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. Read More
Source Code, a sci-fi thriller released last week, is based on the premise that science will let people really get into each other’s heads. The eponymous technology, the trailer tells us, is a computer program that “enables you to cross over into another man’s identity.” What results is a scenario that’s part Matrix, part Groundhog Day: lugged into the Source Code program, Jake Gyllenhaal—er, Captain Colter Stevens—lives through the last eight minutes of another man’s consciousness, just before the man’s train was blown up in a terrorist attack, in an effort to identify the bomber. (Stevens’s body, like Neo’s, stays in one place while his mind is elsewhere.) When the first run-through fails to turn up a culprit, Stevens relives those eight minutes again and again, having a different experience—new conversations, new sensations—each time.
Could something like that ever happen? While much of the technology in Source Code will remain purely fiction, says University of Arizona neuroscientist and electrical engineer Charles Higgins, modern science may eventually let us take a peek at, and even play around with, someone else’s consciousness. Among the movie’s technological inventions, Higgins says, “the idea of monitoring and influencing consciousness with a physical neural interface is the most plausible.”
OK, so—whoa. Anyone wielding designer Kaylene Kau‘s prosthetic tentacle would certainly become the instant favorite of any Elder Gods she met. But aside from it’s ability to preserve her from being eaten by Cthulu, Kau’s prosthetic tentacle abandons a way of thinking about prosthetics — that they have to replicate the lost limb as exactly as possible —- for something simple, usable, and elegant.
Instead of a massively complicated set of servos, gears, and microchips the user manipulates the tentacle through two switches: One tightens a cord, causing the tentacle to curl and grip an object, the other lets it go. It’s primarily designed as an aid in conjunction with a biological arm, but it can grip large and small objects effectively.
The arm can join a suite of prosthetic limbs that are changing the way medicine and the rest of us think about replacing a lost limb. Last year, New Zealander Nadya Vessey, who’s missing both legs, asked special effects company Weta (all three Lord of the Rings movies) to make her a mermaid prosthetic she could use for swimming. They needed eight staff members and two and half years, but they did it, and now Vessey swims in the ocean with her fin.
Star Wars, A.I., The Six Million Dollar Man, Star Trek and a host of other science-fiction films all share a particular futurist’s dream: a broken body is repaired with artificial replacements. Reality is finally catching up with our imaginations. Stem cells, mind-controlled arms, osso-integrated prostheses, exoskeletons, and xenotransplants are here. It’s important to note that most of these innovations are right on the cutting edge, either experimental, prohibitively expensive, or both. Individually they each may seem like small or too esoteric to matter, but as a whole, it looks like we’re on our way to a very cyborg future.
Rex Bionics has created what will be a commercially available set of robotic exoskeleton legs. The only currently existing set, custom built for Hayden Allen, allow him to walk up and down stairs and take awesome, super-mecha pictures like the one above. In an interview, he talks about basic quality of life issues (blood circulation, knowing when you have to go to the bathroom) that come from being ambulatory. Take that, paralysis!
Sculptor Christopher Conte combines his artwork and his experience making prosthetics to create mechanical, science fiction–inspired work with a touch of the dark side.
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