Artificial Eye — Inching Closer to Human Eye Capabilities
In a significant breakthrough, think tanks from the Honk Kong University of Science and Technology have developed the world’s first 3D artificial eyeball that is capable of outdoing the human eye in certain aspects. The ElectroChemical Eye, or the EC-Eye, mimics the biological eye in shape and size, yet holds considerably greater potential.
The artificial eye can offer vision for humanoid robots, or serve as a bionic eye for visually-challenged people in the years ahead. Experts reckon that the eye might aid people who are fully or partially blind in as little as 5 years. All this is feasible as the device is almost as susceptible to light and has a better response time versus an actual eyeball.
The artificial eye converts images via small sensors that mimic the cones in a human eye. Those sensors stay within a membrane made from tungsten and aluminum which is cast into a hemispherical shape for the purpose of mirroring a human retina.
The device is a huge step-up over the presently available bionic eyes that, although help people with lost vision, yet carry its own drawbacks with regards to mirroring the resolution and width of the human eye. Developing such a device with image-sensing features including, high resolution, and extremely broad field of view, had put forth a huge challenge for researchers due to the retina and the spherical shape of the natural eye.
Addressing the Existing Challenges
A key aspect that complements the sturdiness of the eye’s design is its shape, yet it is also one of the toughest things emulate.
The human eye owes its high-resolution eyesight and broad field of view to the dome-shaped retina. The concave shape of the retina allows it to accumulate as much light that passes through the curved lens than it would accumulate if it was flat. Mimicking this natural phenomenon and shape in a bionic eye has been a toughie in the labs, as yet.
Developers behind the EC-Eye created a way to form photo-sensors directly into a hemispherical artificial retina. As such, they could develop a device that can mirror the broad field of view, resolution, and responsiveness of the biological eye.
“In the future, we can use this for better vision prostheses and humanoid robotics,” claims engineer and materials scientist Zhiyong Fan of Honk Kong University of Science and Technology.
With the biggest challenge now off the road, the scientists also ushered in to emulate other aspects of the eye.
Artificial Eye — The Goods and the Bads
Theoretically, the artificial eye can be attached to an optic nerve to transmit information to a human brain.
In various aspects, the artificial eye has the potential to outperform the biological eyes. The scientists found out that the photo-sensors of the nanowires were, in fact, significantly more reactive compared to the human retina. They got triggered in 19.2 ms (milliseconds) and recovered to an extent wherein they could be triggered again in 23.9 ms. Reaction and recovery duration in human photo-sensors lie between 40 and 150 ms.
Also, the nanowire density in the artificial retina is over 10X that of photodetectors in the biological eye, indicating that the technology can eventually attain far greater resolution than nature.
The big obstacle as of now is wiring up the photodetectors. In the present layout, every wire connected to the artificial retina is nearly a millimeter thick, so big that it touches several detectors right away. Merely 100 such wires accommodated across the rear of the retina, forming images having 100 px (pixels). That implies that the synthetic eye has a resolution of only 100 px, despite its high photosensor density.
The human eye can attain the 150-degree field of view. On the flip side, the artificial eye can manage to achieve 100 degrees, although it is a marked improvement over the roughly 70 degrees a flat sensor (conventional bionic eye) can attain.
Concerns Surrounding the Bionic Technology
Now the interesting point is how ethical and how risky it can be to let science not only repair us but also enhance us. It is akin to asking if sportspersons shall be permitted to consume the performance-boosting drugs. As bionic technology flourishes, it is likely that somebody decides to amputate a functional, yet suboptimal limb and substitute it with a stronger bionic one, thereby, propelling our ever-evolving desire to become better, even better than mother nature.
Another uncertainty is that pharma and tech companies thrive to make millions from driving these questionable therapies and technologies, thus broadening the gap between the “human have-nots” and the “superhuman haves” by offering the wealthier ones an option to be stronger, faster, better. And brighter.
At the core of the concerns is the manner rapid advancements in fields of nanotechnology, robotics, biotechnology, and information technology are blurring the line between the recovery of healthy mechanism and improved performance — whether that performance is analyzed on the sporting field, or in the workplace.
That being said, few transhumanist experts argue that we must not get overly concerned. Case in point, we are still yet to develop a prosthesis that outperforms the human variant. In the long haul, technology will exceed our biological nature; however, we must not belittle the technical issues in reaching that stage.
Another area of ethical concern is the weaponization of bionic equipment. In the end, we are the species that have developed such powerful nukes that we can wipe out this planet several times.