Paralympics and the Autumn Bug
A reporter in action at the Paralympics
This past August and September, Tokyo hosted the Paralympics as well as the Olympics. During the Olympics, I was fed up with the extreme heat in Tokyo, but now it has cooled down and autumn has arrived. In Australia, spring is just around the corner, while in Japan, autumn arrives with the chirping of bell insects. Although it may sound a bit contrived, I would like to write about the relationship between the Paralympics and the autumn insects.
This is the first time that I have watched the Paralympic Games, including the opening and closing ceremonies, on TV in such detail, and even though it was a corona pandemic, I was able to take advantage of the host city. There, I noticed a young and energetic reporter who always appeared in between the competitions. Her name is Ms. Yuki Goto, and she was selected through an open competition for people with disabilities. She had a hearing impairment and was wearing a device from her ears to the back of her head as she explained that she had undergone cochlear implant surgery. It was no coincidence that I was interested in her because we were considering investing in Hemideina, a company that is developing technology to radically improve the cochlear implant, an invention that was put to practical use in Australia more than 40 years ago.
The cochlear implant is an amazing invention when you think about it. When the cochlea is damaged, an artificial organ is implanted to replace or support the function, and the original sound signals are transmitted from outside the scalp using radio waves. In recent years, the direct connection of computers to the brain has been attracting attention, and this cochlear implant may be a forerunner in sending electrical signals to the brain as information. The cochlear implant, however, relies heavily on the brain’s creativity to compensate for the limited amount of information, which requires more than six months of rehabilitation. Just like para-athletes who use prosthetic legs, it is possible to improve their abilities through their own efforts, and it is not hard to imagine the hardships and hard work that Ms. Goto and her family have gone through so far. However, even though improvements have been made over a long period of time, the limitations of the architecture, which has remained basically unchanged since the beginning, have left many shortcomings, and new innovations have been needed.
An insect called Wellington Tree Weta, endemic to New Zealand, gave a scientist a hint
According to Wikipedia, a Weta is “a giant flightless cricket”, and the picture gives a very different impression from the insects that produce the beautiful sounds that symbolize autumn in Japan. However, research by Dr. Kate Lomas, co-founder of Hemideina (which is another name for Weta), has shown that they have a very sensitive hearing mechanism. She intuited that the structure’s ability to mechanically process sound, including wavelengths much longer than the size of an insect’s eardrum, could provide a clue to the miniaturization of the cochlear implant. In addition, the existing methods of electrically extracting specific frequencies leave out a lot of information, and in a simple explanation, it is not possible to reproduce “pitch, intensity, timing, and other elements necessary for music. Inspired by Weta, the company’s approach of analog filtering has the potential to achieve a breakthrough in this respect as well. Analog speech is rich in information and may be able to convey the fine nuances that normal hearing people usually get, and above all, it may greatly reduce the difficulty of rehabilitation.
Australia, the country that introduced the cochlear implant to the world in the past, is now working with NatureTech, a company derived from an insect endemic to New Zealand, to create the next generation of inventions. I think this symbolizes the best part of Australian technology investment.