Sunday, April 13, 2008

Bionic man

"Confessions of a bionic man"

Whashington Post - Sunday April 13, 2008

By Michael Chorost

"If I were catapulted back in time to 1978, in many ways I'd find it easy to adjust. Cars would still be cars. Books would still be books. Stores would still be stores. But I'd look at people on the street and wonder, "How can they stand to be so disconnected? How do they make it through the day?"

For my grandparents, the biggest changes in daily life were caused by the Great Depression, World War II and innovations such as television and jet travel. But for my generation -- I'm 43 -- the biggest changes have been driven by computers and other technologies that convey information.

I can imagine a life without microwave ovens. I can't imagine one without e-mail.

My life has changed even more than most: I have information technology inside my body. I'm deaf, having had rubella (German measles) before I was born. Fortunately, the damage wasn't complete, so I was able to get by with hearing aids until 2001. Then my "good" ear abruptly quit working, for reasons that are still unknown. My hearing aids couldn't help me anymore, just as glasses can't help a blind person.

Now I have a cochlear implant in each ear. At first glance, they look like behind-the-ear hearing aids -- but the technology is totally different. They digitize sound and broadcast the data through quarter-size radio transmitters. The transmitters are stuck to my head, behind my ears, using magnets.

The data are picked up by implants countersunk into my skull, which send the information to 16 electrodes in my inner ears. The electrodes trigger my auditory nerves with tiny, precisely targeted shocks, making them send sound information to my brain.

My implants don't aid my hearing. They create my hearing.

What I hear is, quite literally, a computer simulation of real sound. The day my first implant was activated in 2001, voices sounded bizarre; the radio might as well have been in Esperanto. That was because the software couldn't reproduce all the aspects of a normal auditory system. Still, I learned how to recognize consonants and vowels again by listening to books on tape. Now I can turn on the radio and hear it all but effortlessly.

In 2005, I got new software that made music sound brighter and clearer. The software's improved frequency resolution enabled me to distinguish between tones that had sounded identical before. It was a simple upload; no surgery was necessary.

I'm lucky because technology has actually restored much of what I lost, instead of merely offering workarounds, as it does with most other disabilities. I don't hear as well as people with normal ears, but I can use the phone, listen to the radio and enjoy music.

Deafness has been especially helpful to me as a science writer because it has put me at the cutting edge of technologies that transform bodies. Cochlear implants have inspired research on prosthetic limbs and devices for restoring vision, controlling pain and enabling muscle coordination.

Today, implanted technologies are strictly for the disabled; they don't match the capabilities of normal organs, much less exceed them. Still, people keep asking me, "When can I get superhuman ears?" My efforts to answer questions like that have made me something of an accidental futurist.

I don't think that superhuman hearing is likely, or even a good idea, because the normal human ear is already awesomely sensitive. Much more feasible, and already in development, are drugs that preserve hearing and gene technologies that restore it. And sound-enhancing gadgets can be found at any electronics store.

But there are other, much more intriguing possibilities. The human body hasn't changed in millions of years -- and that's a problem. Our bodies don't do very well with information technology. Screens are tiny and eye-straining, and keyboards injure fingers and wrists. Even people with young, nimble fingers can't type as fast as they can talk, let alone think.

This mismatch between our Pentium chips and our Paleolithic bodies could be solved by physically integrating the two, the way I have cochlear implants inside me. Much as my implants make my brain "hear" sound, more advanced implants could one day evoke sensations of sight, touch and even feelings.

Or information could go the other way. For example, researchers at Brown University are implanting electrodes into the brains of people with paralyzed limbs to let them control computers and appliances with mental commands.

Consider where such technologies might go. Imagine someday being able to dictate e-mail with your thoughts, or thinking a Google search while walking down the street and "hearing" the answer read to you. Technologies like that could trigger changes in daily life even more profound than those unleashed by e-mail and the Web over the past 15 years.

Obviously, this scenario is an extrapolation from current technologies. But consider how far cochlear implants have come since 1978, when the first experimental multi-electrode device was surgically implanted in a patient. The device was so primitive that voices were barely intelligible, and the operation took eight hours. Compare that with my first implant surgery in 2001, which took 75 minutes. The second, in 2007, took 43 minutes. With both, I was listening to audiotapes within weeks.

These days, the field of neural prosthetics is booming. Researchers at New York University are investigating the possibility of threading tiny wires into the brain through the capillary system, the way angiograms are done by threading a wire through an artery to the heart. The electrodes would be used to gather detailed data on neural activity in the brain.

Researchers elsewhere have used brain-scanning machines to investigate the neural basis of thought and perception. In 2006, researchers in the Netherlands were essentially able to tell with 65 percent accuracy whether subjects watching "Home Improvement" were seeing the character Jill Taylor on screen.

That said, decoding everyday human thought, in all its variety and complexity, is far beyond our present technology. But I'd wager that, in time, neural prosthetics will follow a trajectory similar to that of cochlear implants, going from bulky experimental devices to sleek, easily installed commercialized products. About 100,000 people worldwide now have cochlear implants.

When I got my first implant, the idea of having a computer installed in my body shook me up considerably. Science fiction is full of negative images of human-machine couplings, from Michael Crichton's thriller "The Terminal Man," in which an implant for epilepsy turns the patient into a maniac, to "Star Trek's" shambling, robotic Borg characters. In my life, I aim to create a more positive image. During the invasion of Iraq in 2003, I stuck a peace symbol on my transmitter.

I now believe that implanted technologies can make us more human, not less: more aware of the world; more connected to each other; better able to find and use the information we need. New tools challenge us to do new things that we couldn't have imagined before, let alone attempted. I have had the marvelous opportunity to play with my implants by trying out new software and settings that allow me to hear the world in different ways.

During one programming session, I asked my audiologist to turn off all the electrodes except the one that transmitted the lowest-frequency sounds. I heard a faint rattling noise. The audiologist couldn't hear it. We finally realized that I was hearing the air conditioner through the vents. With every other frequency filtered out, I was able to hear what normally hearing people couldn't.

I've gotten used to the idea of having a quarter of a million transistors in my head -- now it's just part of my normal life. I boot myself up in the morning, and when my transmitter attaches itself magnetically to my implant, it takes only a second or two for it to begin sending data. I hear a clicking sound and -- whoosh!-- the world of sound emerges around me. Then I make breakfast.
I see myself as a precursor to a world in which people communicate with each other, at great distances, in new ways, using implanted technologies that feel as much a part of their bodies as their own hands. We can't imagine what that will be like, just as in 1978 no one could have imagined broadcasting their activities to friends by using Twitter on a cellphone.

Thirty years from now, our children may look back on us and wonder, "How could they stand to be so disconnected? How did they make it through the day?"
the author of "Rebuilt: How Becoming Part Computer Made Me More Human."

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