The Dream Café

Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

Contradictions of Capitalism vs the Bionic Eye


If you have heard about the bionic eye and don’t think it’s cool as hell, what are you even doing reading my blog?

Scientists are close, probably within ten years, of being able to cure blindness in a massive number of cases—that is, as I understand it, among everyone except those whose disability is caused by damage to the visual cortex.  How cool is that?  How wonderful, how human, how proud we should be to be a member of a species that can do this!

How was it done?  At a University.  At public expense.  I repeat, at public expense.  Tax money well spent indeed!

What will happen now?  Well, a couple of things I want to point out.

One of them is that people with loss of vision will be able to see—if they can afford it.  If not, sorry for ya.  That the technology was developed at public expense does not mean the public is entitled to its benefits.

Here’s another thing that will happen: Someone will develop an elegant solution to some of the remaining problems, such as the interface between the eye and the brain, or maybe something else—very likely at another University and at public expense.  He will patent it.  He will start a company to produce products based on it.  He will make incredible amounts of money, and official society will widely proclaim him a hero, especially when he donates a hundred units of his product to the poor in Rwanda.  And, as he checks his bank balance, he will loudly decry the waste of money going into institutions like Universities, because, he will say, taxation is theft.

And he won’t even be aware of the irony.


Author: skzb

I play the drum.


  1. I think most bourgeoisie are aware. They genuinely believe they are a better class of people and resources directed away from them are wasted. It doesn’t matter if the ladder is pulled up after them; no one amongst the proles are clever enough to make use of it anyway.

  2. So, soon blindness will be eliminated in most of the world with health care. Blindness will be eliminated for the fortunate in the US–unless we can join civilization in the meantime.

  3. skzb

    Pretty much, yeah.

  4. Steve Halter: “Blindness will be eliminated for the fortunate in the US–unless we can join civilization in the meantime.”

    Hmm, the way I read that statement is that if the US joins “civilization,” then the fortunate in the US will remain blind. Unintentional, I’m aware. Ironic, all the same.

  5. It’s been at least 30 years that bionic eyes have been “ten years away”. It’s a lot like fusion power and human-like AI in that regard. The linked article describes some interesting tech developments, none of which sound like they solve the truly hard problems in the field.

  6. skzb

    My understanding (there was a discussion on NPR today) that is exactly what it did—solve the hard problem. The other hard problem, electronics to brain interface, was solved by the cochlear implant.

  7. To use the phrase “electronics to brain interface” as if that was a single problem, already solved, is… incorrect. I would be happy to be proved wrong, and have bionic eyes become a reality soon. But I remain skeptical.

  8. Solving the problem was made at public expense, but that research doesn’t cover the cost to actually manufacture devices, or ship them, or perform a surgery to implant them. All of those people involved in the chain would also like to go home with a paycheck.

  9. SKZB: Your prediction is already a reality $100M of government investment from Australian tax dollars, all patents resulting from that investment now held by a private company. See website for investment opportunities!

  10. I think one of the ways the public should use our tax funds is in the process of peer review & testing. Do the low-glory part of the scientific method.

  11. Pharma isn’t any better. Look at the drug Soliris for another example of this kind of behaviour.

  12. Privatizing public investment is probably the second most popular move in the crony “capitalist” playbook (exceeded only by privatizing returns and pushing risk back into the public domain), but it probably ticks off people who actually believe in the free market just as much as it does you.

    Additionally, one of the few places most economists of nearly all stripes agree is the proper domain of government is solving problems of the commons, which I’d argue should include primary medical research. I’m a big believer that primary medical research is one of the best uses of taxpayer funding, and I agree that it should remain in the public domain.

    I think the tricky issue is figuring how to keep the benefit of research funded by taxpayers available to taxpayers without essentially forcing experts that begin working for a university to work for that university forever (as opposed to just writing off their research as a failure, keeping a breakthrough to themselves and sitting on it until they can benefit by moving to the private sector, or for that matter, moving to the private sector in another country when they have a breakthrough).

    Genuinely curious to hear any ideas for solving that problem, short of indentured servitude or the simultaneous worldwide takeover of every government on the planet.

  13. One of our problems is that we get more medical innovation than we can afford. We get tested new *expensive* medical procedures, and half the time after extensive use we find out they are not in fact useful and we drop them.

    Our cost problems aren’t just insurance company profits (and medical industry profits). Costs are out of control.

    So my thought is we set up single-payer, and then we only pay for medical innovations we can in fact afford. We get the best available healthcare, and regulate the rate that it improves. Everybody is entitled to good healthcare. Nobody is entitled to healthcare that we don’t know how to do, that is tremendously expensive to find out how to do.

    Relieve private industry of a big part of the costs of testing. Also relieve them of the giant profits; put their profits more inline with their reduced costs. When it’s single-payer the system gets to decide how much it is willing to pay.

    So the system can prefer new treatments that are no more expensive than standard treatment, which promise better than standard results.

    For things like pharmaceuticals, where it’s easy, have the healthcare system do most of the human trials. Assign experimental treatments more-or-less at random, and don’t tell the testees they are getting an experimental treatment. They should not be told because people who get experimental treatment get a placebo effect from it which affects the results. That might be part of the reason that so many experimental drugs show excellent results during testing and then fall short later.

    Use Big Data to track the results. After each successful outcome, increase the fraction of patients getting the experimental drug. After each unsuccessful outcome, reduce the fraction. The border between experiment and standard treatment should be blurred; at some point roughly half the population is getting each kind and we keep doing Big Data to notice which is better. As the benefit gets clearer, reduce the number who get the worse treatment faster.

    That reduces choice by MDs. Which is OK. The existing system, where MDs base their treatment decisions largely on drug company salesmen, is just stupid.

    Currently the half-life of medical procedures is somewhere between 20 and 30 years. The profession decides that half of the things they used to do were useless or worse than useless. Probably half the things they do now are useless or worse than useless, but we don’t know which half. I propose that we encourage Christian Scientists etc to come in to get diagnoses even when they intend not to get treatment, and we use them and also naturopath/osteopath results as a control group. When no-treatment does as well as treatment, that’s an indication there’s room for improvement.

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