May 22, 2024

‘Beep, beep, beep’: the sound of going blind again

What happens when your life depends on a brilliant invention and the manufacturer stops supporting it? About 350 blind people fear the worst after a bionic eye manufacturer collapsed and its clients’ implants became obsolete and unsupported.

Los Angeles-based Second Sight Medical Products discontinued its retinal implants in 2020, early in the Covid pandemic. The total cost of the device, surgery and rehabilitation was about US$500,00, although 80% was covered by insurance. One woman was making her way through a New York subway station when she heard a “beep, beep, beep” sound – it was her Argus II retinal implant system shutting down. Her blurred vision turned dark.

Second Sight went public in June 2021 after discontinuing the retinal implant to stave off, raising $57.5 million at $5 per share. But its share price sank to $1.50 and in February it announced that it was negotiating a merger with another medical products company.

IEEE Spectrum interviewed a man who has retinal implants in both eyes. “As long as nothing goes wrong, I’m fine,” he says. “But if something does go wrong with it, well, I’m screwed. Because there’s no way of getting it fixed.”

According to IEEE Spectrum: “A defunct Argus system in the eye could cause medical complications or interfere with procedures such as MRI scans, and it could be painful or expensive to remove.”

Anders Sandberg posted an insightful analysis of implant failure problems on Oxford’s Practical Ethics blog. “Unfortunately, saying the company morally has to support implants leads nowhere: if it goes bust it cannot do it. Ought implies can, cannot implies no ought,” he writes. “The whole discontinuation issue shows that ethically there is a need to have informed consent not just about the medical functionality but also the wider economical-technical functionality and actual autonomy about the function. If one cannot control one’s body parts – natural or artificial – one does not control oneself.”

Given what has been published in the media, it’s difficult to understand how the collapse of product support squares with Second Sight’s code of ethics, published on its still-extant website.