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Vinton G. Cerf

Mixed media by Mithu Sen

Implantation is an outpatient operation. The patient goes in the morning for surgery and comes home with an implant right away. It is not activated, however, for several weeks, until the doctors are certain that the surgery has healed and the implant is stable. In May 1996, Sigrid returned to Johns Hopkins Hospital to have her speech processor programmed and the implant activated. Within 20 minutes of turning the devices on, Sigrid called up her husband and they spoke over the phone for the first time in their thirty-three years of marriage. He still gets a little ‘misty’ when he tells this story.

Once home, Sigrid began to explore the world of sound again for the first time in fifty years. She reported every bird-chirp she heard while walking the dog. The most common phrase heard around the house (still!) from Sigrid is: "I heard that!" Her aggressive approach to hearing led her to obtain and in some cases invent assistive methods to augment the basic speech processor/implant combination. She had patch cords made to connect her speech processor to the armrest of airplane seats so she could hear the movie sound track directly rather than through audio headphones. She obtained books on tape and listened to them too through a patch cable connecting the sound output of the tape recorder directly into the auxiliary audio input of her speech processor. She had numerous microphones made on wires ranging from six feet to sixty feet in length so she could put a microphone close to the speaker at lectures or at the dinner table. She obtained FM transmitters with microphones built in, so she could put the transmitter on a lectern and then, using an FM receiver, listen to the speaker — again using direct audio input into the speech processor. She obtained infrared receivers to pick up the sound track in movie theatres which are equipped to transmit this signal to receivers for the hearing impaired. She had patch cords made to plug into her mobile telephone, and used magnetic telephone coils with patch cords for use with ordinary telephones. The list goes on and on.

It is as if we now have a 58-year-old teenager in the house — she happily takes telephone calls even from telemarketers! Her enthusiasm for sound is infectious and nearly a half dozen of her formerly deaf friends have obtained implants as well. One can only stand in awe of the power of modern technology to correct what had been, for many years, an insurmountable problem. For a great many people, deafness may now be a malady of the past, thanks to modern technology and our ability to interface electronic devices with our neural systems. Now, if I can just get this brain implant to work to improve my ageing memory…

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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