While browsing the technology section of The New York Times website, the article "Burst of Technology Helps Blind to See," by Pam Belluck struck me as especially fascinating. The article is about the project called The Artificial Retina, which is developing technology which could eventually allow people suffering from blindness to be able to read, write, and recognize faces. There are currently 37 participants involved in the project and all of them are experiencing some sort of visual sensation.
The technology involves surgically implanting a sheet of electrodes in the eye. The person then wears a tiny camera on a pair of glasses, with the camera attached at the bridge of the nose. The belt-pack video processor, which is worn at the waist, translates the captured images into patterns of light and dark. "The video processor directs each electrode to transmit signals representing an object's contours, brightness and contrast, which pulse along optic neurons into the brain." The current images are of a crude nature due to the fact that the implant only has 60 electrodes. Scientist are planning on testing 200 and 1000 electrode versions that could allow possibly allow enough resolution for reading. However, there will eventually be a limit to the amount of electrodes implanted. An electrode count of too high could potentially burn the retinal tissue. It is important to be very careful that the scientist carefully research how many electrodes can safely be used.
This issue of safety is a good concern that the public may want to raise in regard to The Artificial Retina. It is crucial that the scientists don't become overzealous in their attempt to attain, as the article put it, "...one of science's most-sought-after holy grails: making the blind see." Just hearing it referred to like that makes me question the priorities of the researchers. Are they more concerned with the overall well being of the blind, or are they only focused on becoming the first to "cure" blindness with technology?
Another interesting social component that relates to The Artificial Retina technology is what the attitude towards the technology will be among the blind culture. There is somewhat of a divide in the deaf community when it comes to the use of cochlear implants that allow them to experience sound. Many deaf people are very excited about the opportunity to hear, while there are others who believe that the surgery is wrong. They believe that being deaf is not a crippling disability, but an opportunity to show immense perseverance through an extreme disadvantage. I am curious to see if there will be any sort of controversy like this within the blind community if these technological advances continue to be successful.
- Dan Aleckson