Form Follows Function: Prosthetics and Artificial Organs that Break the Human Mold

By Kyle Munkittrick | June 16, 2011 9:45 am

Designers of prosthetics and artificial organs have for a long time tried to replicate the human body. From the earliest peg legs to some of the most modern robotic limbs, the prosthetic we make looks like the body part that needs replacing. Lose a hand? Dean Kamen’s DEKA arm, aka the “Luke arm,” is a robotic prosthesis that will let you grasp an egg or open a beer. The Luke arm is a cutting edge piece of technology based on a backward idea – let’s replace the thing that went missing by replicating it with metal and motors. Whether it’s an artificial leg or a glass eye, prostheses often seek to reproduce not only the function of the body part, but the form and feel as well.

There are good reasons to want to reproduce form and feel along with function. The first reason is that our original bits and pieces work quite well. The human body as a whole is a natural marvel, let alone the immense complexity and dexterity of our hands, eyes, hearts, and legs. No need to reinvent the wheel, just replicate the natural model you’ve been given. The second, less obvious reason, is that we as a society have been and remain deeply uncomfortable with amputees and prosthetics. Many people don’t know what to do when faced with an artificial arm or leg. I wish it were different, but it largely isn’t. So prostheses are designed to look like whatever it is they replicate to hide the fact that the arm or leg or eye isn’t biological.

That methodology is being challenged by a few recent innovations: Össur’s now famous Cheetah blades, Kaylene Kau‘s tentacle arm, and the artificial heart with no heartbeat. These new prostheses and artificial organs are a result of approaching the problem by asking “What does this piece allow us to do?” not “How do we build an artificial one?” The implications for how humans will view themselves in the coming decades are monumental.

There are three major ways in which non-standard prosthetics and artificial organs will change the way we come to understand the human form.

Redefining Normal: The first is a continuation of a current trend already underway: a serious questioning of what a “normal” person should look like. Tattoos, piercings, plastic surgery, sub-dermal implants represent voluntary challenges to the normative standards of human appearance. As more and more soldiers return home from Iraq and Afghanistan amputees and paraplegics, the average person’s exposure to someone who needs and wears a prosthetic is far more likely. Carrie Davis, an amputee advocate and surrogate mother, runs Camp No Limits, a summer camp for children who use prostheses where they discover they are neither alone nor abnormal. Millions of people need some sort of mobility assistance, prosthetic, or artificial organ. They are our friends, family, co-workers, and customers. De-stigmatizing their condition is essential for both improving their daily quality of life and progressing as a civilization.

Nature Doesn’t Know Best: The second is a de-mystification of nature. Evolution is lazy and a cheapskate. Natural selection doesn’t ensure that the best form evolves, merely that the slightly better form is preferred. What does that mean? It mean we delude ourselves that we are the “most highly evolved species” when so many of us wear glasses and are susceptible to sinus infections, lactose intolerance and appendicitis. It also means that just because the human hand is amazing, it isn’t the end-all-be-all of grasping, touching, and manipulating. Elective amputations due to non-amputating injury are the start of the process of recognizing that we might be able to build a better grabber. However, given enough time and technological progress, voluntary amputations by otherwise healthy, uninjured individuals may become commonplace. Showing that a prosthetic can serve all the functions of a hand or foot without having the same form is a huge blow to anyone who doesn’t think the human body could have used a few more revisions on the drawing board. In the future, natural hands and legs might just not be good enough for those who have access to the best in prosthetics technology.

Artificial Aesthetics: The final change will be an aesthetic shift. Prosthetics may be designed the way the best pieces of consumer technology are today. If elective amputations ever become even remotely normal, you might find yourself in a virtual fitting room, swapping among various forearms and terminal attachments. Aimee Mullin’s famous “My 12 pairs of legs” TED speech shows the very beginnings of this trend. Because the form follows the function, there is actually more, not less, freedom for designers. Whatever attaches to your shoulder just needs to be able to open a drawer, pull on pants, type a message, and put in a contact lens. Prosthetics design could help redefine beauty. So long as it does that, the prosthetic can be neon green and see-through for all anyone cares. By focusing on function, the form is liberated.

It’s easy to say that these trends will change the way we see other people and ourselves, in particular those who are amputees. It’s hard to know how a crowd would react to a woman with a tentacle arm or how it would feel to rest your head on someone’s chest and hear not a heartbeat but a constant whir. Disorienting doesn’t even begin to cover it.

To give you an idea of where we’re heading, I’d like to end with an anecdote.

Last week I was on St. Mark’s Place in Manhattan. For those of you unfamiliar with St. Mark’s Place, it’s one of the more eclectic gathering places in New York City. You’ll find NYU students, old school residents who’ve been there for decades, baffled tourists looking to buy some cheap sunglasses and an “I Heart New York” t-shirt, East Village punks, SoHo spillover, western otakus, and hipsters galore. One of the bars has a bouncer who wears a conical hat in all seriousness and I’m pretty sure one of the record-holders for most facial piercings frequents the block. If you want to see interesting people, it’s a veritable buffet. Yet, last week, one of the people who caught my attention was a blonde in her 20’s walking with a few friends. Among the crowds festooned with mohawks and jeggings, I might not have even noticed her. Just a cute girl in a t-shirt and jean shorts. All but for the fact that her right leg was, from mid-thigh to sneaker, made of metal. Her knee was a visible hinge. This was not a prosthetic designed to “look normal” and she made no effort to hide it under pants or a long skirt.

I use my language here carefully when I say I was struck by how unbelievable it was that her leg was prosthetic. Visibly, it was obviously artificial. But nothing about the way she carried her self, the way she talked to her friend as they ambled down the street, the way in which crowds ignored her and she didn’t notice them, was strange – which is what made the whole experience so odd. Among New York crowds, I expect people to gawk. But that her right leg was a prosthetic was a non-issue. People were so disinterested that I had to ensure I, myself, was seeing what I thought I saw. No one cared.

That disinterest heartened me because the idea of “nothing to see” is extremely difficult for our brains to process when we are looking at a deviation from the human form. As we are exposed to more and more prosthetics that get the job done rather than act as awkward disguises, the more our brains flex and flow around the idea of what a human looks like. The benefit is two-fold: 1) those who need prosthetics get devices that actually let them do what they need to do and 2) amputees and prosthetics are no longer hidden, but humanized and normalized. And we’re only at the very beginning. I can’t wait to see what inhuman innovations the prostheses of the next few decades will bring.

Follow Kyle on his personal blog, Pop Bioethics, and on facebook and twitter.

Images via Össur and Oscar, PlayMeDesign, and Kaylene Kau’s Coroflot.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Biotech, Cyborgs, Transhumanism

Comments (8)

  1. Interesting. Can you tell us something about the photos you used?

  2. Armand

    Hi Kyle

    At your other blog, Pop Bioethics, you’ve listed two ‘unthinkables’ of the day, the latest of which is directly related to this post. How long do you expect this to continue? How many unthinkable thoughts do you have?

    Right now, the Human race is roughly split between technoprogressives and bioconservatives. I believe that only the wealthy, and those with wealthy benefactors, will be able to afford truly superhuman enhancements. The Transhuman elite will oppress and terrify the Human rabble. This will cause the large majority of Humans to become fanatically bioconseravtive, and eventually revolt against their cyborg overlords.

    Place your bets.

  3. Gods, a nice article sir, with a good fresh viewpoint, too many people just can’t take someone who doesn’t fit into their sense of “normal”.

  4. Kyle Munkittrick

    @ Bee: Absolutely. I always link to the host websites for any photos I use at the bottom of every post. But a quick recap: The tentacle is by Kaylene Kau, a designer who conceptualized a prosthetic able to operate with one simple action – curl. The runner is Oscar Pistorius using Ossur’s cheetah blades. The woman is modeling a conceptual “designer” prosthetic arm, part of a series by Play Me Design, which was exploring where the technology may go when we’re able to focus on looks, not just on getting it to work.

    @ Armand: It’s a fun exercise I shamelessly stole from Kevin Kelly. I’m going to do it as long as I can, I think it helps me flex my thinking muscles.

  5. James

    Oscar Pistorius is pretty much an icon in South Africa and particularly in Pretoria (where I study). He had a birth defect that made his parents elect to have the lower part of his legs amputated. He played rugby for Pretoria Boys Highschool (one of the power house schools in South Africa) and after an injury sustained playing that game turned to athletics and sprinting in particular.

    He has had considerable success. He has won many Paralympic Gold Medals and has competed relatively successfully against able-bodied athletes at an international level.

    More information can be found on his website that is linked to at the end of the article.

    There has been much controversy over whether his legs give him an unfair advantage.

  6. First and foremost, great food for thought here, but allow me to raise a few quibbles about some of your conclusions…

    “De-stigmatizing their condition is essential for both improving their daily quality of life and progressing as a civilization.”

    Considering that modern prosthetic limbs, especially the most advanced types of prosthetic limbs, come from the world of defense and are first intended to rehabilitate wounded soldiers, I don’t think there’s an actual stigma attached to the condition in question. The Oscar Pistorius incident was regrettable, however, it came not from animosity to Oscar’s body but out of bureaucracy and ignorance about the technical capabilities of the blades he uses. Yes, to those of us who have no artificial implants or mechanisms in our bodies the prosthetics look bizarre because they stand out from the familiar shapes we’re so used to seeing. And yes, there is a sense of discomfort in seeing someone’s leg or arm replaced by an artificial limb. But that discomfort could be explained as our reaction to the brief thought of what we’d have to go through were we in this person’s shoes.

    “If elective amputations ever become even remotely normal…”

    I have a lot of trouble seeing that many people following through with an elective amputation and a lot of doctors agreeing to do it. In a piece I wrote for Discovery Space, I looked into that problem when talking about future astronauts going into deep space and my research indicated that the cost, medical tool, and the ethical considerations of the procedures would leave major elective artificial enhancements as a treatment, not as a type of plastic surgery. That said, artificial organs standing in for when natural ones fail could hopefully become more and more common over the next 30 to 50 years, meaning a better and longer life for the average person.

    And now to get technical…

    “The Luke arm is a cutting edge piece of technology based on a backward idea – let’s replace the thing that went missing by replicating it with metal and motors. […] No need to reinvent the wheel, just replicate the natural model you’ve been given.”

    Yes and no. One of the biggest movements in cyborg technology today is interfacing with the nervous system so the limb feels as if it’s natural. Instead of putting the limb on in the morning, the hope is that the prosthesis just becomes a part of the patient. Lose an arm? Ouch! Well, here’s one that will feel just like the old one in a few months when your brain gets used to manipulating it like a natural limb. If the limb is bizarrely shaped, the adaptation curve could be very steep and it becomes more difficult to accurately program a mechanical limb to behave as it should when it receives input from your nerves because you now have to map existing nerves to new functions. It’s possible, just difficult for the patient.

    In the purest engineering sense, you’re right and we could just focus on function and make the form pure eye candy. However, unless a patient really wants tentacles instead of a missing arm, it makes more practical sense to make the limb as familiar to him or her as possible to reduce stress and training time. Internal organs are much easier in that regard because you don’t consciously move them as you fee fit. You have much more leeway there as demonstrated by your story about the non-pulsing heart.

  7. Science Rules! I thought the techniques that led to prosthetic and artificial organ were made during WWI. In any case it sounds like good news, albeit in need of more study like anything else.

  8. After examine a number of of the blog posts in your web site now, and I actually like your manner of blogging. I bookmarked it to my bookmark website record and will be checking again soon. Pls check out my website online as well and let me know what you think.


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