TCS Daily

The Man with the Bionic Ear

By Kenneth Silber - June 13, 2005 12:00 AM

On July 7, 2001, 36-year-old Michael Chorost was renting a car at the Reno, Nevada airport when the nearby traffic suddenly sounded fuzzy. Chorost initially thought the problem was with his hearing aids; he had been born with damaged hearing due to a rubella epidemic in 1964. But his hearing grew progressively worse in the subsequent hours, as he checked into an emergency room and cut short his business trip. Although the causes were unknown, the consequences were stark. He was going completely deaf.

The solution proposed by doctors in subsequent weeks was for Chorost to get a cochlear implant, a computer chip embedded in his skull that would produce artificial hearing. Sound would be received by a microphone headpiece (which would stick to his head, held in place by a magnet under his skin). The sound would be converted to electrical impulses processed by a device on his belt and transmitted into his head by radio waves. Electrodes in his cochlea, a snail-shaped organ of the inner ear, would then strobe on and off, stimulating the auditory nerves to provide what his brain would interpret as sound.

Rebuilt: How Becoming Part Computer Made Me More Human (Houghton Mifflin) is a fascinating memoir of Chorost's experiences in becoming and living as what he calls a "cyborg." That term, coined by neuroscientist Manfred Clynes in 1960, stands for "cybernetic organism," a living being that combines the biological and computational. Chorost emphasizes that the term should not be applied to just anyone who has an artificial body part, but only to those whose artificial parts act on the body via computational rules; thus, people with pacemakers or cochlear implants are cyborgs, while those with artificial hips or corneas or even implanted ID chips are not.

More than 82,000 people worldwide have received cochlear implants. The technology was first introduced in the early 1980s and has improved rapidly in recent years; some early versions were not portable, requiring the user to sit plugged into a big machine. The devices put into people's heads are designed to have more capacity than immediately needed, so they can handle more sophisticated inputs as better software is developed. The technology initially sparked bitter disputes among the deaf, between enthusiasts of cures and assimilation, and proponents of a distinct deaf culture. But opposition to implants has diminished in recent years. Chorost, who never learned sign language, writes poignantly about the signing deaf community's uncertain prospects as technology advances.

Chorost underwent surgery on September 6, 2001 and then waited the requisite several weeks for the incision to heal and swelling to subside before the implant could be turned on. He watched the Twin Towers fall on television in "dreamlike silence." His early experiences following "activation" were disorienting. He could understand little of what people were saying. National Public Radio sounded like gibberish. A leaf skittering on the sidewalk sounded like tinfoil. A toilet flushing came across as an explosion. A screaming, high-pitched din turned out to be a neighbor's leaf blower.

But his new hearing got better. He attended "mapping" sessions with his audiologist to fine-tune his parameters. Buying a portable CD player, he pointed to his headpiece and told the store clerk he was going to plug the player into his "bionic ear." Later, the software in his belt-worn processor received several upgrades. He could choose among software protocols that produced different qualities and types of sound. Delving into epistemology, he concluded that even people with normal hearing get only a version of reality; how things sound depends on who is listening.

There are still limitations on what Chorost can hear. Music tends to sound flat and tinny. However, further improvements are in prospect. It is even possible that one day he will have (for the first time in his life) normal hearing, if technology becomes able to fix the damaged hair cells in his inner ear. Chorost points out, moreover, that making the most of his implant required effort and training. His experience in this regard is an interesting counterpoint to worries (such as those of social critic Bill McKibben) that technology will strip away the importance of effort and make human achievement meaningless.

Rebuilt is a very personal book. Chorost writes about his first sexual experience after becoming a cyborg, and about how being short as well as hard of hearing long hindered his social life. A onetime computer geek, he gradually became disillusioned with computers, seeing them as isolating and addictive; this increased his anxiety when it came time to actually put computer equipment into his body. However, he believes his cochlear implant helped him become a better person, more thoughtful and inclined to listen. By the end, it seems more than metaphorical to say that he has been rebuilt.



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