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Vinton G. Cerf

Tempera on Sanganeri paper by Nilima Sheikh

A long time ago, a little girl named Sigrid was born in Wichita, Kansas. She was like many other little girls — active, talkative, curious and competing with an older brother. She played with dolls, went on family vacations, and spent a lot of time with her mother because her father was often on the road.

When she was three years old, however, disaster struck in the form of spinal meningitis. Her temperature skyrocketed. She was taken to hospital, but in spite of all the efforts of the doctors, her hearing was completely destroyed. She became profoundly deaf. Her mother learned of the John Tracy Clinic in Los Angeles, California and in 1946 they travelled there to be trained in ‘oral methods’ — lip-reading and speech for the deaf. Sigrid became an accomplished lip-reader. She went to public schools. Incredibly, she even played the saxophone and piano, despite the fact that she could hear virtually nothing.

Well, not exactly nothing. She did wear a big hearing aid that delivered highly amplified sound to her left ear. It helped her hear some vowel sounds in the lower frequencies, but that was all. Despite that, she was even able to use the telephone by a kind of ‘twenty questions’ method of communicating. She could distinguish ‘yes’ from ‘no’, so she would lead the conversation by asking questions until she had figured out the answers. Not a simple or convenient way to communicate.

She had access to teletype machines, which were used by many deaf people as a substitute for telephone conversations. But they were of little or no use in dealing with the hearing world. Eventually, in the 1980s, telephone relay services were invented that allowed a teletype user to interact with a hearing correspondent by means of a third party who typed what the hearing person said and voiced what the deaf person typed. This was still a very slow and cumbersome way to communicate, and it had its own frustrations. Conversations that might have taken hearing people five minutes sometimes took hours. In a fit of anger and frustration she threw away all her teletype machines one day and refused to use the relay services any more.

Then one day, sometime in 1995, she began to research cochlear implants on the Internet’s World Wide Web. She had known about this concept for at least 20 years, but the reported results had not been very encouraging. However, by 1995, the technology had advanced dramatically thanks to research on the physiology of sensory nerve signals and also to new fabrication techniques which allowed an incredible amount of computing power to be packed onto a single microchip. The implant consists of electronics and a thin set of wires containing pads that are designed to touch and stimulate the auditory nerve that lies exposed inside the snail-like cochlea of the inner ear. An external speech processor picks up sound from a microphone or other sound source, analyses the component frequencies and determines which electrodes of the implant in the cochlea it needs to stimulate, and in what fashion to emulate the way the inner ear would have responded to such sound stimuli.

Sigrid got in touch with recent implantees by way of email and followed their progress via the Internet. The reports were very encouraging. She contacted the Listening Centre at the Johns Hopkins University Hospital early in 1996 and was tested to determine whether her auditory nerve was still functioning sufficiently for her to be a candidate for implantation. It was concluded that the left ear, which had been stimulated for 50 years by a hearing aid, would be the better one to implant, and she was scheduled for surgery in April 1996.

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Vinton Cerf, who co-wrote the TCP/IP protocol, is regarded as the father of the Internet. As founding president of the Internet Society, he was instrumental in developing the technologies and laws of the digital age. His most interesting current project is the next generation of TCP/IP, which will allow devices ranging from household refrigerators to implanted medical microrobots to connect to the Internet. Besides, he is designing the interplanetary Internet of the future at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Cerf has a hearing deficiency himself and met his wife Sigrid at a hearing-aid agent’s in the 1960s