artificial eyeThe advances we are making in understanding the physics of the nano scale are truly amazing. The inventions that come from that understanding will be as disruptive – or more so – than were the internal combustion engine or the internet.

An example of where we are heading can be seen in research that is being done at the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Harvard. The team at Harvard has created what is in essence, an artificial eye.

Conventional optics rely on curved lenses to focus light. By stacking lenses, different magnifications and focal lengths can be achieved. The thickness of the lenses themselves, plus the condition that they need to be stacked, means that device form factors are large and heavy – a telephoto camera lens, for instance. The Harvard researchers have created what is in essence a flat lens that is extremely thin. Moreover, they have been able to combine the lens with an elastomer that can change shape when an electrical impulse is applied – essentially an artificial muscle. The resultant device, only 30 microns thick, has the ability to change focus in real time – as does the human eye. But the device can also correct for aberrations such as astigmatism and image shift, which the eye cannot do.

The implications for this technology are far-reaching. Eventually it will enable the engineering of an actual artificial eye. In the near term, it will replace conventional lenses in all types of applications. Imagine a pair of eyeglasses that can not only correct vision but can also automatically zoom and magnify. I have written about how technology is going to be used to augment human abilities, giving us, for example, the vision of an eagle. That future is close at hand.