Hi, I’m Bionic

With a computer inside his skull, Michael Chorost can hear again.

Humans can’t seem to agree on what cyborgs want. Some say freedom; others say feelings. Still others say cyborgs won’t rest until they’ve assimilated mankind into an empire of biomachines. They’d all change their minds if they saw Michael Chorost ordering lunch at a cafe. It’s shortly after noon; he’s hungry. And right now, this cyborg just wants a chicken Caesar salad. He considers. And a medium lemonade.

“Hollywood likes to portray people who become cyborgs as if they have become soulless and emotionless — in other words, as if they were robots,” Chorost says after choosing a table. “I think that’s absurd.” Robots, he explains, are unfeeling machines; cyborgs are humans who have become partly mechanical — humans, that is, such as himself.

“When you become a cyborg, you’re no less human than you were before,” he says. “You’re differently human.”

Dressed in jeans and a button-down shirt, Chorost looks considerably less like a Star Trek Borg than the thoughtful sci-fi aficionado and holder of a Ph.D in English that he is. Yet this is indeed the author of the remarkable and warmly funny memoir Rebuilt: How Becoming Part Computer Made Me More Human. Only the little brown disc above and behind his left ear gives him away. It matches his hair, and it’s unobtrusive — about a quarter-inch thick and an inch and a quarter across, sprouting a wire that disappears down the back of his shirt collar. He turns his head carefully to avoid tugging the disc from its light magnetic grip. If it falls off, no big deal: He just pops it back on. But dropping the disc is a nuisance. Whenever that happens, his world goes silent.

Chorost is completely deaf. Hard of hearing all his life, he lost the rest of it abruptly four years ago at age 36. “I can stick my fingers in my ears, like this,” he says, demonstrating. “It makes not the slightest difference. These things don’t do anything anymore except hold up my glasses.”

Yet he hears, thanks to a bionic ear — a device called a cochlear implant. At this moment, Chorost’s disc is transmitting sound to a processing unit the size of a large pager on his belt. The processor digitizes the sound, adjusts it, and sends it back to the headpiece, which beams the signal via AM radio to a thin, inch-square computer implanted in his skull. The implant fires sixteen platinum electrodes inside his cochlea, the spiral structure in the innermost ear. The electrodes stimulate the auditory nerves in carefully calibrated patterns, the nerves carry the signal to the brain, and Chorost fields questions in a crowded restaurant without any apparent trouble.

Cochlear implants have been around for decades, but they still seem a futuristic marvel. Chorost approached his own surgery with a mixture of eagerness and dread. “What frightened me was that the computer would control the way I perceived the world,” he says. His ear would run code; it would hear only what some software engineers thought it should hear. What was he becoming? A cyborg, he concluded.

“At the beginning, it felt very self-consciously geeky to be using the word with reference to myself.” Eventually, he decided the term fit: “I have a very intimate relationship with the computer — intimate in the most literal sense. It’s part of me. It’s inside my body. And it’s an intimacy that’s more than physical. It controls part of my body, and I in turn can control its programming. It’s a very tightly coupled relationship.”

Chorost emanates quiet euphoria. And why not? He has a new career. Rebuilding his body opened the door to a larger transformation: “The cochlear implant gave me an opportunity to rethink my life. It basically stopped me cold, and I took advantage of that to ask myself, ‘What kind of life do I want to have? What kind of body do I want to have?'”

Despite the Six Million Dollar Man joke in his online-dating tagline — “Steve Austin seeks Jane Austen” — Chorost’s bionic ear is far from superhuman. The sound is mechanical. He has trouble following a conversation with four or five people in a quiet room. Movies are a crapshoot. And laughter sounds like someone banging on an aluminum sheet. “When I hear a whole room full of people laughing, I just grit my teeth and wait for it to stop,” he says.

He doesn’t mind; he knows improvement is just a software upgrade away. “The great thing about being a cyborg is that the body you have is not necessarily going to be the body you’re going to have in a month or a year,” Chorost says. This concept can be hard for noncyborgs to grasp: “Recently two women in a row have said that they don’t want to date me because I can’t appreciate music,” he says with a touch of exasperation. “I said to both of these women, ‘What you don’t realize is that I’m reprogrammable.’ They just don’t seem to get that.”

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