Various cybernetic limb and organ replacements were recently featured in IEEE’s flash demo called The Bionic Body Shop, but we were most interested by the bionic eye and the cochlear implant (we already discussed the featured powered exoskeleton). These are notable for the fact that they are not merely high-tech prosthetic replacements strapped to or worn on the body, but implants that are housed within the body and work with flesh-and-blood sense organs on a much closer level than any preceding technology.
The Argus II Retinal Stimulation System is biotech firm Second Sight’s bionic eye, and it works by attaching 60 electrodes directly to the retina that stimulate light and dark receptors to form an image the human brain can parse. The electrodes are also connected to a small housing unit implanted more deeply within the skull; the housing unit contains a battery, video processor, and wireless receiver. The receiver gets video data from a small camera mounted in a pair of glasses. The technology is currently in clinical trials using only patients over 50 who have suffered gradual loss of vision as opposed to lifetime blindness.
Minimal data about cochlear implants was in the flash demo, so we chose one manufacturer, Med-El, to learn more. Their implants work much in the same way as the retinal implants, with a cranially implanted housing for electronic components and an electrode array directly stimulating the user’s cochlea. A speech processor worn externally picks up sounds and converts it to digital data. The data is transmitted by a coil to the receiver in the internal housing, which relays it to the electrodes. The electrodes stimulate the cochlea and the user hears the sound. Though these are available now, only patients with severe hearing loss are eligible.
One interesting thing to note about both devices is that they stimulate sensory organs directly with digital data. While the most practical applications are to recover lost or damaged sensory sensitivity, it’s not inconceivable to think that these could also become available to anyone and be used to stream music directly into your ear or visual data like text or images directly into the eye. Fun stuff, just make sure the procedure doesn’t drive you insane.