Feb 21 2022

Orphaned Technology and Implants

Rapidly advancing computer technology has greatly enhanced our lives and had ripple effects throughout many industries. I essentially lived through the computer and internet revolution, and in fact each stage of my life is marked by the state of computer technology at that time. You can also easily date movies in a contemporary setting by the computer and cell phone technology in use. But one downside to rapid advance is so-called orphaned technology. You may, for example use a piece of software that you know really well and feel is the perfect compromise of usability and functionality. Upgrades may be too expensive for you, or simply not desired. But at some point the company stops supporting the software, because they have moved on to later versions and would rather just have their customers upgrade. Without upgrades the software slowly becomes unusable – vulnerable to hacks and not compatible with other software and hardware.

The problem is greater with hardware. Without driver updates and in some cases the ability to have hardware services, at some point it will stop working. Sure, you can just replace those Jazz drives with CD burners, but what about your library of backups? These problems can at least be solved with money, which can be an obstacle for many people. But what if the hardware is implanted in you? If the technology gets orphaned, there may be no other options. This can become a problem not solved with money or biting the bullet and upgrading.

That is the issue now being faced by more than 350 people around the world who had received the Second Sight bionic eye implant. The company almost went bankrupt in 2019 but was saved by a public offering which raised $57.5 million. However, since then their stock prices have plumetted and now the company is merging with a biopharmaceutical company called Nano Precision Medical, who plans to close the Second Sight division. The technology is effectively orphaned. No more repairs or software updates.

Second Sight’s latest product is the Argus II. This works by having a small video camera mounted on a pair of glasses. The camera sends signals to an array of electrodes which are implanted on the retina of one eye, although both eyes can have the implant and at least one patient has the double implant. The electrodes then stimulate the optic nerve just like the retina would, producing a crude monochromatic image. However, any vision is useful for someone with no vision. It can help them navigate their environment, and perform tasks that benefit from visual feedback. Patients have generally been happy with the results. The hope was that through incremental advances in hardware and software technology, this approach would produce better and better results. Eventually this might produce something close to normal vision, essentially just replacing the retina in the visual pathway. This is useful for those who are blind because of eye or retinal problems, but who have an intact optic nerve.

For those who do not have a retina on which to implant the electrodes, or do not have a functioning optic nerve to convey this information to the brain, there is another option. In such cases you can bypass the optic pathways and directly stimulate the visual cortex of the brain. The downside of this approach is that you are also bypassing a lot of image processing that happens on the way to the cortex, so the brain receives a crude signal. You also lose the somatotopic mapping – the visual cortex is physically laid out as a map of the visual field. But these are solvable problems. Software can take over the pre-cortical image processing, and we can figure out some way to get the brain electrodes to map to where they are supposed to be. Brain plasticity could then take over, remapping to the new visual input to some degree.

There is no theoretical reason why this technology cannot work, eventually leading to something like Geordi La Forge’s visor. We still need to advance electrode technology as well, but that is also coming along nicely. A company recently implanted wireless electrodes that can both be powered and receive signals from a wireless transmitter. This is important because it means that no wires have to cross the skull, and be a conduit for infection. But is does open the door to wireless interference, and even hacking.

As this brain-machine interface technology improves, in addition to other medical implantable technology, we do need to confront the issue of the responsibility of medical device companies. I know there are many people who are fans of the open-source community, and this does provide one solution to the problem of orphaned software. Even when companies develop the technology as proprietary, they can simply be required by law that if they ever orphan their technology, they must turn over all the software code and documentation to the public so that others can take over. However, this would need to be paired with regulations regarding oversight and approval for open source software designed to operate medical implants.

Hardware is trickier as this kind of advanced technology requires expensive infrastructure to develop, advance, and maintain. We would not want patients left to the mercy of DIY brain-hacks. But again, perhaps it would make sense to make patents on implantable technology contingent on supporting the technology. If you orphan the tech, then your patent expires and it becomes public domain. Or at least another company can apply to get a free license to the patents if they demonstrate they can and will support existing users. There can also be charitable institutions that take over orphaned biomedical tech.

Right now private company investments are driving some of the progress in the brain-machine interface and other cyborg technology. This is a good thing. But such industries need to be regulated for quality control and patient protection. Those regulations now need to deal with the issue of orphaned technology.

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