The Blind Man Who Taught Himself to See
Credit: Steve Pyke
Kish has an idea. Beyond the pot lid and the pillow, beyond the mission of World Access, there is something he has been quietly working on for more than a decade. If his wish is fulfilled – if someone else takes over World Access and he's able to escape from life's perpetual rush hour – it may prove to be his true legacy. What Kish envisions is the next leap in human echolocation. His idea is to become more like a bat.

Bats are the best. Some can fly in complete darkness, navigating around thousands of other bats while nabbing insects one millimeter wide. Bats have evolved, over millions of years, to possess the ideal mouth shape and the perfect ear rotation for echolocation. They can perceive high-frequency sound waves, beyond the range of human hearing – waves that are densely packed together, whose echoes give precise detail.
There is evidence that humans could be that good. Bats have tiny brains. Just the auditory cortex of a human brain is many times larger than the entire brain of a bat. This means that humans can likely process more complex auditory information than bats. What we'll require, to make up for bats' evolutionary head start, is a little artificial boost.

Actually, two boosts. We need a way to create batlike sound waves, and we need to be able to hear those waves. In pursuit of these goals, Kish has spent time in New Zealand with Leslie Kay, who worked on underwater sonar for the British Navy during the Cold War. For nearly 50 years, Kay tinkered with ideas for helping the blind to see with sound. He eventually introduced, after many weeks of consultation with Kish, a product called the K-Sonar, a flashlight-size machine that attaches to a blind person's cane and emits ultrasonic pulses. The pulses are then digitally translated into tones humans can hear, through earphones. "Flowers actually sound soft," says Kish. "Stones sound hard and crisp. It pretty much represents the physical environment as music." The problem is range: The K-Sonar can detect a postage stamp from 15 feet, but not the side of a barn from 30 feet.

If money were no object, Kish believes that blind people could essentially mimic bats within five years. A next generation of K-Sonar, using the input from a global consortium of scientists that Kish has been corresponding with, should have a nearly limitless range. Our hearing, Kish says, can be increased tenfold through surgical augmentation – basically, inner-ear microphone implants. Combine the two and it's possible that the blind will be able to take up tennis. Kish figures it would require $15 million to prove whether or not his idea is feasible. He fears he'll never get the opportunity.

"It's virtually impossible to gather funding for experimental devices for the blind," he says. "The blind population is seen as a lost cause." Kish's patience is running thin. He is still reaching out to scientists and studying scholarly journals and pondering ways to conjure the money. But more and more these days, he finds himself daydreaming about rebuilding his cabin and devoting himself to playing music, to writing. Let the new crop of echolocators take over the research and the networking and the panhandling. So for the foreseeable future, at least, Kish will continue to click in his usual way. And the sighted world will continue to not notice.