We’ve heard a lot over the past few years about the downsides of technology, about how it has allowed people to track us and accumulate data about us and hack into our computer systems to steal personal information and engage in credit card fraud or identity theft. It’s important to remember, though, that new and advanced technology is just a tool, and in the right hands it can perform almost miraculous positive things, too.
Recently researchers announced one example of such a positive use of technology that allowed a patient with late-stage amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)–also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease–to communicate with the outside world. In the late stages of the disease, ALS patients become completely paralyzed and are unable to move, speak. or communicate with their families and doctors. It is hard to imagine the sense of loneliness and hopelessness that such patients must experience as the paralysis progresses, communication becomes impossible, and they are locked in to their own consciousness.
A team in Germany used technology to establish communication with one such patient, using neural implants that read signals from the patient’s brain and allow him to form words and sentences. The process employed neural feedback that allowed the patient to align brain signals to high tones and low tones. Once the patient learned how to control the tones and researchers adjusted the tones to reflect the most responsive neurons, the patient could use the system to say yes or no. When the yes/no options were applied to groups of letters and then individual letters, the patient was able to form complete sentences–through a laborious process that moved at a rate of about one character per minute, to be sure, but communication with the outside world nevertheless.
The patient has since produced dozens of sentences–including thoughts like “I love my cool son.” The system isn’t foolproof; on some days the patient was unable to produce an intelligible sentence, and researchers aren’t sure whether it was because the patient wasn’t focused, or the implants lost contact with the neurons with which they were attuned, or for some other reason. And, of course, the system is expensive, too, and will have to be adapted to allow for communication with other paralyzed patients. But those facts don’t detract from the remarkable accomplishment that technology has allowed: permitting a completely paralyzed person to communicate again.
I’m certain that patient is deeply grateful that the technology permitted him to let his son, and others, know that he is still inside and still capable of the feelings that define us all as human beings. I’ll think of that the next time I’m reminded of the downsides of technology.