In the first of a three-part series on how bionics and cybernetics could affect the lives of disabled people, Mik Scarlet looks at how what was science fiction in the 1970s has become today’s reality.
Anyone who grew up in the 1970s will remember the classic TV series, The Six Million Dollar Man. It featured Steve Austin, an astronaut critically injured after crashing his space capsule who was then “rebuilt” thanks to technology, becoming the world’s first Bionic Man.
Bionics or cybernetics is the process where a biological entity is augmented by mechanical means. Mr Austin had his lost body parts replaced with two bionic legs, a bionic arm and a bionic eye, all for six million dollars, a huge sum back then. The show signposted a future where disabled people could not only be made new but, as the show’s tag line promised, made “better, stronger faster”. It was such a hit that the US TV networks then gave us a version for the girls featuring Lyndsay Wagner as The Bionic Woman.
As a child that already had to wear a metal leg brace to allow him to walk, the idea of having that leg replaced with some amazing piece of robot technology appealed greatly. I’d even have had my good leg off if it meant I could run and jump like my bionic hero. To me it seemed obvious that the answer to my disability was technology, and I dreamt of a time when fantasy might turn into reality. If I’m honest, even though I know it goes against almost everything I now stand for politically, a part of me still dreams of being a bionic man. Having said that there are many disabled people who fear what the world of tomorrow may hold if technology does reach a point where impairment can be fixed via mechanical means.
While I dreamed of being bionic, others imagined how they might make it happen and today we are on the verge of a revolution in cybernetic technology.
Recently, UK-based technology company Shadow Robot, who build cutting-edge cybernetic hands, were the technical advisors for the Channel 4 show The Incredible Bionic Man, where a robotic human was built out of existing cybernetic tech available on the market. The show highlighted exactly what is currently possible. I met with Shadow Robot’s MD Rich Walker to find out what things the future has in store.
Communication, communication, communication
The company began after a group of hobbyist robot builders got together to see where they could take robotics. Rich’s skill originally lay in the writing of software but he soon found he wanted more from what robots could do.
“The biggest shifts in the technology of recent years are the Internet, which allows people who are pushing technology forward to communicate ideas and concepts, the cheap 3D camera, which has facilitated smaller companies to gain access to scanning technology that has allowed them build machines that can understand the world around them, and most importantly the recent creation of universal software that means technologies created by different companies can communicate.”
This is big news in the world of cybernetics. It’s already happening in the world of hi-end replacement limbs. One company will build the knee, one the ankle and another the bits in between, all specialists working together.”
All in the mind
What restricts us at present is the need to implant wires in the brain, to make good connections and to keep them over time. These types of connections are also being used to make artificial limbs function. Once this was done via mechanical means, with cables being pulled by muscles elsewhere on the body, artificial hands being closed via movement in the wearer’s shoulder for example, but now by implanting wires in the muscles the smallest of movements can trigger artificial limbs. From large-scale movement to delicate small ones, this implanting of wires to detect electrical stimulation from muscle movement means that prosthetic limbs are becoming more lifelike.
Rich is very proud of the “double click” feature in his hands, that means that “one implanted trigger wire can set off a series of movements dependent on the number of times you tense that muscle”. However, not every solution requires communication with the nervous system for them to function.
“Cybernetic feet work in a different way, by being intelligent themselves. They understand your gait, the contact with the ground and the loading on them and function without you needing to think about what they are doing. The next step is to create feedbacks systems to allow those people who use these cybernetic prosthetic addictions to be able to feel.”
But it’s when considering cybernetics with regards to enhancement rather than medical replacement it becomes “interesting”.
“Funding is easy to find if you are looking for ways of creating methods of replacing lost function, say artificial limbs, but when you consider what might be called cosmetic enhancements this is much less the case. So there is less funding to make someone who is not injured ‘faster, stronger, better’. This means that disabled people will be, and are, at the forefront of the uptake and application of bionics and cybernetic technologies.”
“Research is currently going into the drive to build a fully functioning robot to help care for the aging populations in countries like Japan. I can foresee a time when technology like Shadow Robot’s hands are attached to all manner of medical equipment and controlled via the mind. This mind-controlled tech is at a stage where advances are leading to it becoming functional very soon. Imagine a future where a wheelchair user might have a power wheelchair, with robotic arms attached, that is fully mind-controlled, meaning the chair could not only be a means of transport but a full-time carer. It could get you up, dress you, wash and feed you all controlled by thought alone. You could spend all day in the chair and at night it could put you to bed, then start off on a series of pre-programmed tasks, such as cleaning your house or doing your washing up. This technology is not all about making disabled people ‘perfect’ again; its uses are only limited by our imaginations.”
We are already seeing new developments every day. However, these developments are not always received with open arms by the disabled community. An example would be the recent furore over the publicity around the video of the turning on of a cochlear implant. While the media saw it as a inspirational story of giving back something lost, many in the Deaf community felt differently. This tension between those doing the research and creating the technology, the media and society’s view of disability and the very people who are being targeted to benefit from cybernetic advancements is the subject of my next article. Very soon it may be possible for the medical profession to mechanically rebuild many disabled people, but the question is: should they?