Need to Know

Cyborgs Walk Among Us

FYI: The Rundown

Think your health insurance copays are high now? Take a look at the astonishing new heights we’re reaching in the field of tiny brain-computer interfaces—technologies that allow humans to control computers with our thoughts. Once pure cyberpunk fiction, machine retinas and cochleas have left the lab. Here are some devices of transhumanism.

HUD Compact Lens
HUD Compact Lens Image

Why covet Google Glass when you can dream of contacts? University of Washington Bioengineer Babak Parviz and an international team shrunk a head-up display to fit on a contact lens. Parviz and team can display one pixel on a special contact, powered wirelessly from an external battery using radio waves. A single pixel can provide notifications to the deaf, Parviz says. A consumer microhud pixel system could be configured to work with a doorbell or other types of 1-bit notification systems to signal, for example, that a phone is ringing. Higher-resolution advances will facilitate augmented reality.

Second Sight Argus II
Second Sight Argus II Image

Doctors have a cure for blindness for about US$115,000 and four hours’ worth of surgery in a European hospital. California company Second Sight’s Argus II is approved for use in Europe and could hit the U.S. market by 2013. Twelve years in development, the Argus II pipes a digital camera feed to a wearable computer that simplifies the image to 60 pixels and transmits it to a retinal implant that stimulates the optic nerve. Blind retinitis pigmentosa sufferers can reclaim enough vision to read large letters. Bonus: software updates can boost the Argus II’s efficacy, says Second Sight Vice President Brian Mech.

Spinal Injury Bypass
Spinal Injury Bypass

Physiology professor Lee Miller at Northwestern University and his team announced a breakthrough this year. Miller’s team temporarily paralyzes a monkey to mimic a spinal cord injury and turns on a system of brain implants, computers, and electrodes in the monkey’s arm. The monkey thinks about moving his arm to grab a treat, and the bypass routes the impulse to the limb.

Glucose Fuel Cell
Glucose Fuel Cell Image

A team at MIT including neuroengineer Rahul Sarpeshkar announced in June 2012 the development of an implantable fuel cell that runs on glucose in the body. The architecture of this 2.5-inch silicon and platinum “eater” fuel cell harvests electrons from cerebrospinal fluid to generate hundreds of microwatts of power—enough to power a pocket calculator or run cutting-edge low-power implants. Powering implants from the body’s own energy is “a holy grail” for researchers, says Sarpeshkar. It will help usher in the next wave of implants all over the body, “for all kinds of things you didn’t think of.”

intendiX-SOCI Image

Paralyzed patients who are fully “locked in” and unable to use anything more than their eyes can still write e-mails, and even play World of Warcraft, with their mind. Austrian company g.tec has an electrode-covered skull cap that can pick up users’ brain activity as they attend to specific letters onscreen. Just focus on each letter to write, and then focus on commands to send e-mail or even trigger an alarm. G.tec has developed its software in modules, adding SOCI—an application to control programs on a PC screen—in 2012.

Photography by Shutterstock