that now enjoy our other senses. “Biology is cruel in many ways: it gives us exactly what we need to survive and no more,” Cohen says. “The senses that were given to us for survival purposes aren’t used that way any more. I don’t use my eyes to scan the horizon for hordes of marauding invaders, I use my eyes to watch Netflix!”
“If we start to focus on building senses for cognitive enhancement, we’re creating tools that change the way we perceive our environment,” says Carl H. Smith, a senior lecturer at Ravensbourne in creative coding. “What’s really interesting about Cyborg Nest is their interest in how they can become technology, how they can adjust their own perception. Like changing the channel on your TV, we should be able to change the way we perceive.”
In other words, changing the nature of what we can perceive could change how we experience reality. There’s also the possibility of a domino effect, enhancing the way other senses work. “If, over time, we start using our sight less for orientation because we have another thing helping us, there could be some of the usage of the eye that could develop in another way or start being used for other reasons,” Babitz suggests.
Cyborg Nest is now taking pre-orders for the North Sense, which is charged by a mini USB and entirely waterproof, giving the company a first taste of why its customers are interested in augmenting their senses in this way. “It’s the pioneers who are willing to do it,” Cohen says. “There are people who want the latest gadget before anyone else, who want to be on the bleeding edge of what’s next. We also seem to get into the world of people who do body modification: they want to know what’s next after you’ve been pierced and tattooed.”
In a similar way that tattoos were once the preserve of a radical few, Babitz and Cohen expect this form of tinkering with your body to become more widely accepted. Right now, the North Sense is an extreme choice, but will it be seen as such in a few years, as the stigma towards cyborgs (as Babitz and Cohen see themselves as being) wears off? After all, so many of us are already enhanced by technology, whether it’s simply wearing glasses, or implanting pacemakers, cybernetic prosthetics, or electromagnetic identification chips implanted inside the body to control the environment around us. Along this spectrum of modifying our bodies, where should the line between humans and cyborgs be drawn?
Cybernetics researcher Professor Kevin Warwick, deputy vice-chancellor at Coventry University, is avowedly in the latter camp: his work has involved experiments with inserting transmitters beneath his skin, where they interface directly with his nervous system, allowing him to control doors, lights, and later, a robot arm. “I do feel that it is pushing it somewhat to describe North Sense as turning you into a cyborg, but it’s not completely out of bounds, ” he says. “It is well removed from the case of enhancing a human’s brain functioning by directly introducing electronic signals into that person’s brain and enabling their brain signals to directly control technology, with feedback between the two, which I feel is more the expectation of what being a cyborg is about.”
To Warwick, it is significant that the sense sits outside the body, rather than being implanted: “Much research has been done to distinguish between the different effects caused if magnets are fitted externally to the person rather than being implanted. So maybe we can regard [the North Sense] as an entry-level cyborg device.”
This external placing is important to Cyborg Nest for one major reason: accessibility. It’s much easier for individuals to fit an exosense [a sense that sits outside the body] themselves, than it is to fit a sense under the skin. It’s also the reason for their choice of barbell piercings, widely used in piercing studios, to fit the sense. “In order to develop this as something lots of people around the world could do we didn’t want to say ‘you need to go see a doctor, who may or may not be able to do this’,” Cohen says. By contrast, licensed piercing studios are common around the world, and trained to modify people’s bodies to specification. It’s no coincidence that the four cyborg co-founders chose Steve Haworth, dubbed “The modfather” for his extensive contributions to the body modification community, as their fifth business partner.
The North Sense, as it is rolled out, will be experienced by not just one person (as in the case of Harbisson and Ribas) but by a whole community of willing participants, from a 58-year-old woman who rides wild horses in Spain, to an accountant in Chicago. “At the moment, there are no groups of people who have the same artificial senses,” says Babitz. “And you can’t build theories around the experience of just one brain. Now there will be a group of people with the same thing, so we can start understanding what this means in a wider context.”
It’s still unclear exactly what the long-term effects of always knowing where north is will be on Cohen, Babitz and the cyborgs-to-be waiting for their tech upgrade in the post. But despite evidence from Harbisson and Ribas that new senses take a long time to perceptually integrate, the pair are already feeling the effects of their new inputs. When I meet them in a London cafe, a week after the launch, both newbie magnetoreceptors turn themselves around before sitting down to figure out how they are positioned. Babitz sits facing south-west, Cohen south-east.
Indeed, their new sense has already created a new connection between them: for example, they’ve both been astonished by travelling on the tube: “You have a feeling most of the time that you’re going straight, but you’re sitting there and suddenly … it buzzes,” Babitz says. “You’re not even going the direction you think you are,” Cohen adds. What the longer term effects on the participants will be isn’t yet clear, but at least they already know which way they’re headed.