Building Tomorrow explores the ways technology, innovation, and entrepreneurship are creating a freer, wealthier, and more peaceful world.

Nov 1, 2018

X-Ray Vision Could Be More Than a Pipe Dream

But you might have to ‘taste’ the X-Rays.

Taste Photographs

It’s hard to overstate just how limited our senses are. Don’t get me wrong, the fact that electromagnetic radiation can wiggle little “rods and cones” in our eyes, and that these signals can then be processed by our brain and turned into what we call sight, is absolutely incredible. But the percent of electromagnetic radiation that we can see is basically 0%.

Radio waves, gamma rays, x-rays, infrared, ultraviolet and beyond; we can only see a tiny fraction of these signals. But we know these signals contain useful information, and we know that some animals have access to different parts of the spectrum. Our vision isn’t the only sense so limited. Our ability to sense heat, touch, taste, and smell pale in comparison to the rest of the animal kingdom.

From bats using echolocation to the extreme vision of the mantis shrimp, there is ample proof that brains are capable of processing a variety of interesting inputs. Consider the salmon, whose brain is connected to an internal magnetic compass. Salmon have a special place in their bodies where a small amount of iron is suspended, floating freely. This iron is attracted to the north magnetic pole, giving salmon a truly innate sense of direction. 

Bees can see ultraviolet light, and have also incorporated iron into their biology in ways that allows them to sense magnetic fields. Buzzards can see small rodents from a height of 15,000 feet. Some snakes can sense minute heat differences in objects up to 40 cm away. The dogfish shark can detect electrical currents in the water emitted by its prey. Dogs’ sense of smell is roughly 10,000 to 100,000 times as sensitive as our own, and they don’t even have the best noses on the planet. Evolution has surely created some remarkable senses

As further evidence of the usefulness of some of these invisible signals, I would point to the enumerable devices that have been created to sense what humans cannot. From mass spectrometers to MRIs, humans have learned a great deal from extracting and processing signals that are invisible to our feeble biological input systems.

Currently, we use these tools as a clumsy workaround for the limits of our natural senses. We map an “ultraviolet picture” to the visible spectrum, and look at it side by side with a picture taken using regular color photography. Same thing with x-rays, ultrasounds, and basically the whole field of radiology. We put a sample in a mass spectrometer machine, and read textual output regarding the makeup of the sample. We point our laser-thermometer into the volcano and read the temperature on the screen as text.

What if — instead of using proxies like computers and text — we could pipe the information that these devices capture to our brains directly?

It turns out… we might be able to do just that.

Seeing With Your Tongue

Humans have been using machine-made, substitute senses for a long time. For example, the cochlear implant was invented in the 1950’s, allowing large numbers of deaf people to hear. Yet while that seemed miraculous at the time, cochlear implants give their recipients signals that their brains have already evolved to process using natural mechanisms in the ear.

More recently though, we have invented truly novel ways of giving our brains input. Take BrainPort, a head mounted camera that is connected to an electrode that users attach to their tongue. This “electrode lollipop” delivers low power shocks that users describe as feeling like Pop Rock candy, but—unlike the candy—the shocks are carrying photographic information captured from the camera.

It sounds like mad science, but it actually works. The device allows people to “see” through their tongues by transforming the video feed from the glasses into electrical impulses applied directly to the tongue.

Before you get too excited, it’s not a “plug and play” device. Users have a long adjustment period during which they must practice interpreting this new sense. Furthermore, the resolution of the “image” being sent to the tongue is relatively low resolution. Nevertheless, people can use the technology to navigate in the world, and even continuing rock climbing after losing their sight

That is pretty cool, but we’re still giving people a sense that their brain has evolved to handle (sight). But, if our tongue can be a pathway to our visual/spatial processing centers, what other data might we pipe to our tongues, ears, or other sensory processing organs?

For example, it couldn’t be too hard to configure a BrainPort to send images taken with an ultraviolet or infrared camera. What if people who had full vision could learn to use BrainPort as additional visual “filters”—mapping visual information from an ultraviolet camera to their tongue, while still receiving visual stimuli from their eyes. In fact, while the technology was pioneered with sight-by-tongue, the same electrode lollipop has already been connected to a device focused on helping people with vestibular (inner ear) disabilities regain their sense of balance. 

That’s impressive, but the sensory enhancement rabbit hole doesn’t stop there.

In 2016, researchers successfully transmitted information created in one human’s brain to another human’s brain. Two technologies were used: electroencephalogram (to read the brain patterns of one person), and transcranial magnetic stimulation (to transmit the data to the other). While the technology has a fair ways to go, in the not-too-distant future we might be able to ditch the gross sounding “electrode lollipop” in favor of a transcranial magnetic stimulation hat. Perhaps by the 4th generation we’ll send the signals via implant; if the tongue can be trained to see, maybe a cochlear implant can also be used to transmit visual data.

Biology researchers and so-called “biohackers” are exploring gene editing techniques, and chemical approaches to altering senses in animals (including humans). This approach is obviously exciting, but our understanding of genes, genomes, and genetic editing still lags behind our ability to process information with computers. Hijacking existing neural pathways — e.g. using the tongue to process light — may be a more expedient route to expanding our senses.

Unleashing the brain’s incredible pattern finding capabilities on new kinds of information — kinds that our natural organs cannot sense on their own — could be an incredible opportunity to expand the human consciousness. Imagine a world where you could tune into the passing radio waves with the same intuition with which you naturally see “visible light”. Imagine being able to “smell” the results of a mass-spectrometer reading. Imagine being sure as a salmon exactly which direction is magnetic north.

Like the cochlear implant and BrainPort, using these neural pathways is an incredible way to restore senses for people who lose them to disease or accident. While repairing damaged senses is valuable, I am particularly excited to see how we can unleash the power of human intuition on inputs that are currently mysterious. Our ability to see, hear, or smell something and classify it nearly instantly is remarkable, but what might we be able to intuit if we grew up with a whole new sense?

Imagine a human doctor who had grown up with the nose sensitivity of a dog—what might that doctor be able to deduce about her patients microbiome? Imagine an electrician who has the dogfish’s electrical sensing abilities—how much more efficient might they be in detecting and correcting dangerous or faulty wiring? Imagine the farmer who can see ultraviolet light and therefore see plant pollen the way a bee does. Imagine the astronomer who can unleash an innate sense for larger parts of the electromagnetic spectrum by connecting directly to the Allen Telescope Array

Such technology might help us better understand the natural world as well. Experiencing the world through the lenses available to different animals could dramatically expand our understanding of those animal’s social structures, hunting or foraging methods, mating behavior, and much more. Innate sensitivity to the chemical compounds produced by plants could dramatically expand our understanding of the chemical communication and warfare that plants are continually engaged in. 

Some of this is clearly still science fiction, but some of it is on the cusp of becoming plain-old science. When it does, I expect it will have a profound impact on not just our perception of the universe, but our understanding of it as well.