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If a microchip can help you hear, why shouldn’t a chip in your brain help you think?

Actor LeVar Burton, front right, plays Geordi LaForge in the “Star Trek” science fiction television series. The character started with a seeing visor – he was blind since birth – that later was replaced with an ocular implant. The implants of science fiction are becoming a reality thanks to the medical applications for their use.
Actor LeVar Burton, front right, plays Geordi LaForge in the “Star Trek” science fiction television series. The character started with a seeing visor – he was blind since birth – that later was replaced with an ocular implant. The implants of science fiction are becoming a reality thanks to the medical applications for their use. CBS

My last Border Collie, a sweet little rescue dog, had a chip implant that could identify her if she got lost. A vet equipped with the right technology could quickly read the chip to learn her identity and her home address. The idea seemed novel at the time, but chip implants for pets are now commonplace, and we had a stray cat we adopted “chipped” as a safety measure.

So what about people? In many a science fiction future, humans have various technology implants that help them do things (think of Geordi LaForge in the “Star Trek” franchise, who started with a seeing visor – he was blind since birth – that was later replaced by an ocular implant). I’ve had the pleasure of talking to LeVar Burton, who played Geordi, on several occasions, and he is as avidly futuristic as the character he plays. He loves sci-fi tech.

And he would love how fast this future is coming upon us. A Swedish company called Epicenter is now offering to implant its workers with microchips. The device is injected into the hand between thumb and index finger. The benefit: Implanted employees merely wave their hand to unlock doors. Users gain convenience by bearing inside themselves the same kind of technology that we use for mobile payments, called near-field communication, or NFC.

We’re not yet at the level that SpaceX founder Elon Musk sometimes talks about, with implanted brain chips feeding a “neural lace” that can enhance thinking or become a treatment for neurological disorders. Musk recently started a company called Neuralink to explore possibilities like this. If the idea seems strange, consider that we routinely use pacemakers for heart conditions, another implantable technology that can have life-saving consequences.

Apple is getting out in front on implantable technologies as well. Working in collaboration with a firm called Cochlear, the tech giant is exploring that other widespread area of human implants, hearing. Cochlear is a major player in the field of cochlear implants, in which an electronic device is connected to the nerve that processes audio signals for the brain. The implant “hears” through an external microphone and chip usually placed behind the ear.

Cochlear implants can restore hearing to people with devastating hearing problems, but Apple has now figured out a way to make them even better. Doing away with complicated controls, engineers at Cochlear and Apple have begun streaming information directly to inner ear implants. At the heart of this is Cochlear’s Nucleus 7 sound processor, which has been approved by the FDA for creating links between smartphones and internal implants.

You may have experience pairing Bluetooth headphones with a mobile device. The new Apple technology works the same way. The idea has implications that Geordi LaForge might enjoy. Imagine listening to your latest audio book by having it read directly into your head. No one around you would hear what you hear. Or think about phone calls that are often disrupted by ambient noise and consider that this kind of streaming technology actually takes a severe disability and turns it into a new capability that people with normal hearing don’t have.

Let me suggest that implantable tools like these are going to become more and more common, their uses largely developing through medical applications, but gradually broadening to include new ways of communicating between small devices and the human sensorium. No one wants to have hearing loss, but the ability to shape your own sound environment is seductive. What other tools, less invasive to be sure, might we be able to spin out of this kind of engineering?

Good for Apple for making its cochlear technologies available to qualified manufacturers at no charge. The work is a logical follow-through to the company’s software for conventional hearing aids and will offer new options to those with profound hearing loss. Keep an eye on this space as we learn how such technologies can flow into the broader market to augment our senses.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at gilster@mindspring.com.

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