Cats, largely supposed to be deeply evil creatures, are deigning to allow researchers to study them for mysteriously altruistic reasons: to work on technology that may give the gift of vision back to the terminally blind. Advancements at the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute in San Francisco show great promise for improving bionic implants for humans.
For those who have been blind for a great period of time, their optic nerves are usually so underused that they've become non-functioning, so a prosthetic eye is out of the question. A true bionic eye that doesn't rely on an optic nerve to function would bypass this problem and, hopefully, allow the blind to see again.
The Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute is working to circumvent this reliance by predicting what the lateral geniculate nucleus (or LGN) in the brain processes given the information sent to it by the optic nerve. So they've rigged up a "catcam," which is a prototype bionic eye that, so far, has shown some preliminary success in seeing the same way a cat does.
Fixed to a cat's head, the catcam can work out simple, artificial scenes of bars, dots and shapes with about 80% accuracy when compared to a cat. Natural scenes — a cartoon or even just a desk covered in clutter — are only figured out by the catcam 60% of the time. Still, even a small success in predicting the LGN is a huge step in the right direction.