My bleeding AbioCor

Jul 15, 2009 at 5:00 am

When Michael Jackson died, about 5 percent of me believed he would come back.

I don’t say this as a joke, and it certainly isn’t meant to be irreverent or flip. I’m serious.

My rational mind led me to conclude that there was about a 5 percent chance medical technology, responding to the death of the second most famous person who has ever lived, would finally crest its banks to achieve human re-animation.

Sure, I jumped the gun, but only a little.

In my short life I’ve watched the division between sci-fi fantasy and reality dwindle to a point where I am sometimes uncertain which is which. While I’m in a constant state of low-grade dread about what I see coming down the pipe, I’m also ready for it to arrive. All signs point toward increased weirdness.

I’ve been mentally tabulating all the things that I’ve read in science fiction novels throughout my life that have eventually become real. The nerd in me who has always doggedly defended sci-fi as an engine of prophecy thinks gleefully of those who grimace over their horn rims at the genre, watching while the predictions of “speculative fiction” incrementally come true.

At last year’s IdeaFestival, Ray Bradbury appeared live via hologram. It broke my AbioCor artificial heart when I couldn’t get in. The Galt House isn’t yet set up to accept the subcutaneous microchip implanted in my right hand as legal tender and so, bupkis.

Ray guns? Yep. They’ve got those. As if the Taser wasn’t weird enough, the military has tested an amplified microwave gun whose beam agitates the nervous system of a victim, inducing the sensation of being on fire. It’s non-lethal, sick and real. They’ve also created a sonic cannon whose frequencies rattle the skulls of any illegally gathered group, inflicting potential permanent hearing loss and, according to some anecdotes, possible death.

However, should you get blasted and become completely deaf next time you and your anarchist gutter-punk friends decide to move from the designated protest zone (which will be conveniently located 12 miles away from whatever it is you will be protesting), have no fear.

A cranial implant produced by the Cochlear Co. can now provide deaf folks with something like hearing. The device turns sound into electronic impulses that are transmitted from an earpiece into the brain through a small cable plugged directly through the skull. The brain perceives the signal as something like sound, though the technology is still imperfect. The “sound” is apparently abrasive and pretty unpleasant. Go figure.

Still, it’s incredible. I recently saw a gentleman with a Cochlear implant, and I was mesmerized. The cable came out of his ear, curved up, and then just disappeared beneath his thinning hair into a quarter-sized plate in his scalp. I know I run the risk of sounding crass and inconsiderate, but it blew my mind. It was like looking at a damn cyborg. Finally.

With further developments, Cochlear patients will again be able to enjoy music. And what could be more humane than giving someone the gift of hearing Jason Mraz again?

But what if said patient, who has been out of the Billboard loop for all these years, wants to know what they’re hearing on the radio? Again, stay calm. Technology will provide. There’s an app for it.

I recently sat with friends enjoying a cold beer after a blistering day at work. The music playing at the bar was, much to our surprise, an exceedingly pleasant mix of Gilded Age clarinet jazz and Tin-Pan-Alley tunes. It was relaxing and it made me briefly forget when I was. I took a shot in the dark and speculated that one song was a Cole Porter number, smugly satisfied with the piles of street cred I surely gained dropping that particular name, certain no one would know I was probably wrong. I was wrong. My friend produced his iPhone, which he calls “the Oracle,” held it in the air, and waited. Amid the noise of rush hour Bardstown Road traffic, the infernal machine listened to the damn song, and 15 seconds later produced the artist, song and album names.

It was the Mills Brothers, if you care to know.


Reading: “The Singularity is Near,” by Ray Kurzweil; “The Road,” by Cormac McCarthy

Listening to: Michael Jackson, Scott Walker and the Mills Brothers