Merging man and machine is all the rage these days – a step further than merging machines with clothing and apparel (wearables, Google Glass, smart watches), and what’s more fascinating than fantasizing about androids in Star Trek and Robocop is actually incorporating them in real life. Technology is continually evolving at something absurdly close to the speed of light, and science fiction is slowly but surely being debunked as fact (how people scoffed at the possibility of mobile communication devices).
One of the most dynamic industries in the world is the prosthesis industry. With new brain-computer interfaces, circumnavigating disabilities and disorders is seeing new levels of success. When Sheila Nirenberg, a professor of Physiology and Biophysics at Cornell University, told the world about her bionic eye at TEDMED, it brought hope to numerous people suffering from retinal diseases.
The human eye works by light falling through the pupil and hitting the retina, upon which photoreceptors transform the image into a set of unique neural impulses, which are then transmitted to the brain, which deciphers the meaning of the electrical impulses, and interprets what the eye is seeing. These impulses change in a matter of milliseconds, as the eye trains its gaze onto different objects, from different angles, in different lighting. Retinal diseases like macular degradation (which affects ten percent of the people over the age of fifty five) mean the photoreceptors are dead, and can’t communicate the image into electrical impulses, but the cells that convey the impulses to the brain still function, and the brain’s ability to translate the impulses is still unhindered. Nirenberg’s bionic eye consists of a camera, that will capture images of the world around us, and send them to a microchip. This encoder device will act as an artificial photoreceptor, interpreting the information from the camera and converting it into electrical impulses that closely resemble the code the retina uses. These are supplied to the brain, which recognizes what the eye sees for what it is. The programmers make this happen by recording the responses of the output cells to specific images provided to the input cells, and determine the conveyance of information by studying their behavior when the output signals are generated; then they build a decoder that translates the signals into visuals.
Nirenberg’s brand of optical prosthesis is close to Second Sight’s (a prosthesis maker in California), who she is currently closely working with in order to improve the products they already have on the market. Second Sight’s Argus Retinal Prosthesis was recently approved for commercial use in Europe and the United States. The Argus II Retinal Prosthesis consists of a camera that captures images, a processor that converts the pixels into electrical impulses, which are then sent to a radio transmitter that transmits the pulses to a receiver in fitted into the person. This receiver is connected to an electrode array implant at the back of the eye. This array, which is kindled upon the reception of electric impulses, substitutes for the dead photoreceptors, and transmits information to the cells connected to the brain. The person then interprets what he’s seeing, what his brain is telling him.
Following bionic eyes closely are bionic contact lenses, which, while still unable to cure blindness, can serve to augment vision (and by extension, a la Google Glass, quality of life). Bionic contact lenses generate a virtual display that is superimposed on the actual visual. Looking like something out of Almost Human or Terminator, bionic contacts provide an augmented reality built using circuits that are impossibly thin – a few nanometers – and micro-light emitting diodes that are a third of a millimeter wide. Designed by a team at the University of Washington, the bionic lenses are wirelessly powered, with solar and enzymatic reaction-driven power sources not far away, self-assembling, and very delicate. Google’s recent testing of smart contact lenses that measure blood glucose levels with tears ties into the bionic contact lenses, and presents a world full of immeasurable possibilities. While perks include email literally before your very eyes, shopping at a very literal blink of an eye, subtitles for the hearing impaired, and a video game experience like no other, the dangers of inorganic circuitry on the eye cannot be ignored. Successfully tested on rabbits for a substantiate amount of time, bionic contact lenses are nevertheless still under construction, for at least the next decade.
The chasm separating real people and robots, organic life and synthesized produces, is being bridged with much difficulty, one metallic, toxic substance at a time. But, at the rate at which we’re going, the day is not far off when we will be both human and computer, the best of both worlds.