When Do Humans Become Bionic?


This article was originally posted on Huffingtonpost.com

Sight for the blind, hearing for the deaf. A human body with functionality restored. That’s the promise of bionics, a field that sits at the intersection of engineering, nanotechnology, medicine, and other scientific disciplines.

Bionics is the merger of electronics and technology with the human body, or in other words: robotic body parts. Bionics holds extraordinary promise for its potential to improve quality of life and restore physical functionality in people with debilitating conditions. In the past decade, bionic innovation has progressed in leaps and bounds, emerging as a hotbed of breakthrough developments.

Recent advances in the field are poised to revolutionize healthcare and drastically improve the range of solutions and available treatment options for patients with impaired functionality due to disability, physical injury, or illness. From artificial organs and exoskeletons to sensory restoration and potential treatments for neurological disorders, recent advances in robotics, materials science and 3D printing has spawned a wave of innovation in bionics. In the past five or so years, advances in prosthetics have been particularly visible.

A Moment In the Spotlight

The promise of bionics was no more apparent than at the beginning of the 2014 FIFA World Cup at Corinthians Arena in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Broadcast around the world to more than one billion viewers and before a roaring crowd, Juliano Pinto, a 29-year-old Brazilian man, stepped out onto the field to perform the ceremonial kickoff which marks the start of the World Cup.

Pinto kicked the football. But what’s remarkable about this kick is the fact that Pinto is a paraplegic, paralyzed from the chest down. To move his legs, he was using a brain-controlled robotic exoskeleton to walk and then to kick the football — a feat that until several years ago was unimaginable, fodder for science fiction, perhaps. Ceremonial kicks are a formality, a small gesture to be sure, but Pinto’s kick was much more than that. His kick represented the culmination of years of research, the life’s work of several dozen bionics researchers and scientists.

A Spate of Progress

While the first prosthetic limbs date back as far as 3000 BC, the design and functionality of replacement limbs were still fairly rudimentary, having changed little from mechanical designs developed in the early 20th century. Until two or three years ago, artificial arms and legs offered little control to users, says Dr. Miguel Nicolelis, a neuroscientist at Duke University.

“The patient imagines that he wants to move, to walk. This is detected by sensors and sent to a computer which interprets this information and sends info to the exoskeleton,” Dr. Nicolelis told the Washington Post. “It allows the patient to control movements on the lower limbs, that’s the first innovation. The second is the exoskeleton generates these movements.”

Bertolt Meyer, a psychologist at Technische Universität Chemnitz in Germany, elaborates on what these advances mean to the people who use them. Meyer was born without a lower left arm and uses a bionic hand.

“The first functional prosthetic I had was a metal claw, which I activated and controlled with straps worn across my shoulders — it was really mechanical,” Meyer explains. “It was very functional, good for camping. But it wasn’t very aesthetically pleasing, kind of crude looking.”

The first bionic arms to use myoelectric signaling as a means to control movement and dexterity debuted in the late 1990s. Rather than operate mechanically, prosthetic arms which use myoelectric technology are controlled via electric impulses users create upon flexing their remaining arm muscles. Like Juliano Pinto’s exoskeleton, bionic arms read a user’s brain activity and transmit to the prosthetic limb the command to grasp an object (or, in Pinto’s case, to move the leg and kick the ball).

This is how sophisticated bionic limbs have become. There has been an incredible amount of innovation happening in the last seven to eight years, culminating with the commercial release of the i-LIMB™. With the proliferation of robotics and medtech startups in Silicon Valley, it’s probable that this class of bionic technology could be ready to market in the medium term future, within the next decade or so.

Asked if he regards his i-LIMB as a tool, as opposed to an appendage or part of his body, Dr. Meyer’s description echoes what other bionic limb users tend to say: over time, they come to see the limb as their own. “I really see it as part of my body. It has become a part of body image,” Dr. Meyer explains. “You wear a thing like this for years, your brain learns it’s there and learns how to operate it. Within a couple years it feels natural and you stop thinking about it.”

[Ir]replacement Parts

Today, bionic technology can replace a lot of things which were considered irreplaceable just a few years ago. Prosthetic legs continue to revolutionize the lives of amputees. Bionic arms, though not yet capable of emulating fine motor skills needed to play guitar or illustrate a detailed portrait, have nonetheless come a long way and continue to make strides in the area of tactile capability. Cochlear implants can restore much of one’s hearing, and rudimentary prototypes for restoring eyesight are being developed. Promising advances in artificial organs — early prototypes of implantable kidneys, pancreas, and lungs — are also on the horizon.

That said, if you’re not thrilled with the idea of living alongside human-cyborgs, it’s early days to worry about losing our natural forms. Researchers say sophisticated bionic arm and leg technology is not slated to go to market for at least a few years. “Part of the problem with lower extremity bionics is more fundamental than figuring out the best way to interpret the user’s intentions,” Greg Nichols, a science journalist who covers robotics, writes. “Scientists don’t know how gait is actually regulated in humans or mammals.”

Notably, while the science underlying prosthetics and, to a lesser extent, artificial circulatory and lymphatic organs has become increasingly advanced, bionics research involving more complex aspects of the human body — like vocal cords and intestines — is still in its early stages. Bionics has a ways to go before it can replace higher-order cognitive and physiological functions.

A Positive Outlook

Researchers who study bionics offer a far-reaching vision for melding technology with biology that bears little resemblance to dystopic futures we see in movies. While some scientists and engineers gloss over the social and ethical implications of their work, these technologies are quite promising for their potential to restore physical functioning, well being, and improve the human body.

To be sure, advances in bionics also beget questions about what it means to be human. As human beings, we struggle with whether to sanction cloning or gene editing processes which could interfere with the natural process of creation. I even wonder if our resistance to such ideas is a kind of evolutionary reaction. But as the field of bionics continues to progress, we will need to rule on whether to permit more fanciful tinkering. However strong and resilient humans are in mind, we are delicate and fragile in body.

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