News and commentary about the Great Frontiers

ISS007-E-10807 (21 July 2003) --- This view of Earth's horizon as the sunsets over the Pacific Ocean was taken by an Expedition 7 crewmember onboard the International Space Station (ISS). Anvil tops of thunderclouds are also visible. Credit: Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center

Image Credit: ISS007-E-10807 (21 July 2003) – Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center

Wetware Rising


Subjectively, analog representations of reality, such as an LP of music played on a record player, are considered to be “warm” by purists, as opposed to the “cold” digital playback of MP3 and other audio codices. In all things digital, reality is translated into binary code using only 1 and 0 (or off and on). The Digital Revolution has obviously succeeded beyond all expectations because the massive amount of 1’s and 0’s used creates such a fine-scale representation of reality that human senses cannot tell the difference. The best audio technology today is now almost undistinguishable by humans from analog formats. The digital Ultra High Definition video currently in laboratories is reportedly so effective at representing reality that human viewers feel motion sickness.

One current drawback of digital technology to create artificial retinas and other sensory replacements is the enormous amounts of data required to emulate reality. Current artificial visual systems require dedicated computer systems and result in only a visible grid of white and black areas that represent open areas and boundaries. While this technology is a huge step forward for the blind, the full-color, widescreen, three-dimensional representation of the world enjoyed by most sighted people seems a long shot.

Enter analog technology. Analog technology detects the continuum of data between two set points bounded only by its capabilities. For example, the human biological eye is an analog device that can perceive the degrees of color wavelengths bounded by the visible light slice of the electromagnetic spectrum. New audio technology from Akustica embeds a membrane-based device on a microchip. Meanwhile, researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine have developed a microchip with a chemical delivery system for the same neurotransmitters that the biological eye uses to transmit visual data into the brain for processing. This merging of analog mechanical devices with electronics is called Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS) technology.

The Analog and Digital Revolutions currently underway are merging into “wetware” (the perceived “wetness” of biological systems combined with the “dry” logic of digital hardware and software).