Foresight and Second Sight
Move fast and break things. It’s the silicon valley motto. In an extremely “tech” world where the pace of computer progress has been and continues to be exponential, that motto works well and drives progress. But it isn’t without consequences. Second Sight is… or was, a tech company that promised to, at least partially, restore vision. Sadly, when the users are so entwined with the product, when a tech company hit’s the “break stuff” portion of the motto, things don’t always work out well for the user.
When second sight was first realized, almost three decades ago, it probably had lofty goals and from the reports of the users, up to the end they over promised and under delivered. As I seem to keep repeating, people are squishy. While the one size fits all tech solutions work well for the very regular, very predictable computer hardware, humans are another story. Or to pull a very apt move quote,, “Man’s reach exceeds his grasp.” Which isn’t what the poem that inspired that quote had in mind (Andrea del Sarto by Robert Browning), but works well here.
The problem is people. Technology too, but people specifically. No two people are the same. In research this manifests in weird quarks, sometimes the treatments we’re developing work well, sometimes it seems like it did nothing. So we pool the data and if it helps more people than not, we say it’s a success and try to figure out why it didn’t work for some. It may seem like it, but people are far from biological computers. We’re more like biological android phones, we all accomplish basically the same thing, if we squint we all have the same parts, but upon closer inspection there are significant differences between what makes me, me versus what makes you, you.
I believe the company, Second Sight, fell victim to the idea that people are complex computers and we can thus hack our way to a better world. For those unfamiliar with the company, they created a neuroprosthesis. An artificial eye, that like the cochlear implant, is a crude, but useful, replacement. The first version gave people the ability to see a 16×16 pixel black and white image. Users describe it as not actual sight, so you can’t compare it to sight, just like cochlear implants aren’t exactly hearing the way you and I normally hear.
The second iteration of the device was an exponential improvement, giving the user 60×60 pixels. These implants interfaced with the optic nerve, thus required surgery, a special video processing unit (VPU) and a camera mounted to glasses. This surgery means MRI’s are tricky and I’ve already seen reports of doctors declining an MRI in favor of a CT for risk. For some the device was amazing, for others it was not quite a nightmare, but close. Some experienced dizziness or vertigo (similar, but different sensations), and a significant amount had complications with the devices.
That didn’t keep the company from overpromising. Technology got them into the hole and technology was going to get them out it seems. They started promising software updates that would incorporate “virtual” electrodes (1 electrode was 1 pixel so an increased number of pixels via software update). They suggested thermal vision, computer face recognition, and a multitude of other things. Promises it seems that were made as the company was digging further and further into the promise of technology when it came across a real-world limitiaton.
They pushed and sold the device, which the latest version the Argus II costs about $150,000. However, that’s just the device, the total cost of the device, surgery, and rehabilitation was roughly $500,000 and virtually none of it was covered by insurance. The company pushed the device as it was hemorrhaging money despite the incredibly high cost of the device. And now the company has, for all intents and purposes, collapsed. Leaving users who have relied on these devices, some more than 15 years, stranded without any support and no way to remove the device safely.
The company recently announced a merger with another company doing similar work and they are supposedly working on the next generation of implant which will bypass the ocular nerve all together and interface directly with the visual cortex. Personally, as someone who does research in this field, if they can’t do it with the optical nerve, they should just give up. With broken promises and not so much as an email users of the device were shocked to find when they reached out to therapists or the company for maintenance that everyone had been laid off, the company no longer manufactures the parts for the devices, and when the device shuts off, people are quite literally left in the dark.
I think “move fast and break things” is not a motto people should be using in a company like this, but then again I’m sure the company, despite not being profitable, was still profitable for the people running it. I do not use Second Sight and I do not know anyone personally who does. I was invested in the technology and I think it held a lot of promise. I just think they went about it in the wrong way and they relied heavily on technology to get them out of the mess that same technology got them in. You can’t always engineer your way out of limitations.
The technology Second Sight developed was good and it is no easy thing to do for sure. That isn’t my problem, the problem I have is that they have hurt their customers, they have hurt the industry, and they have effectively crippled what could’ve been a very useful technology. Who, moving forward, would trust any company offering something similar when Second Sight has left so many stranded? An infant technology with so much promise, shelved indefinitely because of greed, laziness, and stupidity. It’s probably not the first, won’t be the last, but damn it if it’s not frustrating.
With brain machine interfaces becoming the new “hot” item it’s no surprise they are switching gears, but I would bet they will fail for so many different reasons. Even if they manage to double or quadruple the resolution, bring color into the mix, or do any number of amazing things, who would trust their brain to a company that didn’t even warn users it was shuttering its doors? A new name and a merger can only do so much to shore up goodwill with people.
I often wonder if I should start my own company again. Technically the not-for-profit I was running through this blog (which I’ve stopped because of work/school/life commitments) was my first, but I am talking full-time company. I like the idea of running my own business and that’s why I did it in the first place, but it leaves a bad taste in my mouth seeing how companies in silicon valley are run and how users of their product are treated more as a source of income instead of people to help. Thus, I think I am perfectly content moving slow, breaking nothing, and actually helping people doing research instead.
Moving fast and breaking tech is one thing, breaking people is just cruel. I wonder if Second Sight, pardon the pun, ever saw it from that angle.
I saw the IEEE article that broke this story earlier in the week. And I think the part I was most shocked by was the fact that this company tanked in the first place — the fact that the money (however exorbitant) wasn’t there. The device didn’t work for everyone, but it sounds like it was life-changing for those who did get good performance out of it. We (speaking here of the human race in general) performed one of the proverbial miracles — we opened the eyes of the blind — and then we yawned and walked away? Why can’t I remember this technology ever being in the news before? Why isn’t some billionaire dumping money into it just because it’s cool?
It sounds like there’s no guarantee they will even continue developing the brain-implanted model. I hope somebody properly expands on the idea so that more people can have a version of sight back.
I assume there are regulations that would prevent a manufacturer of, say, pacemakers from pulling this kind of stunt. So it appears the new technology is outrunning the existing guardrails.
Some of the people who bought Argus devices at least got improved quality of life for a while, even if they ended up paying a higher-than-expected cost for a weaker-than-expected product. The negative possibilities seem even more ominous when I think about healthy people, who have everything to lose, getting implants for recreation or performance enhancement.
For example, there’s at least one guy on the AI forum who’s very excited about Neuralink and insists he’s going to get one, though he has enough caution to say he will wait for “version 2.0.” He doesn’t have a medical problem for it to solve; he’s just chomping at the bit to connect his brain to the internet, or whatever Neuralink marketing claims we’ll be able to do. His reaction to the Second Sight story was to suggest that people with the right entrepreneurial spirit could open aftermarket repair shops for obsolete implants. I don’t think he’s being very realistic.
As for me, I will not be letting Elon shove wires into my brain. I rather like it the way it is, and it didn’t come with a factory reset button.
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February 17, 2022 at 9:12 pm
Yeah it’s so sad! Here you have this, admittedly fledgling, technology that has so much potential to help people, has already helped quite a few people, and capitalism tanks the idea because it’s not profitable enough. I mean the company was probably run horribly too, throwing more tech to overcome tech limitations is a Pandora’s box of nightmares.
I’m in the same boat with regards to a brain implant. In theory it’s a cool idea, but even if it becomes very safe, they are going to become outdated faster than your average cell phone. Plus, we all know the ads pumped into your brain are coming the second these become popular.
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February 18, 2022 at 3:03 pm