Lending a Hand: Prosthetics for the Able-Bodied

by futurist Kit Worzel

In my last blog post, I wrote about prosthetics, cybernetics and bionics, and how the state of these systems was not only amazing now, but will be almost impossible to differentiate from flesh-and-blood in two decades. Personally, I think that’s amazing. But most people don’t need prosthetics, so it’s really not that relevant – until you see how this technology is already being applied.

Let’s start in South Korea, with a company called Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering. I’d like to start with them because they have built an exoskeleton, not to assist people who are mobility impaired, like EKSO, from my earlier post, but to provide superior strength. The current model they are using can lift and hold 30 kilos (over 60 lbs) in place, not only making carrying cargo far easier, but also enabling workers to hold heavy objects in place and weld, screw, or otherwise work on them without the need for brackets and other tools. Daewoo is currently working on a production model that can lift and hold 100 kilos (or about 220 lbs). That would be the equivalent of turning a person into a mini-forklift. The applications for this are incredible, and the US military, in conjunction with MIT and others, is working on one for soldiers, adding longer battery life and bullet-proof armor. The military model (called TALOS) won’t be ready until at least 2016, but it is expected to change the role of infantry dramatically.

Becoming Dr. Octopus…

Next, if you’re a fan of the Spider-Man comics, you may be interested that MIT has been designing supernumerary robotic limbs (or SRLs) to literally give you a hand. This set of robot arms has been compared to Doctor Octopus’ tentacles, and has been programmed to autonomously aid in certain tasks. Yes, autonomously. You don’t need to control them, just wear them, and when you are performing one of the tasks for which they are programmed, they automatically assist you by holding things in place. They aren’t quite at the level of super-villain competence that is shown in the comics or films (yet), but I’m sure that everyone can think of a time they could have used one or two extra arms to do something more easily.

Both of these innovations are for active people, like dockworkers, soldiers, mechanics and so on. But this next one is for everyone who slaves away over a hot keyboard all day, including me. It’s called a Brain-Computer Interface, or BCI. This is a technology that allows you to control a computer with your mind. That may sound like crazy science fiction, but there is already serious work being done in this field. For instance, it’s now non-invasive, so you can control the interface by wearing what is essentially a wired-up swimming cap, no surgery required. Such an interface can be used to control a prosthetic arm, as in the case of Jan Scheuermann, the woman with below-the-neck paralysis I mentioned in my last post. There have been a number of video games developed that use this interface, and there are even researchers working on a form of electronic telepathy, where two individuals with BCIs can “talk” to each other without using their mouths.

Help for Hearing & Sight

One of the most common cybernetics currently in use is the cochlear implant, used to restore hearing to people who have certain types of deafness. With over 300,000 of such implants worldwide and a procedure that was first successfully performed in 1957, this implant is a well-pedigreed. But right now, it can only correct certain types of deafness, usually caused by damage to the hair cells in the inner ear. As people age, they find their senses, particularly their hearing, to be less sharp. My grandmother was profoundly deaf in her one ear, and hard of hearing in her other, making it very difficult to carry on a conversation with her, but she wasn’t a candidate for a cochlear implant because of she didn’t have the right type of deafness. Researchers at the University of Utah led by Darrin Young are developing a middle-ear microphone and chip system to replace the cochlear implants, and to move towards fixing deafness from many other causes.

A similar development is the Argus II retinal implant, the first visual prosthesis approved for use in the United States. It is designed to improve the vision of people with retinitis pigmentosa, and while it is a significant improvement for those folks, it has limited application elsewhere. But it is, nonetheless, an important beginning. Eyeglasses can technically be considered a very common prosthesis, in that they aid a basic function of the body. You can’t walk down the street without seeing someone wearing glasses. Most people don’t mind them, but they’re easy to lose, and can be annoying. So not needing to wear glasses would be a big benefit for an enormous number of people. While the Argus II is not the solution to glasses as yet, it does open up a new pathway that will lead there eventually.

Keep in mind, none of this is speculative technology. All of it exists right now, even if it’s not commercially available. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Twenty Years from Now…

In twenty years, these kinds of developments will go from being isolated inventions, mainly prototypes, to being everyday tools. Auto mechanics will wear exoskeletons with extra limbs, not only to enable them to lift an engine block and battery, but also to protect them from injury should the car slip, and to provide extra hands to hold tools. These will be controlled by a neural interface, and after an adjustment period where they get used to having extra limbs, using such exoskeletons will seem effortless.

Many industrial applications will use exoskeletons, which will make workers both safer and much more efficient. And less developed countries will be able to have contract workers who own their own exo-suits come in and build things for them, without needing any other heavy machinery. This will be particularly useful for geographically inaccessible regions, where traditional construction equipment can’t go.

This technology will be just as important for hospitals and surgery. Already the da Vinci surgical robot is used for minimally invasive surgery in a few hospitals, and as the cost drops, they’ll become more common, and used in more applications. Laparoscopic, or keyhole, surgery, using da Vinci and similar tools, is on the rise, and the recovery time is much faster than with traditional surgery. Developing more nimble tools will not only improve on this start, but will benefit from a better interface to control duch tools. Coupled with improved healing techniques, we could get to a point where many types of surgery have recovery times of days rather than months.

Nor will it be just industry and health care that benefit from cybernetics. Most of us will have no need of an exo-suit, because we won’t need to lift heavy weights on a regular basis. But how about having an extra set of hands? Heading out to do yard work, you might slip on your SRLs, which will be a combination backpack and hat. The first time you use it, it will be complicated, like learning to ride a bike. But you will quickly get used to it, until it becomes second nature. The three-meter long extendable tendrils will have five digits on the end, making them useful not only for reaching farther away, but fine manipulation. The whole rig will weigh less than ten pounds, and will charge in about five minutes. You won’t be able to do two things at once, since you only have one set of eyes, but having an extra pair of hands will be great for reaching higher branches, holding things in place while you trim dead leaves, or reaching for tools you’ve left on the ground without having to bend down.

The SRLs will be equally useful in home repair and maintenance. Even though housecleaning will still be with us, it will become easier. Vacuuming the ceiling will be a snap with SRLs, and you won’t have to bend down to do the baseboards. You get the idea. Any task that would be easier with another set of hands or with longer arms will benefit.

The Real Breakthrough

While the SLRs and the exo-suits are amazing, the real breakthrough will be the BCI. Linking your brain to a computer will save countless hours, and probably waste even more in videogames. It’s the step beyond voice interface, and we may actually get there first.

Picture this: You wake up to a blur, but that quickly clears away as your BCI refocuses your implanted lenses and automatically calibrates them to the ideal focal point based on your autonomic reactions.

You get up and decide to have a shower, which immediately turns on, set to your ideal temperature, as you walk to the bathroom. Once finished, you dry off and dress, and walk into the kitchen just as the coffee finishes percolating, and the news snaps on, with the weather and traffic showing on the sidebar. You pour your cereal and eat, idly noting that there’s been a traffic back-up on your way to work, so you inform your GPS to program a route around it. Finishing up, you place your dishes in the dishwasher, which informs you that it will wait until the afternoon to wash and dry, due to peak power rates. Nodding, you head out to your car and check your route, noting that the GPS has done as you asked.

You mentally activate your car’s autodrive, and the car drives you to work. As you go, you communicate with your office computer, and find out that one of your appointments cancelled on you for this morning. The computer also informs you that you could schedule a teleconference in at that time with the Belgian office about one of the projects you’re jointly working on, so you do.

By the time you arrive at the office, you’ve organized most of your day, read any updates you need, and had a few ideas that you’ve sent to some of your co-workers. You chat with your spouse via neural link as you get out of the car and make your way to the office, glad that the trip to Santa Fe is going well, and that you’ll be reunited that evening. Most of your day is spent meeting people face-to-face, since you don’t give everyone access to your – somewhat intrusive – link, but when you do use it, it saves time, and has come to feel like an easier, quite natural way of communicating.

This is where we could be in twenty years as we develop the technology of cybernetics and prosthetics. The immediate benefits will be to those with the misfortune to need them, but their experience will lead us to a world where these extensions of ourselves will benefit us all.

© Copyright, IF Research, September 2014.

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