Confessions of a Bionic Man

By Michael Chorost
Sunday, April 13, 2008

If I were catapulted back in time to 1978, in many ways I'd find it easy to adjust. Cars would still be cars. Books would still be books. Stores would still be stores. But I'd look at people on the street and wonder, "How can they stand to be so disconnected? How do they make it through the day?"

For my grandparents, the biggest changes in daily life were caused by the Great Depression, World War II and innovations such as television and jet travel. But for my generation -- I'm 43 -- the biggest changes have been driven by computers and other technologies that convey information.

I can imagine a life without microwave ovens. I can't imagine one without e-mail.

My life has changed even more than most: I have information technology inside my body. I'm deaf, having had rubella (German measles) before I was born. Fortunately, the damage wasn't complete, so I was able to get by with hearing aids until 2001. Then my "good" ear abruptly quit working, for reasons that are still unknown. My hearing aids couldn't help me anymore, just as glasses can't help a blind person.

Now I have a cochlear implant in each ear. At first glance, they look like behind-the-ear hearing aids -- but the technology is totally different. They digitize sound and broadcast the data through quarter-size radio transmitters. The transmitters are stuck to my head, behind my ears, using magnets.

The data are picked up by implants countersunk into my skull, which send the information to 16 electrodes in my inner ears. The electrodes trigger my auditory nerves with tiny, precisely targeted shocks, making them send sound information to my brain.

My implants don't aid my hearing. They create my hearing.

What I hear is, quite literally, a computer simulation of real sound. The day my first implant was activated in 2001, voices sounded bizarre; the radio might as well have been in Esperanto. That was because the software couldn't reproduce all the aspects of a normal auditory system. Still, I learned how to recognize consonants and vowels again by listening to books on tape. Now I can turn on the radio and hear it all but effortlessly.

In 2005, I got new software that made music sound brighter and clearer. The software's improved frequency resolution enabled me to distinguish between tones that had sounded identical before. It was a simple upload; no surgery was necessary.

I'm lucky because technology has actually restored much of what I lost, instead of merely offering workarounds, as it does with most other disabilities. I don't hear as well as people with normal ears, but I can use the phone, listen to the radio and enjoy music.

Deafness has been especially helpful to me as a science writer because it has put me at the cutting edge of technologies that transform bodies. Cochlear implants have inspired research on prosthetic limbs and devices for restoring vision, controlling pain and enabling muscle coordination.

Today, implanted technologies are strictly for the disabled; they don't match the capabilities of normal organs, much less exceed them. Still, people keep asking me, "When can I get superhuman ears?" My efforts to answer questions like that have made me something of an accidental futurist.


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