Got to recharge my ear!

Signal-processing chip for a future middle-ear cochlear implant. Credit: M. Yip et al., MIT

Yes, I know. Today's April Fools' day but this is not a prank! I stumbled onto this news in February and I decided that it could fit well on this day.

Hearing aids have been around for quite some time. Actually, they appeared well before electronics could be used to amplify the sound for those hard of hearing in form of a sort of horn. With electronics the possibility to amplify sounds provided a helping hand and the miniaturisation resulted to almost invisible prosthetics.

However, this works only for people who still have a functioning tympanic membrane, although a less performing one. When the ear drum is no longer working amplifying the sound does not help. In this case, and more recently, scientists have developed cochlear implants, see the clip below, where a series of electrodes placed inside the cochlea can stimulate the nerves and create the sensation of sound.

The problem with this kind of cochlear implant is that in addition to the implant you need to have an external prosthetics to intercept the sound, convert it into electromagnetic pulses that can be transmitted to the implant under the scalp and from there to the electrode in the cochlea.

Now researchers at the MIT and Harvard have come up with a chip that can be inserted directly inside the ear, replacing the ear drum, to process sound and create the electrical pulses that will be delivered by the electrode to the cochlea (depending on where the impulse is delivered inside the cochlea you stimulate a nerve that is picking up a very specific frequency - it is up to the brain to make sense of all the incoming frequencies as voices and sound).

Of course, as any electrical device it needs power and it has a battery but the battery can last only for so long, about 8 hours in this case), after which it needs to be recharged.

Don't worry. They came up with a solution for this too! The idea is to use a cell phone with a special adaptor that when you talk will recharge the battery via induction. This should provide a sufficient boost to get going through the day but, unless you are a "serial talker" wouldn't be enough for a full recharge. For that the researchers are proposing a special pillow with a coil inside that as you sleep it will recharge, always through induction, your "ear"!

And this is not a prank, just advanced technology that looks like magic, as Clark pointed out in his third law on technology advance:

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Author - Roberto Saracco

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