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Opinion | The making of cyborgs and the challenges ahead

Attempts at melding man with machine face a problem of bulky parts with limited battery life

On 13 July, The Guardian reported on an extraordinary medical trial. The trial restored partial sight to six blind people via an implant that transmits video images directly to the brain. The trial was made possible by experts from Baylor College of Medicine in Texas and from the University of California at Los Angeles. The technology is not proven on those who are born blind, but nonetheless, represents a phenomenal breakthrough in the area of implants. The leader of the study, neurosurgeon Dr Daniel Yoshor, said his team was “still a long way from what we hope to achieve", but added that “this is an exciting time in neuroscience and neurotechnology, and I feel that within my lifetime we can restore functional sight to the blind". The device used was called Orion, which feeds images from a camera directly to the brain.

Meanwhile, theoretical neuroscientist Vivienne Ming has been getting attention after she announced that she was trying to turn her autistic son into a “cyborg". Her area of research and development is “cognitive neuroprosthetics": devices that directly interface with the brain to improve memory, attention, emotion and much more. Ming labels herself a “mad scientist". After she learned that her son was autistic, she put her research to work to build a face- and expression-recognition system for Google Glass designed to interpret others’ facial expressions in real time. Ming wrote in a blog post: “I’ve chosen to turn my son into a cyborg and change the definition of what it means to be human. But do my son’s engineered superpowers make him more human, or less?" This is a philosophical question, and one that must indeed be pondered by anyone who attempts to tamper with the human body with technology that is still experimental. Nevertheless, it is breakthroughs like Orion’s and Ming’s system that push the frontiers of science and medicine.

While these breakthroughs are exciting, almost all attempts at melding man with machine come with a common problem. And, this is a problem that ranges from the (lowly) cardiac pacemaker all the way through to ultra-fine implants that stimulate the central nervous system. Current neuromodulation systems need surgical implantation of bulky components with a limited battery life. Batteries impact an intervention’s cost and lifetime, a device’s size and weight, the need for repeat surgeries and problems of tissue-heating and performance compromises. This is due to the relatively high power consumption of the electronics for a given performance requirement. The National Institutes of Health in the US opines that pacemaker batteries last between 5-15 years, but their average lifespan is 6-7 years; a doctor has to operate again after about 7 years to replace either the battery or the pacemaker itself. Imagine this process for a fine ocular implant in a blind person’s eye!

What is fascinating is that science has begun to tackle this problem head-on. One researcher in particular has made much progress in the field. He is Prof. Rahul Sarpeshkar, an old schoolmate of mine whom I have known for over 40 years. Sarpeshkar holds dozens of patents in his name and has four concurrent professorships at Dartmouth, where he has moved after many years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He and his collaborator, Dr. Mohan Kumar, a scientist with interests in ultra-low-power wearable systems for medical devices, have formed a firm called Neubionix to further develop Sarpeshkar’s patents from the time he was at MIT. One of the most fascinating of these is a flexible chip-type implant that harnesses glucose present in the body and converts it into electrical energy that can power a neurological implant.

The problem of battery size can be tackled, to a large extent, by reducing the power consumption and operating the electronics near fundamental levels of physics. Achieving a higher number of channels, better signal-to-noise ratio and improved flexibility and robustness while working at ultra-low power can significantly lower implant sizes without sacrificing performance. Neubionix, which is now incubated at the Society for Innovation and Development at the Indian Institute of Science, intends to build on about 15-plus years of an ultra-low power semiconductor patent portfolio developed at MIT. Most of these patents have already been fabricated to generate chipsets that have been validated in lab and animal trials. Some of these chipsets and systems, especially related to cochlear (ear) implants, have been tested on human subjects in a lab.

According to Kumar and Sarpeshkar, the global neuromodulation market is expected to reach $11 billion by 2022, registering an annual average growth pace of 13.1% from 2016 to 2022. Spinal cord stimulation and deep brain stimulation are major target applications. Neuromodulation is the most lucrative sector in the European neurological device market, accounting for over half the revenue. In India, it is estimated that about 30 million people suffer from various forms of neurological diseases and the average prevalence rate is as high as 2,394 patients per 100,000 of the population. As opposed to Western societies, we have a different problem here. Current neuromodulation devices cost between $10,000 and $40,000, putting them out of reach for many Indians. Neubionix intends to create a platform that developers of neuromodulation devices can draw upon to power their devices. I hope that such an approach will also make them affordable.

Siddharth Pai is founder of Siana Capital, a venture fund management company focused on tech

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