Youre at a busy airport waiting for your rental car when the sound goes off. Not the sound of your MP3 player or the sounds of speakers announcing arrivals and departures. The sound of the world goes off. The sound of the shuttle buses is muffled. Cars sound like theyre a hundred yards away. Instantly, the multi-sensory world is missing the sense of hearing for Michael Chorost.
Chorost has always experienced hearing loss as he describes in his insightful, thought-provoking book Rebuilt: How Becoming Part Computer Made Me More Human. So, when he suddenly lost almost complete hearing, he assumed that his left hearing aid battery had failed. So he followed his usual routine and swapped out the batteries from the left and right hearing devices. No improvement. I pull a battery pack from my suitcase, do a second change out, and wait for the familiar, clean, loud sound. But it doesnt happen.
The day Michaels life changed forever was July 7, 2001. He was 36-years old, and as he waited in the emergency room of the local hospital, he was going deaf literally by the minute. The word deaf is fraught with definitional and political complexities. Just as many blind people still have some vision, many deaf people still have some hearing. Audiologists therefore prefer to use the terms hard of hearing or hearing impaired. I find terms like hard of hearing awkward[so] I willuse the term deaf to describe myself, Chorost explains early in his text.
This is a very different man, an unusual man with a depth of insight into hearing loss and the regaining of hearing through the use of a cochlear implant.
The Cochlear Implant
The cochlea is positioned behind the ear drum. Its filled with fluid and 15,000 cell-sized, hair-like structures. Its here, in the cochlea, that sound waves traveling through the air are turned into electrical impulses that are subsequently sent to the brain for processing, i.e., I hear the tinkling of a bell or the roar of a jet plane.
A cochlear implant was the only choice Chorost had. The hearing aids that had enabled him to live in the hearing world (and obtain his Ph.D., btw) would no longer suffice. Michael Chorost had gone from hearing impaired to deaf in a matter of days.
How Does a Cochlear Implant Work?
In his book, (a compelling, must-read for anyone) Chorost researches implants on the web, gathering the information hell need to discuss options with his audiologist, Becky Highlander. At their first meeting, Becky explained how the implant works. Chorost describes that fateful day.
Holding up one of the implants, she tells me that the process would start with sound going into the microphone at the headpiece. The headpiece would stick to my head, held there by a magnet inside the implant. The microphone would convert sound into electrical current and send it down a wire running under my shirt to a waist-worn computer (or processor) on my belt. The processor would analyze the sound, ultimately yielding a stream of [computer data]. It would send [the data] back up the wire to the headpiece, which would then transmit them by radio through my skin to the computer chips in the implant.
Those chips would send signals down a wire going to my cochlea through a tunnel drilled through an inch and a half of bone. A string of sixteen electrodes coiled up inside my cochlea would strobe on and off in rapid sequence to trigger my auditory nerves. If all went well, my brain would learn to interpret the stimulation as sound.
Chorost is quick to point out that, getting the implant would make me, in the literal sense, a cyborg short for cyber organism. Part human. Part machine. The Six-Million Dollar Man without Lee Majors.
In that he was. Michael Chorost was successfully fit with a Harmony, HiResoluation Bionic Ear System by Advanced Bionics.
Cyborgs walk among us.
In fact your neighbor could be a cyborg. Or your history professor or your own doctor. Theyre everywhere and thats what makes Rebuilt such compelling reading.
Michael Chorost is a thoughtful man whos lived a life of self-examination. In part, no doubt, to being deaf. In his book, the author introduces us to the inner thoughts, conflicts and emotions of a human who has a computer controlled or driven body part. And there are lots of them.
We discussed cochlear implants but today, thanks to digital technology, we have prosthetic hands that open when the wearer thinks Open. Closed? Close.
Pacemakers are computer controlled. Hearing aids today are computers that actually fit into a human ear canal and still adjust themselves to ambient sound conditions. And modern bionic research continues technology that will enable paralyzed individuals to walk again. As the science and technology expand, the emotional issues introduced in Rebuilt are only going to expand.
Even if you arent part computer, its still easy to understand the feelings humans with computer parts will feel. Chorost sums up the emotional conflict he feels as a cyborg in terms anyone can understand.
It [the implant] really is a computer. Its cold, angular, and digital, yet its going to be embedded in my flesh, which is warm, squishy, and wet how is that even possible? How can a joining like that not obscurely but permanently hurt, the body and brain outraged by the alien language of [computer data]?
Modern Bionics and Emotional Incongruities
The author considers the opportunity before him. He doesnt rush to a decision but, instead, considers the impact such a transformation from human to cyborg would have on him. He expresses concern.
this technology would make me a cyborg from the inside out, because the computer would decide what I heard and how I heard it. It would be physically small, but its effect on me would be huge. It would be the sole mediator between the auditory world and myself. Since I would hear nothing but what was allowed by its software, the computers control over my hearing would be complete.
The concerns, and even fear, that the author expresses about giving some aspect of himself over to a computer are immediately identifiable. Put yourself in Michael Chorosts place and consider that everything you hear from now on will be generated by a computer.
These concerns and fears are going to continue to expand as we move closer to the era of a workable artificial heart. Is a human with an artificial heart still a human? The emotional impact of modern bionics on those who, indeed, benefit from these advancements, is a subject worthy of both thought and study.
The focus is, and should remain, on expanding the technology. The benefits of modern bionics clearly outweigh most of the concerns expressed by the books author. But, Michael Chorost does bring up some excellent points.
What will be the emotional impact, if any? Some beneficiaries of modern bionics wont give it a thought, nor should they. Enjoy an improved quality of life, a more natural life. However, as the science and technology of bionics grow more sophisticated, and more and more computer parts are fitted into living, breathing human beings, at least some of those cyborgs will ponder the same questions posed by Michael Chorost.
Will we have any answers to those questions?