A Mad Scientist Designing Organs That Could Give You Superpowers
Acquiring a superpower usually requires a bite from a radioactive insect, an uncomfortable dose of cosmic radiation, or the discovery of extraterrestrial parentage, but scientist Michael McAlpine hopes to make the process as simple as purchasing aspirin at the pharmacy. So far, he’s invented a “tattoo” for teeth that can detect cavities—not exactly the stuff of Hollywood blockbusters—although his latest project, a 3-D printed bionic ear that enables superhuman hearing, could be.
His latest project, a synthetic ear made with a 3-D bioprinter, is a complex biomechanical structure fabricated by depositing live cells and conductive silver in layers. It started as an exploration of material properties, but commercial applications started to appear rapidly. He discovered that cochlear implants, a leading treatment for those with some hearing impairment, are made by hand in a slow and laborious process with costs to match.
But McAlpine’s vision is much bigger than simply automating a manual process—he wants to create superhumans. “Repairing lost hearing is an incredibly noble goal,” says McAlpine, “but what we made was a coil it receives electromagnetic signals and formed a direct connection with your brain.” A phone-brain interface sounds uncanny, but according to McAlpine it’s just optimizing the existing process. Tiny hairs in our ears interpret audio signals and transform them into electrical signals that can be decoded by the brain. McAlpine’s innovation cuts out the acoustical middle man and pumps the electronic signal right into your medula and brings us one step closer to a world where we can learn kung fu by plugging into a computer.