Thought of as a science fiction pipedream, the science of bionics is often viewed as sinister. However, in the real world, these technologies have the potential to extend your lifespan and improve your quality of life as you age.
Check out this video, to get a sense of how far the technology has come.
The TED talk of the engineer in the video, Hugh Herr, is something we’ve covered before, and is well worth a watch.
Limitations of the Body
A lot of people are afraid of getting older– and for good reason. As we get older, our bodies eventually start to fail, piece by piece. It’s something that you can delay through good nutrition, preventative medical care, and exercise — but sooner or later, almost everyone winds up trapped a body that can no longer do the things they enjoy. If you don’t want to put up with it, your only option is to start replacing it. Or, if you’re squeamish about cutting off limbs and organs, augmenting it.
Powered exoskeletons may sound like science fiction, but they’re far from new. An early hydraulic and electric suit capable of lifting 250 lbs (110 kg) was developed by the US Military as early as 1965. This was based on studies by the Cornell Aeronautical Laboratories of Buffalo, New York, into Man-Amplifiers, as early as 1960. The “Hardiman”, as it was dubbed, wasn’t entirely successful – but it paved the way for further military applications.
However, scientists have seen their potential beyond merely a tool for the army.
Probably the most notable example is Japan’s HAL (Hybrid Assistive Limb), an exoskeleton created to expand the capabilities of the body – especially for those with spinal or neurological disorders, like those produced by a stroke. For stroke victims and paraplegics, HAL could help suffers walk again – as could ReWalk, a commercial system powered by a battery and guided using a wrist-mounted control. Similarly, the LIFESUIT is another exoskeleton aimed at the disabled, developed by Monty K. Reed at his North Seattle Robotics Group; Reed was left with permanent back injuries after a parachute accident, and became interested in exoskeletons after reading Robert Heinlein’s description of power armor in his 1959 novel, Starship Troopers.
Research for the They Shall Walk project is complete and the LIFESUIT is in the process of raising the $2 million in order to begin production in 2017 and distribution to therapy clinics and gyms.
Exoskeletons are well suited to both medical and military applications, but they also offer a chance for aging bodies to carry on with strenuous tasks. Here’s a great demonstration of HAL lifting 88lbs (40 kg) — a remarkable feat, considering it requires next to no strength from the user. This technology could return an enormous measure of independence to the elderly.
Strength and fatigue isn’t the sole concern: an average of 18 people in the US die each day due to a shortage of organ donors. In 2013, 4,453 died awaiting a kidney transplant alone.
3D printing might be embroiled in worries about making your own weapons – even CBS’ brilliant Elementary tackled the subject (which upset some people) – but 3D printing is good for much, much more. Scientists have been able to print human tissue for a while. For a long time, the biggest limiting factor was vascularization, creating blood vessels to provide oxygen and nutrients to the tissue.
That all changed last year, as American and Australian scientists developed the ability to bio-print capillaries. Dr Luiz Bertassoni of the University of Sydney admits that printing organs may be decades away, but they now “can start talking about larger, more complex tissues that are able to survive longer.” In the mean time, research continue on creating transgenic pig organs that can be safely implanted into humans.
To attack the problem from a different angle, it’s also possible to replace a number of internal organs with purely mechanical replacements. Two years ago, media outlets and journals were going wild about Bionic Man, a $1 million robot made from artificial body parts – including circulatory system. The system is intended to serve as a showcase for how much of the human body we can replace or augment with robotics.
Forget The Six Million Dollar Man: this Bionic Man was nicknamed Frank (after Victor Frankenstein).
The robot possesses a heart pumping artificial oxygen-rich blood around the body. It also has a spleen, kidney, and pancreas, but no digestive system, liver, or brain. Instead, it’s controlled via Bluetooth. Its ‘skin’ is made of a polymer, filled with a million sensors to detect touch and temperature changes, and it’s powered by 26 individual motors.
It also utilizes a Rex exoskeleton, a “hands-free, self-supporting, independently controlled robotic walking device”, and 3D printing to create a windpipe and skull implant.
The system’s not perfect yet — its ‘blood’ is actually a “synthetic oxygen carrier” — tiny polymer and iron particles, which carry oxygen but don’t perform all the functions of blood. Furthermore, several of its organs are merely prototypes. He remains a fine example of what is possible: bionic kidneys could eliminate the need for a dialysis unit, an artificial pancreas would regulate blood sugar levels; and the spleen plays a key role in filtering your blood as part of your immune system.
There are thousands of people suffering today on transplant lists waiting for these organs, and the ability to fabricate them could do an enormous amount of good.
Limitations of the Mind
Of course it’s not just length of life that’s a concern, but quality too. Many of us have worries about dementia, and those fears are well-founded. A study by Alzheimer’s Disease International found that, in 2013, an estimated 44.4 million people worldwide had dementia, a figure that is likely to swell to roughly 75 million in 2030, and 135.5 million in 2050, due to our growing lifespans and world population. There are high-profile cases like former US President Ronald Reagan, civil rights activist Rosa Parks, and prolific novelist Sir Terry Pratchett, an eloquent writer who warns:
“There isn’t one kind of dementia. There aren’t a dozen kinds. There are hundreds of thousands. Each person who lives with one of these diseases will be affected in uniquely destructive ways… There’s no clearly plotted pathway to the course of these diseases. Dementia attacks those facets which make us who we are, and it’s a deeply personal attack that defies prediction.”
Clearly, eventually we would like to beat this disease entirely and provide a full cure. Until that is possible, wearable technologies may provide a powerful tool to restore some quality of life to sufferers. The evolution of The Internet of Things into a Contextual Web may provide help to those struggling to remain independent, especially as it would focus on personalization and relevancy; understanding its users’ situations and difficulties would mean information is readily available without the need for searching.
Current browser add-ons and widgets are good examples of this growing interest in interactivity and ease. Apture, for instance, was set up in 2007 and was used by media giants like The Economist and The Washington Post to add a new dynamism to pages using multimedia, and have since been acquired by Google. Similarly, Zemanta’s semantic algorithms filters through blog posts to suggest additional content like links and photos, the latter it pulls from stock image sites, paying attention to copyright.
This should all make the world more accessible, and reinforces individualism. Google Glass has certainly attracted its share of criticism, but imagine how helpful it could be to an Alzheimer sufferer, providing them with reminders, apps, and contact information — essentially replacing some of their lost memories.
Despite its chilly reception, Google Glass remains a powerful tool for good. We’ve already written about its possible successor, the Google Contact Lens, research for which sounds advantageous for those with diabetes, or even colour deficiencies!
Will You Be Upgraded?
In 1966, Dr Kit Pedlar and Gerry Davis took note of the uneasiness around bionics and created the Cybermen for The Tenth Planet, a Doctor Who serial which saw the Doctor and a team at a polar base take on terrifying reflections of ourselves. The Cybermen remain a persistent threat, most recently appearing in last year’s Dark Water/ Death in Heaven.
Why are the cybermen still around, when so many Doctor Who villains have fallen by the wayside? Because the fear they represent is still relevant! They represent the horror of the distorted self. That fear is still very much alive, but we should be careful not to call it wise. The fear of cybernetics ultimately represents a misguided and shallow response to an increasingly important idea.
Bionics can make us live longer, healthier, happier lives. Do you think there’s a line that we shouldn’t cross? Will you swap out a few parts, when the time comes? Let us know in the comments!