Billy 2.0 – If Apple made cochlear implants…

Watch the video above. Its an old film reel from 1928 of the premiere of Charlie Chaplin’s film The Circus. When an eagle eyed historian watched the film’s DVD extras, he spotted a woman walking along, talking into a handheld object near her mouth. There was only one possible explanation – she was a time traveller from the future, talking to someone on her mobile phone.

I don’t know what mobile phone coverage was like in 1928 – I suspect it might have been somewhat patchy – but in the end, it was revealed to be a woman in her 50s, using a handheld hearing aid manufactured in 1925.

No big deal. Deaf people have always been decades ahead of the rest when it comes to technology.

Deaf people were the first to use transistor technology in hearing aids. We were the first to wear ear mounted communication devices, about 50 years before taxi drivers started rocking bluetooth headsets. The first to wear a small box with wires piping sound into our ears, before Sony invented the Walkman, or Apple invented the iPod. Don’t believe me? Here’s a pic of me rocking a full body hearing aid aged 7. If you squint, it looks a bit like an iPod. Right? RIGHT?

We were also the first to discover the potential of discarded telex boxes and turn them into textphones. The first to use palantypists in the Houses of Parliament. The first to recognise the potential of text messaging, pagers, online video chat, email… I won’t go on.

People nowadays invest a lot of time and effort into choosing the technology they think is best, and then arguing that their choice is best. Whether its Apple iOS vs Google Android, LCD versus Plasma, or Vinyl vs CD vs MP3, everyone has their own preference and their own reasons for choosing.

The bigger your TV, the deeper and richer your blacks are, the more the sounds from your hi fi surround you, the more processing power your computer has, the more storage your mobile phone has… the better your status is as a human being, and as a consumer.

The product cycle is getting shorter and shorter – it’s the only way companies stay in profit. Back in the day, you’d buy a TV and expect it to last a good few decades. Now, major manufacturers replace VHS with DVD, which is now superseded by Blu Ray, within a decade. HD TVs are old hat now, it’s all about LED TVs, 3D TVs, and 4K TVs. The old formats are just landfill, and we keep giving these companies our money for better and newer products.

This all came to mind when I was walking down a corridor at the Royal National Throat Nose and Ear Hospital, past several glass display cases, packed with old hearing aids from the 1920s to the present. I wondered what they sounded like, how loudly they whistled, and how often the batteries had to be changed.

Then I sat down in a small room with several other deaf people to watch a presentation about the two models of cochlear implant available to me: the Med El and the Advanced Bionics. Each implant looks pretty much the same – an over the ear component, a microphone and a small cable connecting the two. The Med El was smaller and came with a wide range of pretty colours. The Advanced Bionics was bigger and chunkier, and only came in a few different shades. The Med El also came with a disposable battery option.

Now, I’ll make an admission here. I often forget to recharge my mobile phone. I’ll leave it lying around overnight and find it only has 12% battery left in the morning, just before a 3 hour trip to work. The probability of my being organised enough to put my Cochlear Implant batteries on to charge overnight are at around 12%.

When the presentation ended, they asked who would like to choose their implant. I was the first to put my hand up. I strode to the front and signed the contract for a Med El Opus. I’d already done lots of research into the available models. I liked the Med El because of their testimonies, because a lot of people I know wear them, because it takes disposable batteries, and most of all, with the interchangeable covers… it sort of looks a bit like an Apple product.

Med El Opus 2 cochlear implant

I’m sold. Uncannily, a friend of mine predicted this happening FOUR YEARS AGO:

“If Apple made cochlear implants, Billy Mager would be first in the queue.”
James Kearney, 2008

After I’d signed the forms for the Med El, I started chatting with another deaf guy my own age. He’d chosen the opposing model – the Advanced Bionics. Apparently the technical specs of the AB implant were far better, and it came with something called ‘clear voice’ enabling you to hear speech more clearly.

I pointed out again and again that the hospital staff were adamant that both implants offered the same level of performance… but he was sticking with his choice. We parted amicably, both of us happy with our respective choices.

Matthew was switched on three months ago. He emailed me the other week to tell me how he’s getting on so far, attaching a copy of his audiogram, which blew me away.

My CI is Apple, his is Android. Mine is a Panasonic Plasma, his is a Sony 4K TV. We’ll never ever agree on which is the better implant – and that’s because we don’t have the luxury of swapping implants to try the other out. Once we’ve chosen our hardware, it’s part of us for life. We can upgrade them with software updates, different mapping, different programmes – but the hardware stays inside us for good.

Once again though, Deaf people are way ahead of the rest, and the rest of the human race is playing catch up. At some point, augmentation technology is going to move from being purely restorative, to the arena of deliberate enhancement.

Transhumanism is the buzzword of 2012. The clearest definition of Transhumanism is an international intellectual and cultural movement supporting the use of science and technology – more specifically bionics, genetic engineering and computers – to improve human mental and physical characteristics and capacities, creating in effect a new post-human race.

There are several – mostly British – people experimenting on themselves in the name of Transhumanism.

Twelve years ago Professor Kevin Warwick from the University of Reading had a radio chip implanted in his arm. With the implant he could easily operate doors, lights, heaters and other computers without lifting a finger. On a second version of the project he could even control an electric wheelchair and stimulate artificial sensations to the brain by using an implanted neural interface.

Other transhumanists – or biohackers – such as Lepht Anonym have inserted magnets into their fingertips and even thermometers under the skin, with varying degrees of success. Fair play to them, but I’m happier getting it done on the NHS – and with general anaesthetic. Most Transhumanists have to carry out their operations in back street operating theatres or tattoo parlours without any anaesthetic, as they’re not medically approved procedures. Ouch.

So, with the NHS putting computers in deaf people (not always with full consent, but more on that later) and private Biohacking, perhaps 20 or 30 years from now, everyone will go into shops, hospitals or wherever to select their own upgrades. Perhaps a new bionic elbow, or a replacement pair of eyes with additional colour spectrum perception. An inner ear implant for making those hands free phone calls. An exoskeleton for lifting heavy objects in the garage. A retinal implant for watching TV while you’re on the move. Hologram implants in your fingertips for accessing your emails out of thin air. There’ll be competing brands offering these physical upgrades – Panasonic, Sony, Samsung, Apple.

That’s all coming, and it’s coming sooner rather than later. Is it a good thing? I’m not sure. I don’t think many of these ‘enhancements’ will be available on the NHS, for starters. I’d imagine consumer and medical regulation for these sort of upgrades might be a bit tricky. Will deaf and disabled people who choose not to be fixed become more ‘disabled’?

Some people have asked me whether my having the implant means I don’t subscribe to the idea of deaf culture and the deaf community, that I’m against it in some way. My answer to that is no. Whatever this cochlear implant does, I’ll still be deaf, especially when I take it off. Wanting better hearing isn’t the same as not wanting to be deaf.

I do know one thing, though. Unlike an elderly woman using a mobile phone in Hollywood in 1928, post-humans will become an everyday sight on our streets.

Further reading, courtesy of Wired Magazine’s Transhuman Week:
The societal risk of trying to create a pedigree super-race
Magnet-implanting DIY Biohackers pave the way for mainstream adoption

Practical Transhumanism: Five Living Cyborgs

Stealth Cyborgism: pacemakers, cochlear implants and prosthetics
Transcending the human, DIY Style
The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil

4 Replies to “Billy 2.0 – If Apple made cochlear implants…”

  1. Trying to decide between AB and MedEl myself!! Looking forward to your activation and following notes. What is your hearing loss history – don’t see that on your blog yet.

  2. I was born very, very, very deaf, and about 2 years ago started getting deafer, especially in my left ear. Should probably do a post on that at some point!

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