‘Minimally invasive endovascular stent-electrode array for high-fidelity, chronic recordings of cortical neural activity.’
Nature Biotechnology (2016) Oxley TJ, Opie NL, et al.
If the above means little to you that’s fine. To most people it’s just gobbledygook. It is scientific-speak at its finest.
In reality it’s the title of a recently published research paper. Why it’s important you’ll find out shortly. But you should also know that the researchers (all 39 of them) are from The University of Melbourne.
This is ‘home grown’ scientific research.
Just reading the title, you might struggle to see what it’s all about. But this isn’t a typical science research paper. This is scientific breakthrough. First in the world kind of tech.
The kind of tech that was science fiction recently. Today it’s science reality.
The best description for this research is the simplest one. It’s the world’s first ‘bionic spine’. Technically it’s not a spine. But it is tech that could help paraplegics and quadriplegics move again.
The bionic ear helps people to hear. The bionic eye helps people see.
These researchers are working on the bionic spine. The end goal is to help people with spinal cord injuries walk.
That’s the idea at least — and they’re getting incredibly close to success.
I call this latest breakthrough part of the ‘Great Aussie Bionic Trifecta’. It’s the third major Aussie breakthrough in bionic tech. First was the bionic ear. Then the bionic eye. Now the bionic spine.
Each has huge commercial potential. The bionic ear is proof of that. If the bionic eye and spine head down the same path, then this is one trifecta set to pay up big.
Trifecta legs one and two
1976. Dandenong, Victoria, Australia.
Rod Saunders is a hardware shop manager. One afternoon he is travelling in his car. He is carrying a length of timber in the back of his car.
It was the 70s, so things were a little more relaxed than they are today.
Saunders has part of the timber sticking out the back window. In a tragic accident, that part of the timber catches a signpost. Inside the car the timber whips around, striking Saunders on the back of the head. He survives. But the timber fractures his skull and renders Saunders deaf from the head trauma.
18 months later Saunders answers an ad from Professor Graeme Clark. Clark is seeking volunteers for a new ‘bionic ear’ trial. Before he knows it Saunders is creating history. Saunders becomes the first person to get a bionic ear.
For over eight years Clark and his team worked on bionic ear technology. It wasn’t until 1978 when Clarke got his ‘eureka’ moment. Saunders hearing ‘God Save the Queen’ with this new tech was Clarke’s moment.
Cochlear [ASX:COH] would go on to commercialise the bionic ear. This Aussie invention would change the lives of people across the world. It would also turn Cochlear into a $6.1 billion company.
Fast forward to 2007. The Bionics Institute (BI) and the Centre for Eye Research Australia (CERA) embark on an ambitious project. This is another pioneering Aussie research project. Another bionics project. This time, however, they’re looking to create a bionic eye.
Thankfully they had decades of research from the bionic ear. This helped them get things rolling. Now this Aussie based team hope to cure the most common form of inherited blindness using cutting edge tech.
Retinitis Pigmentosa is the predominant cause of inherited blindness. It impacts around 1.5 million people worldwide. According to the Bionics Institute,
‘In retinitis pigmentosa, the light-sensitive cells of the retina (photoreceptors) degenerate but the retinal neurons that transmit information to the brain remain.’
In 2014, a clinical trial gave three patients a prototype bionic eye. All went well. But this year the next generation prototype is set for another clinical trial. This time the device will be fully transplantable and portable. This year could be the year they have their ‘eureka’ moment. If they do, we could see another ‘Cochlear’ in the making.
The third leg of the trifecta
The bionic ear and eye are the first two legs of this great Aussie trifecta. Now the third leg is coming into play. The bionic spine completes the trifecta. And the researchers are on the cusp of another ‘eureka’ moment.
The key technology is a small array of electrodes. These electrodes sit in the brain above the motor cortex. This part of the brain sends signals to control your muscles. It’s what helps you walk and move.
By detecting brain impulses, the ‘bionic spine’ send a signal to a device in the shoulder. This in turn will control bionic limbs. Think of perhaps a bionic exoskeleton that will assist the patient.
The idea is spinal cord patients can control the exoskeleton with their mind. Simply by thinking about it, they can walk. Eventually the process becomes a subconscious effort. In other words, it becomes the same as how people without injury move.
The aim is for the implant to go into three patients in 2017. That’s how quickly this technology is moving. And just like the others, if it works it could lead to a billion dollar commercial success.
It’s mind-blowing stuff. When you look at the prototype Clark developed 38 years ago it looks crude. If you look at the tiny bionic spine you can see the elegance of modern tech.
|Source: National Museum Australia/University of Melbourne|
You have to marvel at the advances of modern technology. 38 years isn’t a long time. But it’s easy to see how far we’ve come in such a short space.
Science fiction doesn’t exist anymore
What we can achieve today is, to many, science fiction. The truth is there is no such thing as science fiction anymore. Today is all about science-reality.
Never before in history have we been able to achieve so much so quickly. But here’s the thing — it’s only getting more high tech and happening faster.
Exponential increases in computing power help us learn and understand more every day. The dawn of quantum computing will change everything. It will lead to artificial intelligence. It will lead humankind to greater heights.
In a world of quantum computers, today’s advances will seem basic. Tomorrow’s tech will be even more elegant, graceful and useful than today.
Quantum computing will lead to incredible advances. Advances in brain technology, automatic and self-aware systems. It will create a new convergence between human and machine.
You might think we already live in a crazy world. But the tech coming is even greater and crazier than you can imagine. It’s coming at us all right now. So strap in for the ride of your life.