Princeton: Researchers at Princeton University have brought a new tool into the realm of cybernetics: a 3-D printer.
The scientists have devised a way to produce an ear-shaped chunk of silicone mixed with bovine cells and infused with tiny particles of silver that form a coiled antenna. Like any antenna, this one can pick up radio signals that the ear will interpret as sound.
The 3-D ear is not designed to replace a human one, though; the research is meant to explore a new method of combining electronics with biological material.
"What we really did here was actually more of a proof of concept of the capabilities of 3-D printing," said Michael McAlpine, the professor who led the project. "Because most people use 3-D printing to print passive objects, things like figurines and jewelry."
After it`s printed, the 3-D ear is soft and translucent. It is cultivated for 10 weeks, letting the cells multiply, creating a flesh color and forming hardened tissue around the antenna.
Manu Mannoor, a graduate student who worked with McAlpine on the project, held up a petri dish in a lab at Princeton last week to show how the process works. The dish was filled with liquid and a partly cultivated ear, and Mannoor said the cells were secreting a matrix, the space between cells that exists in organisms.
"They make their own living space," Mannoor said. McAlpine and his team demonstrated the antenna`s ability to pick up radio signals by attaching electrodes onto the backs of the ears in the printing process.
When they broadcast a recording of Beethoven`s "Fur Elise" to a pair of fully cultivated ears, the electrodes passed the signal along wires to a set of speakers, and the music flowed out clear and without interference.
Although the new research is just one iteration in the field of cybernetics — an area that looks at combining biology with technology — McAlpine said the research could lead to synthetic replacements for actual human functions, and to a sort of electronic sixth sense.
"As the world becomes a more digital and electronic place, I think ultimately we`re going to care less about our traditional five senses," he said. "And we`re going to want these new senses to give us direct electronic communication with our cellphones and our laptop devices."