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 My Bionic Quest for Boléro

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Date posted: 27/10/2005

Wired magazine is presently featuring the four-page story of Michael Chorost, a man who fought to revolutionise artificial hearing. Born in 1964, of a mother suffering rubella, he only ever had one functioning ear, and since he was struck deaf by "sudden-onset deafness" on July 7, 2001, at 10:30 am in the other ear without warning, he has relied upon a computer surgically installed inside his skull. Called a cochlear implant, this routine replacement has 16 electrodes that snake inside the inner ear.

This implant was designed for 8 channels of sound, as opposed to the natural human ear's 3,500. Eight channels cannot compare to the natural capacity, but it is enough to understand speech. Sadly, it is hopeless for music, and that is where Michael's quest started.

"The implant was embedded in my head; it wasn't some flawed hearing aid I could just send back. But it was a computer. Which meant that, at least in theory, its effectiveness was limited only by the ingenuity of software engineers. As researchers learn more about how the ear works, they continually revise cochlear implant software. Users await new releases with all the anticipation of Apple zealots lining up for the latest Mac OS.

About a year after I received the implant, I asked one implant engineer how much of the device's hardware capacity was being used. "Five percent, maybe." He shrugged. "Ten, tops."

I was determined to use that other 90 percent. I set out on a crusade to explore the edges of auditory science. For two years tugging on the sleeves of scientists and engineers around the country, offering myself as a guinea pig for their experiments. I wanted to hear Bol?ro again.

So in mid-2002, nine months after activation, I upgraded to a program called Hi-Res, which gave me 16 channels - double the resolution! An audiologist plugged my processor into her laptop and uploaded the new code. I suddenly had a better ear, without surgery. In theory, I would now be able to distinguish among tones five notes apart instead of 11.

I eagerly plugged my Walkman into my processor and turned it on. Bol?ro did sound better. But after a day or two, I realized that "better" still wasn't good enough.

At a cochlear implant conference in 2003, Jay Rubinstein, a surgeon and researcher at the University of Washington, stated that it took at least 100 channels of auditory information to make music pleasurable.

It's June 2005, a few weeks after my visit to Dallas, and I'm ready to try again. A team of engineers at Advanced Bionics, one of three companies in the world that makes bionic ears, is working on a new software algorithm for so-called virtual channels. I hop on a flight to their Los Angeles headquarters, my CD player in hand.

My implant has 16 electrodes, but the virtual-channels software will make my hardware act like there are actually 121. Manipulating the flow of electricity to target neurons between each electrode creates the illusion of seven new electrodes between each actual pair, similar to the way an audio engineer can make a sound appear to emanate from between two speakers.

I open my eyes, blinking back tears. "Congratulations," I say to Emadi. "You have done it." And I reach across the desk with absurd formality and shake his hand.

I no longer doubt that incredible things can be done with that unused 90 percent of my implant's hardware capacity. Tests conducted a month after my visit to Advanced Bionics show that my ability to discriminate among notes has improved considerably. With Hi-Res, I was able to identify notes only when they were at least 70 hertz apart. Now, I can hear notes that are only 30 hertz apart. It's like going from being able to tell the difference between red and blue to being able to distinguish between aquamarine and cobalt.

My hearing is no longer limited by the physical circumstances of my body. While my friends' ears will inevitably decline with age, mine will only get better.

See the full Story via external site: www.wired.com

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