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A 21st century headline

Bionic eyes implanted in blind patients, says the Daily Telegraph;

Two blind patients underwent the procedure, which surgeons say 'is straight out of science fiction', at Moorfields Eye Hospital in central London last week and are said to be "doing well". Surgeons implanted an electronic device into the back of the eye to allow the patients to distinguish objects as pictures made up of spots of light. The device works with a tiny camera mounted in a pair of glasses which transmits a wireless signal via a small processor on a belt into a receiver and a panel of electrodes placed in the back of the eye. Three more patients will have the four-hour operation as part of an international trial before the technique is evaluated and extended. At first patients who are completely blind due to an inherited condition called Retinitis Pigmentosa are being treated but eventually it could be offered to thousands of patients as the devices are perfected.

(Declaration of interest: My right eye has only about 50% peripheral vision, and the fovea of my left eye is held in position with the surgical equivalent of duct tape, circa-1990. I'm legal to drive but not to fly a plane, and I've lived most of my adult life with the possibility that the retinopathy could start eating into my visual field again. So I take this kind of personally.)




From here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2008/apr/22/medicalresearch.news

"While not reproducing natural vision, the system enables the viewing of basic images on a 10 x 6 grid."

60 pixels, while not a "Half-Life 2", is better than one, but... how the hell they know where to send those signals? Amazing...


It's another step along from the sensory stimulation work of Dr Paul Bach-y-Rita in the 1960s where 400 points in a grid contacting a subject's back were fed with television camera images.


I seem to remember being told by a friend about the experiments with a black/white 4 by 4 grid. It seems that the people who were being given this treatment could figure out much more than was anticipated by moving their head around to see how shapes changed. Since this was maybe fourth hand, I don't know how accurate this is, but it seems you just start sending impulses down the optic nerves and the brain figures out the rest; the making-sense-out-of-stuff-coming-down-the-optic-nerve part of the brain does all the difficult processing for you.


They used a spot welder on your left eye? That's what they did to my father when one of his retinas started leaking blood. (Extreme myopia can be unhealthy in strange ways.)


PJ @4, no: it was bad enough to need open-eyeball microsurgery (under deep general anaesthesia) at a regional specialist unit. I made a remarkable recovery; reading between the lines, with hindsight, it was touch and go whether I recovered vision in that eye.

(You know the worst thing about having sutures in the surface of your eyeball? They itch.)


Dr. Paul Bach-y-Rita held that brain functions are flexible, not hard-wired. He came to this theory after his father suffered a stroke. Bach-y-Rita set up a rehabilitation center for his father and nursed him to a full recovery. Later, he co-founded the company Wicab Corp., which developed a device that delivers sensory information to the brain through a helmet and electrodes. He passed away 20 Nov 2007.

My Doctoral Candidacy Exam in the Computer & Information Science Department, in 1975 or 1976, after I got my M.S. for developing a parallel algorithm and database for automated theorem proving (then a key approach to Artificial Intelligence), had one of its questions as essentially to write a critical technical essay on the Bach-y-Rita electrode array approach. The professors who evaluated my exam especially liked my comments on dithering.

More or less by coincidence, I was many years later paid to evaluate brain-to-computer interfaces for high-G jet fighter pilots in target-rich environment, and even later, to write the ad copy for "Eagle Eyes" sunglasses (the inventor of which was totally ripped off by the Blu-Blockers guy).

My vision is corrected, by 8 diopter lenses. One of my brothers is profoundly deaf, and considers electrodes to the cochlea to be genocide against Deaf Culture. My mother's father, when he got his pacemaker in the 1960s, proudly announced that he was now a cyborg. YMMV.


Aagggggghh, itchy eyeball sutures. Waaagggghhhh. (Although I have to admit that "Itchy Eyeball Sutures" would be a kick ass band name.)


Jonathan@8: To quote a panelist from Arisia '06: "I wear eyeglasses. Thus do I defy God!"


Anatoly @1...My understanding is that they patch the signal into the optic nerves and let the brain do the figuring out. Amazing times we live in eh?... watching an item on this on the news last night my wife was blown away, wasn;'t really news to me, although the fact that they've got to a 60 pixel resolution was...no stopping them now....be up to mega pixels in a few years then what about the possibility of extending this to outside the visible (for us normals) spectrum...surely that can't be so far away either


(You know the worst thing about having sutures in the surface of your eyeball? They itch.)

Gyah! Itchy eyeball is not good.

Sorry to go OT for a moment but an age back I believe you posted a link to the Laundry insignia, SOE Q - Government I.T. Services :), that you used in The Jennifer Morgue. I've had a look through the Archives but can't see it now, don't suppose you've still got a link to it handy? Thanks for any help.


PJ @4, my 86-year-old upstairs neighbor has had a prosthetic eye for years so when his other eye started going bad last year, he was very upset. He saw a retinal specialist and the treatment let blood into his eyes -- he got back from another spotwelding appt today -- and he can only see large patches of color now. He's really unhappy.

Charlie @5, I don't remember my eyeball stitches itching. Mostly I remember that I could find my way around the ward with the bandages on and people kept telling me to get back in my bed. I was 10 and my eyes had crossed suddenly. The doctors thought it was a brain tumor, but it was just a loose eye muscle. That's why when I do wear contacts, they have to be gas-permeable. Soft contacts slump into scars.


I and my mother has an interest in the subject. She was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa (or possibly Radiation Retinopathy --but that's longer story) a couple of decades ago, and we were expecting her to go totally blind in the early 90s. Fortunately that didn't happen. Currently her peripheral vision is about 30 degrees (here in Colorado 20 degrees is the limit for driving), and quite night blind. She was later diagnosed with Macular Degeneration in one eye, and few years ago had a retinal tear in the other, which was lasered, part of that treatment caused glaucoma, fortunately temporary. On the plus side, within the last six months she has had cataract surgery, replacing her lenses with artificial, which has greatly improved her vision. So currently she should be good until they get the implants at a more usable resolution, but like Anatoly @1 said it's better than 1 pixel, or none.


For a comparison, try looking through some venetian blinds opened very slightly. You can see a fraction of an inch of the scene on the other side, but if you move your head in the right way, you can see pretty much the whole thing.

A minimal amount of information can be read out as an image by the software in our skulls...


My sister got chicken pox on one eye when she was 4. So I've seen how bothersome an itchy eye is to people, and feel bad for you Charlie.

The down side with 4 year olds is that you have to put mittens on them at all times so they don't decide to scratch their eyes... :(


Jonathan @6: I think you need to invent some glasses for viewing this web-page http://www.magicdragon.com/jvp.html


take this kind of personally.

So, which of the optional extras are you waiting for?

Eerie red glow
Zoom/wide-angle optics
Thermal imaging
CCD light amplification
Target graticule overlay
Head-up navigational display
Display customised menu of conversational options ("Hello, my name is Charlie"/"Can you direct me to the railway station?"/"Pardon me, sir, I am a stranger in your city and am looking for the nearest example of unnerving Cold War technology; can you help me?"/"Do not be alarmed, ma'am, I am a qualified pharmacist"/"Who should I sign this to?"/"Of course, this'll all be different once ubiquitous computing really kicks in"/"Ha ha, you're Sarah Connor, good one, no, actually I don't get that all the time")


Dear Charlie,

I would be extremely cautious concerning any type of neural implant. It is not a matter of the technology not being sufficiently well-developed (though it really isn't) but rather that vision science has such a poor grasp on how vision works, particularly in relation to the other senses. A case in point is the history of surgically-restored vision, something which was discussed in philosophical circles before the the surgical techniques became available. Locke, for example, elegantly states the issue, known as Molyneux's Question (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/molyneux-problem/):

Suppose a Man born blind, and now adult, and taught by his touch to distinguish between a Cube, and a Sphere of the same metal, and nighly of the same bigness, so as to tell, when he felt one and t'other; which is the Cube, which the Sphere. Suppose then the Cube and Sphere placed on a Table, and the Blind Man to be made to see. Qaere, Whether by his sight, before he touch'd them, he could now distinguish, and tell, which is the Globe, which the Cube.

The sad truth of the matter is that many patients undergoing restorative-sight surgery, particularly those "seeing" (whatever that really means) for the first time, were unable to cope with what James called the "blooming, buzzing confusion" of sensory stimulation. We now know that the human brain has a "critical period" in infancy during which the key wiring for vision is developed. Without having experienced this critical developmental epoch, restored-sight patients are simply unable to interpret the newly acquired sense datum in any meaningful way. To this day, Molyneux's question remains unanswered, and it might just be that the question is a daft one.


Ajay@16: I'll take 'em. How many languages can you do the conversational thingy in?


I've written about, and once won a newspaper chain's prize for a short story of mine that they ran on the subject, skipping the skull-penetratring electrodes and using neuromagnetometry for direct brain-computer interface. For that matter, my first published story on the subject was "Down-jazzed, Up-tight, Side-souled Dad", California Tech, Pasadena, CA, 29 Jan 1970, pp.7+10; arguably the world's first published Cyberpunk fiction, featuring "street" use of high temperature
superconductors, neural reprogramming, pop music of 1999, and swimming pools programmed to thermally code music for the mind-altered.

I admitted on my PhD candidacy exam that I didn't like having platinum electrodes stuck into my brain. Once I was at a seminar at Caltech -- would have been between 1968 and 1973 -- where James Olds was lecturing. It was he and Peter Milner in the 1950s who had discovered the "pleasure center" in the limbic systems of rats. He was saying that it would be unethical to experiment on humans, with electrodes zpping the "pleasure center" as Larry Niven described as "wireheads." And I witnessed half a dozen long-haired hippy stoner freaks in the audience call out: "me first, me first!"

Re: #15. That specific web page harkens back to my web domain being 13 years old, which is over a century in web years. The page is preserved, in dinosuar-DNA amber, as an example of what web designers called "angry fruit salad."

Fifteen minutes ago, by the way, I was asleep, dreaming that I was at a Retro Science Fiction Con. It was a reenactment of what Cons used to be like, before all these new-fangled modifications.

We all carried slide rules. We played retro-baseball (there are two leagues, one with 1864 rules and one with 1890 rules).

And I was a promising newcomer again, one of the best-known SFWA members who had only had short fiction published, rather than the grizzled veteran that I am, who more or less dropped out of publishing SF to focus on prolific publication of real Science and Math papers.

Also, the casual sex was different, as there was no HIV.


Oh, very interesting! I am with you on this kind of thing being of personal interest to me, as I have the bizarre eye disorder keratoconus (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Keratoconus). BLEH.

My eyesight is so bad that I can't wear glasses anymore, and only hard contacts will correct my vision properly. I haaaaate hard contacts. (They itch, too.) My eye doctor told me that doctors are developing synthetic corneas for corneal transplants, which I find very interesting since that surgery is the extreme solution for if eyes deteriorate too much from this disorder.

Always good to see advances in the field of vision research and practice!


From #16 I'm now imagining a lightly fictionalised biopic "Charlie Stross: Cyborg" with Arnie in the lead role. By day mild-mannered Charlie creates new worlds and frees imaginations as a science fiction writer, but by night he is milionaire playboy cyborg Stross.

The only way that could possibly be improved is replacing Arnie as protagonist with Summer Glau.


You didn't get or didn't like my "Stone Lives" comment?


@22: I didn't understand it so I assumed it was spam and deleted it. Sorry. What does it mean?


On Neuroplasticity
read a fascinating book recently, about neuroplasticity - the brains ability to form new connections (Train your brain, change your mind by Sharon begley). gist of it seems to be that the brain is able to form new connections between neurons through your life, with a bit of a tail off as you get to old age (60+). so for example, people who go have brain damage and go deaf, cannot then use the auditory cortex. after a while that bit of the brain gets used for other processing - eg visual (visual cortex is close to the auditory cortex). this leads to better performance compared to people with normal hearing & vision. This happens with other parts of the brain too, generally seems to be that if a section of brain isn't being put to good use (i.e. no input) then the brain recognises this, and sprouts new connections to take advantage of the extra processing power. fascinating book - well worth a read.
raises some interesting points in relation to the above though - implants for new senses, brain self organising, maybe simulate all this in an implanted pc to get the input signals into something the brain can understand? anyway, rambling....


Charlie ---

You're not the only one out there in the sf community with retinal troubles. I've had four retinal detachments in my left eye, in 1968, when I was 12 going on 13. I got hit in the eye with a corncob when I was 8 and it scarred up the retina. They had my eyes bandaged-up shut for a month! I was also in an Air Force hospital, surrounded by guys back from Viet Nam with, um, er, interesting stories to tell.

All my side vision to my left is gone. Along the perimeter of the retina still left alive and working, I have a semicircle of phosphenes, constantly there, a flickering fire to the side of my vision.

There was a silicon scleral buckler left embedded in the surface of my left eye that always made looking in some directions quite uncomfortable. It became infected in 1988: one more operation, to remove it.

And, of course, the cataracts. My left eye first, of course, in 1991, reacting to all the trauma. My eye surgeon had to tell me that the interoccular implants only had a 50 year warranty; I was his youngest cataract patient, ever. And in late 1993, my right eye decided to keep up with the Joneses and have a cataract too.

And my right vitreous detached. I didn't even know that the vitreous humor could even *do* that. *sigh*

Jim Frankel had a retinal detachment in both eyes I'm told. We're all around. *grin*


No worries, Stone Lives is a short story written by Paul Di Filippo that appeared in "Mirrorshades" (cyberpunk anthology from the 80's). In the story, Stone has artificial eyes installed that give him excellent vision and the ability to take pictures, etc.
I probably should have expanded my post to include an explaination, but I usually read your blog while putting my son to sleep (like now) and I dislike typing one-handed.


Oh, right. It's been something like 18 years since I read the Mirrorshades anthology.


Yeah, it was a bit of a memory stretch, but it echoed loud enough in my head to make me do a search for the story online. Makes me realise I haven't read any Filippo in quite a while.


This kind of technological advance is great. I'm blind pretty much from birth, and tbh I have no sympathy for the kind of "Deaf Culture" arguments. That said, I'd be scared shitless of implanting anything in my brain at this point, and half-curious half-doubtful about the ability of my brain to have enough plasticity to acquire a sense of vision this late in life. Anyway, my optic nerves are all screwed up, so a solution for me would be very far away in the future.


Times change, and the way things are going it might already be possible, though not yet through all the testing, to prevent the problems I've had, by using fairly simple drugs--it almost seems too easy.

That's not going to repair the damage which was the inevitable side effect of the treatment. But if they can grow me, and connect, new eyeballs, can I have the wiring on the back of the retina?


There's enough accounts of remarkable recoveries from brain damage to suggest that rewiring of the brain can occur later in life.

My guess is that some people can do it better than others, which means there might be an identifiable reason.

It woiuld probably make a big difference to spinal injuries too.


I was 32 when I had the big stroke, younger than most, but the doctors said the only reason I woke up from the coma was because my brain was "plastic." I'd continued to learn things (Smithsonian courses, lectures, reading, etc.) and my brain was used to putting new stuff in. Now they're finding that most people's brains are more plastic than they thought, although, again, being interested in the world and things and learning makes it more plastic.


I'm hoping someyear I can have a virtual retina installed, with which to look at higher-dimensional scenes.