The chip in Murcheson’s eye

Paul Raven @ 03-11-2010

The Guardian reports on a successful cyborg vision implant procedure; bonus points for the industry-standard soundbite disclaimer:

“The visual results they were able to achieve were, up until now, thought to be in the realms of science fiction,” said MacLaren.

The guy must read some pretty strict Mundane SF if he thinks this represents the apogee of artificial vision acuity as portrayed in science fiction…

A man left blind by a devastating eye disease has been able to read letters, tell the time and identify a cup and saucer on a table after surgeons fitted him with an electronic chip to restore his vision.

Whoa.

Snark aside, it’s actually a pretty impressive step along the path to full-on artificial vision.

Miikka Terho, 46, began losing his eyesight as a teenager and was completely blind when he joined a pilot study to test the experimental eye chip at the University of Tübingen in Germany.

[…]

“I’ve been completely blind in the central area for about 10 years. I had no reading ability and no way of recognising anybody any more. When the chip was first turned on, I just saw flashes and flickering. It didn’t make any sense. But in a matter of hours, everything started to get clearer and clearer,” Terho said.

“When I looked at people for the first time, they looked like ghosts. I knew it was a person, but they were hazy. Then things got sharper.

“It was such a good feeling to be able to focus on something, to see something right there, and maybe even reach out and grab it. I wasn’t able to identify what was in front of me on the street, but I knew when something was there, so I didn’t walk into it,” he added.

Interesting to note it took a while for the guy to start making sense of the input; neuroplasticity in action, maybe? Or just long-dormant visual centres slowly reopening for business? Whichever it is, it’s nice to find a story where technology is demonstrably improving people’s lives.


Sci-fi no more: bionic eyeball implants

Paul Raven @ 31-03-2010

Another genre cliché becomes reality, as the imaginatively-named company Bionic Vision Australia prepares to install the first in-human deployment of a prototype eyeball implant designed to “deliver improved quality of life for patients suffering from degenerative vision loss caused by retinitis pigmentosa and age-related macular degeneration” [via KurzweilAI.net]. Er, what?

The device, which is currently undergoing testing, consists of a miniature camera mounted on glasses that captures visual input, transforming it into electrical signals that directly stimulate surviving neurons in the retina. The implant will enable recipients to perceive points of light in the visual field that the brain can then reconstruct into an image.

Ah, right. Why didn’t you just say so, eh? Here’s a video:


Injectable arphid will let satellites track you world-wide (and maybe kill you)

Paul Raven @ 19-06-2009

injectable RFID implantCausing a bit of a stir over in Germany is a patent filed by a Saudi Arabian gentlemen for a form of subcutaneous RFID chip which would allow remote global tracking of the person into whom it was injected.

The patent application – entitled “Implantation of electronic chips in the human body for the purposes of determining its geographical location” – was filed on October 30, 2007, but was only published until last week, or 18 months after submission as required by German law, she said.

“In recent times the number of people sought by security forces has increased,” the Jeddah-based inventor wrote in his summary.

The tiny electronic device […] would be suited for tracking fugitives from justice, terrorists, illegal immigrants, criminals, political opponents, defectors, domestic help, and Saudi Arabians who don’t return home from pilgrimages.

Not too shocking on the surface, but it was one of the optional upgrades that caused the law firm representing the application to drop the case quickly:

After subcutaneous implantation, the chip would send out encrypted radio waves that would be tracked by satellites to confirm the person’s identity and whereabouts. An alternate model chip could reportedly release a poison into the carrier if he or she became a security risk.

Cute… thankfully the German patent system would probably have bounced the application on ethical grounds, but you don’t need a patent to make or use something like this.

And as science fictional as it blatantly is, it’s the political implausibility that stands out rather than the technological. Sadly, chipping people like we tag pets is likely to become quite the fashion in the more repressive nation-states of the world, but there’s certain to be a lively black market trade in removing and deactivating them too. [via Technovelgy; image by Nadya Peek]


iPlant – the motivational implant

Paul Raven @ 05-06-2009

Via good friend-o’-the-site Justin Pickard, here’s a device that’s straight off the pages of a number of science fiction stories. The iPlant is a simple remote-controlled deep-brain implant that stimulates dopamine production, the idea being that by using the brain’s natural reward chemical one could encourage healthy and/or virtuous behaviour that is otherwise dismissed as being too difficult.

The neuroanatomy of reward is very well known. A small group of nerve cells in the midbrain, when stimulated, release dopamine throughout the entire prefrontal cortex, which is our decision generator. Deep brain stimulation to control reward would be very similar to its application against Parkinson’s disease, in which dopamine signalling is impaired, leading to symptoms of the motor system. Thus, the technology is tried and tested in humans.

The human motivational system has been shaped over millions of years of evolution to a degree of robustness, which is why we find it so difficult to change. Sweet food is an instant reward for most people, as are alcohol and many drugs. The modern society has developed spectacular shortcuts to dopamine release, with the unfortunate effect of making many people’s lives less functional. Obesity and addiction are long-term scourges caused by the inability to resist short-term dopamine stimulation. Here is a technology that could change all that.

Now, the problem here should be obvious, even to someone who isn’t prone to thinking in science-fictional ways: who controls the reward system? What behaviour gets rewarded? Sure, you could use the iPlant to help people with dietary problems or to encourage excercise… but you could just as easily reward cruelty, violence, sloth, or any other behaviour. You could easily make people into something akin to zombies, steering them to do your bidding with Pavlovian pokes.

Maybe it would be safer to give people control of their own iPlants… but as any athelete will tell you, dopamine is highly addictive. How much willpower would you need to avoid become a self-stimulating blob, sat motionless but for your thumb pressing the trigger at ever-decreasing intervals, riding an eternal and baseless high?

Ethical questions aplenty, then. This is one of the rare situations in which I find myself thinking that technological short-cuts are the wrong idea, and that’s a feeling based very much on personal experience. I’m inherently lazy; there are many things that I’d like to motivate myself to do more regularly, from exercising and getting up early in the mornings to sitting down and cranking out a daily wordcount of fiction. But I also have an addictive personality – and observation of people who achieve the things I want to achieve suggests that not only is it possible to achieve the same effects by applying willpower alone (possible, though difficult), but that the satisfaction of doing so is part of the reward. If I don’t have the will to make myself work for what I want, how would I muster the will to resist the allure of the joy-button?


Why you shouldn’t rush to get your auto-erotic implant

Paul Raven @ 02-01-2009

orgasmatron settings dialImagine, if you will, what it might be like to have a kind of switch wired into yourself that triggered tiny electrical shocks in your orbitofrontal cortex, giving you what would effectively be an “orgasm button”. Well, this isn’t science fiction any more. [image by bbaunach]

Transhumanist thinker George Dvorsky takes a look at the history of pleasure-centre brain-tweaking, and considers the implications of the technology becoming affordable and readily available:

So, should these devices be banned?

Yes and no.

Like the current prohibition on both soft and hard drugs, there’s a certain efficacy to a patriarchal imperative that works to protect citizens from themselves. Sex chip junkies wouldn’t be unlike other kinds of junkies. Highly addicted and dysfunctional persons would find themselves outside the social contract and completely dependent on the state.

But what about the pursuit of happiness and other freedoms? And our cognitive liberties? A strong case can be made that we all have a vested interest in the quality of our own minds and the nature of our subjective experiences. Ensuring access to these sorts of technologies may prove to be a very important part of struggle for psychological autonomy.

Is the best society the one that protects its citizens from all potential pitfalls, or the one that educates them as best it can and lets them take care of themselves?


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