Bionic eye gives glimpse of cyborg future

Technology that sends digital signals straight to our brains has given new hope to blind and deaf people. But how far should we go in connecting minds to machines?

Elias Konstantopoulos was 43 when he first noticed his sight beginning to fade. Over the following decades, his cone of vision slowly narrowed. Now, aged 72, he is completely blind.

But now a pioneering technology has given him a new hope of sight. Although his eyes have completely stopped working, the Argus II device bypasses them altogether, connecting a small camera mounted on sunglasses directly to electrodes on his retinal nerves.

These electrodes send electrical signals straight to his brain, mimicking the signals that would be sent by a working eye.

At the moment, the ability of electrodes to 'speak the language' of the brain is very limited. The artificial signals can only communicate simple information – the presence of large bright objects, for example. And users have to learn how to interpret the signals they are being sent. Konstantopoulos 'sees' in flashes of light, against a dark background.

The technology is based on cochlear implants, originally developed to help the deaf. Science writer Michael Chorost was totally deaf until doctors attached microchips to his auditory nerve, connected to an external microphone.

As with the Argus device, his brain had to learn how to interpret the artificial signals. At first, he just heard meaningless noise but, now that his mind has adapted, Chorost can hear almost as well as a person with healthy ears.

So far, the science behind these implants is only directly relevant to the blind and the deaf. But this technology allows us to break nature's rules, by bypassing the senses and sending information directly to the human brain. That could have some big implications.

In his new book, World Wide Mind, Michael Chorost imagines a world where more and more digital information is plugged directly into your cerebral cortex.

Text messages and emails might arrive directly in your mind. Information from the internet could be called up just by thinking about it. Sites like Facebook and Twitter could become like extra senses – communicating with online networks would be as natural to us as seeing people right in front of our eyes.

Evolution revolution
People already worry that computers are damaging society. Our constant virtual communication, they say, distracts us from living our real lives.

But for Chorost, this 'mind-machine integration' is a natural next step in human evolution, allowing us to inhabit a richer, more meaningful world than our ancestors ever dreamed.

You Decide

  1. Would you connect your brain to the internet? Why / why not?
  2. How far should we be allowed to mess with nature, and especially our own biology?

Activities

  1. A world of mind-machine integration is one vision of the future. What's yours? Write a story describing the world as you think it might be in the year 2050.
  2. We already spend a huge amount of time in virtual worlds. Make a list of the kinds of digital technology you use – from video games to text messages. Are they good for your life, or bad?

Some People Say...

“The internet is destroying human relationships.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I don't know whether to be excited or terrified!
You're not alone. But you don't have to worry too much just yet. Devices like the Argus II are just the first steps on a very long road. Mind-machine integration would take decades, if it's possible at all.
But if it happened, we'd be cyborgs!
A cyborg is part human part machine, so yes we would, in a way. You might argue that our humanity would be threatened, or that it would be enhanced.
What if we got a computer virus?
It's true that there would be unknown dangers. Some think, for example, that if we were all connected, we might lose sight of where we end, and where others begin.A There's talk of uploading human minds into computers – so we could live in a virtual world without having physical bodies at all.