Prof Zhiyong Fan is leading the drive to create a robotic eye to match or even exceed human abilities with a mission to bring hope to those with visual impairment.

When we think of the future, robots are part and parcel of that image. Nowadays, developments are bringing these seemingly fictional ideas closer to reality. Prof Zhiyong Fan, at HKUST’s Department of Electronic and Computer Engineering, is responsible for some of this brave new world.

Prof Fan is leading an international team of scientists to develop the world’s first 3D artificial eye, which aside from surpassing the capabilities of bionic eyes, also has the potential to exceed the abilities of human eyes. At the center of this mission is hope: humanoid robots will be able to aid humanity and new capabilities can be given to people with visual impairment.

Science fiction offers inspiration

It’s not much of a surprise, given Prof Fan proclaims to have been “obsessed by science fiction from an early age”. During his childhood in China, they “imported lots of Hollywood movies about time travel and space travel, and my favorites over time are the likes of Star Wars, Star Trek, Terminator, and I-Robot,” Prof. Fan says.

Prof Fan came to HKUST in a somewhat fortuitous manner. “I was looking for a job and a friend suggested Hong Kong – all I knew was movies and Jackie Chan,” he says with a laugh, recalling the flight over on Cathay Pacific, the first time he had flown the airline. “The food was way better than the US-based airlines,” Prof Fan adds. The natural surroundings and sea view struck him as amazing, and he accepted the offer to be an assistant professor, after nine years in the US. Prof Fan was a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences of University of California, Berkeley from 2007 to 2010. He had previously received his Ph.D. from University of California, Irvine in 2006 in Materials Science.


His futuristic project has two components – on the one hand it will be able to greatly change the lives of people who suffer from severe visual impairment and blindness; on the other side, electronic ‘sight’ functions for cell phone cameras, autonomous driving, drones and even space exploration will be radically improved, especially with wider vision. “Cameras are the best way to avoid obstacles and are cheaper and lighter than sensors, it’s no wonder Tesla is only using cameras,” Prof Fan says.

In the eye of the beholder

How does this all work? Humanity has spent decades in an attempt to replicate the structure of the biological eye. Right now, the best humans can do is prosthetic eyes in the form of spectacles aided by cables, offering 2D images and poor resolution. Surely, thought Prof Fan and the team, this situation could be improved significantly. So they set about with a dream to develop an Electrochemical Eye (EC-Eye) that not only replicates the structure of a natural eye, but might even provide sharper vision with functions such as the ability to detect infrared radiation in darkness (i.e. the ability to see in the dark).

This breakthrough was provided by a 3D artificial retina made of nanowire light sensors, which in the future could very well be connected to the nerves of the visually impaired patients. As nanowires have a higher density than photoreceptors in the retina, light signal reception is increased and resolution might even surpass that of the human eye. Adding to the fascination, an electrochemical process has been adopted from solar cells, meaning each photo sensor on the artificial retina might also serve as a nanoscale solar cell.


Will this type of research, for example, be able to help the blind see? Prof Fan suggests caution and patience are needed. “Look, it is really difficult to 100 percent reconstruct vision, and this can be partially done, and it’s not a high-resolution picture, so we are still quite far away but working towards that goal,” he says. Still, the achievements are impressive, and came in collaboration with the University of California, Berkeley. Research and trials are now in progress, and Prof Fan says, “ten years for the human side is already optimistic”. Indeed, the road is long but also worth the struggle.

Looking forward

The scientific community remains impressed. Findings have been published in the prestigious journal Nature. Indeed, these ideas from the realms of science fiction are now coming into fruition. If you think this sounds absolutely amazing, you would be completely correct, the progress has been nothing short of miraculous. But sitting down with Prof Fan, one is struck by his humility and down-to-earth nature. For one, he enjoys playing football at the HKUST pitch twice a week, playing in a striker position. Talking to him, one can tell he enjoys life on campus, almost as much as he has an ambition to reshape the future.

Luckily for our community, he is here to stay, and raring to go. “The type of process of discovery we are going through is in my blood, I love the process of creating something new,” Prof Fan says. It is also the spirit that drives HKUST forward in research, learning and hope.