Becoming bionic

A couple of months ago, the Washington Post ran an article by Michael Chorost, who has written a book about his experience with a cochlear implant. I meant to link it at the time, but got it lost on a different computer. The book is titled, Rebuilt, with alternate subtitles in paperback and hardcover editions. The Post article is titled, “Confessions of a Bionic Man”:

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.

Chorost also maintains a blog, discussing the themes of the book and his experiences promoting it. He provides an interesting account of his experiences conversing and interacting (sometimes uncomfortably) with deaf advocates of signing:

One burly fellow with enormous wrists introduced himself to me as having been in the classroom during a two-hour debate I had at Gallaudet last year with Dirksen Baumans students. That debate had the feel of history, of titanic forces clashing: the passion of the deaf community colliding with a technology that penetrates and transforms everything it meets. Id spoken with candor. Id said, Look, ninety-six percent of the deaf children born in this country are born to hearing parents. Offered a technology that lets their child hear, what do you think theyre going to choose? But Id also said that sign language and the community sustained by it are precious, and that their disappearance would be a tragedy. I offered no easy answers, because I had none. Everyone was unsettled. Nothing was settled. At the end of the debate I felt worn out and anxious. Anxious, because I wondered if I had alienated them. I had wanted to build bridges, and I wondered if I had.

I happen to be reading Ray Kurzweil’s book, and this article (and blog) make a more tangible example than many of the speculations that Kurzweil provides. It is sort of a best-case example, considering that a cochlear implant is intended to exploit brain areas that already exist and are tuned for interpreting auditory information. But the “upgrade” that Chorost describes is an incredible example of the way that technology can be improved once it is enabled.