A computer in my head

LIFE SCIENCE: John Cradden, a possible candidate for cochlear implant surgery, contemplates how medical science could shape the future of human development

IT’S INTRIGUING, if slightly unnerving to think I could find myself at the vanguard of human enhancement technologies sometime after the next year or so.

That’s one of the things I learned as I walked around the TCD Science Gallery’s current show, Human+ , an exhibition of artistic interpretations of how high technology could mediate the future of the human race.

One of the questions being explored at the show is whether we are moving into a future where, rather than focusing on rehabilitating or repairing those with sensory loss or permanent disabilities, healthy humans could choose to have invasive surgical implants to “enhance” themselves or their senses.

It’s a debate that has been running in medical, educational and sporting circles for some time, and is getting more murky and complicated as technology advances.

Richard Reilly, professor of neural engineering at UCD and one of the curators of the exhibition, says that technology has an important role in maximising the abilities of people with disabilities, so “these individuals tend to be on the frontline with regard to testing of new devices”, such as cochlear or retinal implants.

Cochlear implants are nothing new, of course. Routine cochlear implantations began in the 1970s and since then have helped restore some hearing in more than 120,000 deaf people worldwide.

But while the technology has steadily improved over the years, thanks in no small part to the input of implantees, it still has some way to go before engineers will be able to replicate the quality of normal hearing.

My own hearing is broken and needs a repair. It has progressively deteriorated over the past couple of years, to the point where my hearing aids are no longer much use. So I’m currently being assessed for a cochlear implant.

But as the day approaches when cochlear implant surgeons at Beaumont hospital may be drilling out bits of my skull to insert what is essentially a computer in my head, all this cyborg-type stuff is getting quite close to the bone.

It’s reassuring that some of the most comforting insights into the subject of cochlear implants emanate from a man who has implants himself, in both ears.

In his first book Rebuilt: How Becoming Part-Computer Made Me More Human, science writer Michael Chorost tells the story of his journey from going completely deaf to being implanted with cochlear implants, and how this changed his life for the better.

“For me, the process of having to learn to hear all over again was like having a fresh start in life,” Chorost said in an online web chat. “It prompted me to re-examine the kind of life I had and the kind of life I wanted. A reboot, if you will.”

Now based in Washington DC and regularly contributing to publications such as Wired, Washington Post and MIT’s Technology Review , Chorost writes and speaks about cutting-edge science and technology research with the clarity and eloquence of a classical science writer, but he also threads in personal narratives to draw you in that bit more.

In Rebuilt, for instance, he played around with the question of whether or not he was a bona-fide cyborg as result of getting his implants (short answer: yes). However, he thinks the term has since become over-used and doesn’t mean very much any more.

“I use the word cyborg much less now,” he said. “It just feels reductive to me. It says very little about who or what I am. And it has that Ikea sound: ‘I’ll buy two cyborgs and a wockeroo . . .’ ”

But he says it proved a natural step from talking about ear implants to exploring the subject of brain implants. “If it’s possible to make a brain believe it’s hearing, what else might be possible?”

The result is his new book, World Wide Mind: The Coming Integration of Humanity, Machines and the Internet , just published by Simon and Schuster. Already the subject of several favourable reviews by US media, the book examines what it would mean to connect human minds through technology, possibly the internet.

He discovered some fascinating neuroscientific research projects about how to extract information or decode brain activity, and based on these, he explores how new implanted technologies could, in theory, bring about brain-to-brain communication.

Brain-to-brain communication is the standard stuff of science fiction, but Chorost attempts to outline the engineering path towards feasibly realising this much-fantasised communicative ability and, more importantly, he explains how it could deepen human communication.

Yes, there are several science bits that you can’t really skip, but the surprising thing is that, even to this non-techie, Chorost makes it so readable and convincing. It’s also a very optimistic book, in marked contrast to the bleak visions on show at Human+.

Chorost also injects a useful measure of common sense into the repair versus enhancement debate. “I don’t think people with disabilities will necessarily be at the cutting edge of enhancement, because the real point of enhancement is to let people do completely new things, not things we already do,” he said.

“To put it another way, there is very little need for ears that can hear in the ultrasonic or can hear a whisper 500ft away. Humans simply have very little need for those things.” When they do, they can get those abilities with stuff from their local electronics store, he adds.

Chorost insists we are so far from any kind of enhancement that it’s nearly impossible to predict how it would happen, and gets particularly annoyed at scientists who engage in baseless fantasies about developing enhanced human abilities. “It’s a very naive fantasy. It’s like a medieval bowman wanting a super-arrow. The real advancement there came from creating entirely new weapons.”

Human+ is at the Science Gallery , Dublin until Friday, June 24th

This article first appeared in the Irish Times magazine

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