The future is now – retinal VR, organic computers, and mind control

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(c) John Hopkins University
(c) John Hopkins University

William Gibson famously said that “the future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed” and some of the stories emerging in the area of futurology this week seem to resonate with that quote. Sometimes we fail to appreciate just how fast science is progressing, just how remarkable some of the advances that are being made, so this will be a regular feature on my blog to talk a little about the stories that fascinate me….

First up, in a week in which Microsoft announced the price of Hololens development kits, comes the story of a prototype device created in co-operation between QD Laser Inc. and the University of Tokyo. Going one step further than projecting images onto a screen in front of you, their prototype projects a laser directly onto the retina. Because the laser is directed onto the retina, it bypasses the lens and means that even people with outer eye problems will receive a sharp image. QD Laser Inc. see the device having two markets – firstly, as a medical device it can aid people with poor sight (it can project imagery from a video camera directly onto the retina), and secondly as an Augmented Reality (AR) device for entertainment. While the science behind such virtual retinal displays is not new, this marks a big step in the miniaturisation of the technology. It’s still early days for the device (which needs to be medically certified) but – with QD Laser Inc. being a part of Fujitsu – there is certainly the necessary financial backing to develop this into a commercial product.

Meanwhile, McGill University in Canada have been busying themselves creating the proof of concept of an organic supercomputer powered by Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP). Unlike traditional computer chips, which reply on electrons propelled by an electric charge, the organic chip utilises protein strings powered by ATP and offers the promise of a future in which computing can be altogether more energy efficient. Despite this prototype performing well in solving the mathematical problem it was set (the specific instance {2, 5, 9} of a classical nondeterministic-polynomial-time complete (“NP-complete”) problem, the subset sum problem, if you’re interested!), this marks the first step on the road to a fully functional, full scale organic supercomputer. But, it’s nonetheless an important step…

And, finally, not content with creating a prosthetic hand capable of transmitting physical sensations directly to the brain of the user, John Hopkins University have taken the technology even further and created a mind-controlled prosthetic arm in which individual fingers can be manipulated purely by the means of a surgically implanted electrode. The test subject, seen in the video below, received no prior training yet – within the space of two hours – was able to attain an 88% level of accuracy of finger movement. Watching the video, it is difficult not to get excited about the potential for this technology, in combination with the huge advances currently being made in robotics and prosthetics…

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