Last December, IBM's VP of innovation, Bernard Meyerson, predicted that in five years computers would be able to mimic all five of the senses. That might sound like wishful sci-fi thinking, but recent advances in perception technology actually make that halfdecade timeline look too conservative.
This past fall, L.A.–based Second Sight was set to debut an FDA–approved bionic eye that's designed to help the 100,000 blind Americans who suffer from retinitis pigmentosa. After an aspirin-size implant is surgically placed inside an eye and wirelessly linked to video-equipped glasses, once-sightless patients can detect light, differentiate between objects, and even read large print. "In the lab, we've been able to get one patient up to 20/200 vision," says CEO Robert Greenberg. "Our long-term goal is to treat blindness overall."
Lab-grown artificial ear
Using a 3-D printer, Princeton scientist Michael McAlpine recently created an ear that can perceive far-higher frequencies than normal human hearing. McAlpine says the artificial organ—which could be used to help the deaf or dramatically boost normal hearing—might be commercially available in as soon as five years. McAlpine's ambition is, pardon the pun, eerily grand. "Ultimately we'd like to grow a range of organs with electronics woven into the body," he says.
Tactile prosthetic hand
Half of all hand amputees don't use their prosthetics regularly. Silvestro Micera, an Italian researcher at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, hopes to change that. In a recent clinical trial, Micera's team used electrodes to connect a prosthesis to a patient's major arm nerves. The hand was equipped with sensors on the fingertips, palm, and wrist, so the patient could, in addition to operating it with his thoughts, experience the sense of touch and even "feel" when the prosthesis was pricked, à la Luke Skywalker at the end of The Empire Strikes Back.
Japanese company Insent's artificial tongue works much like its human counterpart, translating chemical inputs into sensations of taste: saltiness, sweetness, sourness, bitterness, astringency, and umami. Buyers of the TS-5000Z—some of the world's biggest food and beverage companies—have started using the industrial taster as a tool to help tweak their products. "Our goal," says Insent president Hidekazu Ikezaki, "is to create a common, scientific language of taste."
Does your breath stink? Have you had too much to drink? A company called Adamant is developing a "smelling" sensor that will plug into the bottom of a smartphone and pick up chemicals emitted in your breath. "If you're diabetic, you can use the device to monitor glucose levels, while other people can use it to track calories," says Adamant CEO Sam Khamis, who hopes to start selling it in 2014. Khamis claims there's even a possibility it could detect cancer and other diseases, as some dogs have been shown to do.
A version of this article appeared in the December 2013 / January 2014 issue of Fast Company magazine.