Blog | Friday, June 27, 2014

Better than new

If you were the right age to have been watching television in the mid-1970s, you probably remember “The 6 Million Dollar Man.” The show was about an astronaut who is critically injured in a test-mission gone bad, and is “rebuilt” with bionic (nuclear powered!) limbs and sensors to be “better than he was.” The campy intro, complete with scenes from the operating room, is, of course available on YouTube.

I was reminded of the old show when I read a recent piece in the New York Times about improvements in hearing aids. The newest models can now be controlled by smart-phone apps to adjust to different environments. Advanced filtering and other technology make it possible for wearers to hear better in noisy environments like restaurants. They can even stream audio directly from a phone or music player, like a Bluetooth headphone. Here’s the part that reminded me of the old show:

Today most people who wear hearing aids, eyeglasses, prosthetic limbs and other accessibility devices do so to correct a disability. But new hearing aids point to the bionic future of disability devices.

As they merge with software baked into our mobile computers, devices that were once used simply to fix whatever ailed us will begin to do much more. In time, accessibility devices may even let us surpass natural human abilities. One day all of us, not just those who need to correct some physical deficit, may pick up a bionic accessory or two.

I think we will see this play out first in competitive athletics. What if a golfer could embed a laser range finder and wind shear indicator in her sunglasses? What if a baseball player could wear contact lenses that allowed him to see the spin on the seams better? What if a tennis player could use a hearing aid that calibrated the amount of topspin off his opponent’s racket? If advantages can be had, athletes will seek them out, and it is going to be tough to “draw lines” around some of these technologies. If conventional contact lenses (not to mention refractive surgery) are commonplace, will it be possible to ban future “smart lenses” or “smart glasses?”

As the technology advances, making these “enhancements” more effective, less expensive, smaller and more wearable, I think we may all end up more like the 6 Million Dollar Man than we ever thought possible.

What do you think?

Ira S. Nash, MD, FACP, is the senior vice president and executive director of the North Shore-LIJ Medical Group, and a professor of Cardiology and Population Health at Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine. He is Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Cardiovascular Diseases and was in the private practice of cardiology before joining the full-time faculty of Massachusetts General Hospital. He then held a number of senior positions at Mount Sinai Medical Center prior to joining North Shore-LIJ. He is married with two daughters and enjoys cars, reading biographies and histories, and following his favorite baseball team, the New York Yankees, when not practicing medicine. This post originally appeared at his blog, Ausculation.