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Watching “The Incredible Bionic Man”

Yesterday I watched The Incredible Bionic Man on Netflix. It’s a strange Smithsonian Channel documentary from 2013: a group of scientists gathered state-of-the art bionic parts and assembled them into a “man”. The results aren’t completely successful, but as a mainstream introduction into what’s possible in bionics now and coming in the near future, it’s not bad. Here’s the trailer.

There were a few things I liked. The main doctor in the film — Dr. Bertolt Meyer — has a bionic hand. His reaction when he tries a new prototype is fantastic.  A scientist making bionic ankles reveals that he has two bionic legs and claims he wouldn’t want real ones if a wish could grant them. “Normal bodies are boring.” And, the film does bring in someone to be the voice of ethics, to ask questions about human life extension, whether it’s ok if only the rich can afford bionics, and what we will do when people want to remove undamaged parts to upgrade to bionics. He doesn’t answer them, but at least he raises them.

On the other hand, the show overuses the concept of Frankenstein’s monster.  The central idea of building a man from bionic parts — would it have some sort of life? — is quite silly, though effective for showing just how many parts of the human body can be replaced by machines. The short section where they had the creature talk, probably using text-to-speech, was not as funny as they seemed to think it was.

I love my prosthetic hip joint so much that I’ll confess, I daydream about having all my other problematic parts replaced.  Left elbow, left shoulder, whole right foot, maybe the other hip, and hey, can you do something about the tendon in my right hand that keeps getting tendonitis?  However, my father-in-law had a prosthetic leg and it was terribly awkward, uncomfortable, and often painful. The bleeding edge tech in this documentary is not available to most people, nor will it be soon.

Take a look if you have Netflix or you can see a few more short clips on the Smithsonian Channel page about the show.

 
 

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Assisitive tech must consider human factors, not just function

Patrick Dehahn, born “profoundly deaf” and now with a cochlear implant, wrote How Technology Could Threaten Deaf Identity for The Atlantic last week. In his discussion of new cochlear implants that would be externally invisible, he writes about the divide between the “capital D” Deaf community, who don’t use hearing aids and communicate mostly with American Sign Language, and the “small d” oral-deaf community who use aids to have some level of hearing and speech.  Interesting, yes, but what caught my eye was this section:

Deaf people wearing internal cochlear implants will have trouble validating themselves as deaf to hearing people who don’t see a physical device on their heads. The loss of that visual cue will blur the line between the oral deaf and the hearing. …

When I don’t catch what was said in a conversation, I often casually point to my external cochlear implant and say “I’m sorry. I didn’t hear what you said,” or “I totally misunderstood you.” It’s an easy shortcut that would be lost with the new technology.

Let me emphasize what I see there with a personal example and a more rudimentary technology: a stick. When I don’t use a cane, I walk awkwardly and slowly with small strides. As much as I would like to imagine myself gliding as elegantly as Eliza Doolittle after a comportment lesson, I’m clumsy. However, as I look fairly young and have no outward signs of disability, I hear sighs of exasperation if people are stuck behind me. Eyes roll or I get a thin, overly-polite-but-not-polite-at-all smile when I lean on a railing or table to stand. People pass with a burst of walking speed akin to a sports car blasting around an RV on the highway. When I use a cane, it serves a technical function: it helps me balance so that I can walk with less pain.  There is a secondary effect, however.  People treat me with more consideration. I’m not rushed; in fact, when climbing in and out of rides at an amusement park, I was offered assistance or told to take my time. I don’t get the same rudeness. The cane is a signifier like Dehahn’s visible cochlear implant. Just as he writes later in the article, “I hate that I have a disability, but I do.”  It’s not that we want sympathy, but there’s a reason I move poorly and he can’t hear perfectly, and when people understand that they often behave with more consideration.

An invisible cochlear implant will remove that signifier, but will not give the users perfect hearing.  Dehahn imagines having people doubt that he is deaf, which feels like a stretch, but I think he’s right that it would take away a shortcut, a gesture — pointing to the implant — that spares a long explanation. Having the visible implant might broadcast his condition, but it can help avoid misunderstandings.

This is why I think anthropology is a real asset in cooperation with technical development. It’s the job of anthropologists to look past the surface benefits of hiding the cochlear implant. That might not be best all the time or for everyone.  First there is the conflict between Deaf people who don’t feel their condition is something that needs to be fixed and those who embrace assistive tech.  Then, there are questions about how people with current implants actually use them.  Would the loss of implant visibility be a quality of life improvement or not?  Is it important to keep a visible option?  Observation might reveal things about the lived experience of having an implant that surveys or interviews would not.

 
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Posted by on May 19, 2014 in Health - Mental & Physical

 

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Dean Kamen introduces mind-controlled prosthetic arm

Though this has been the prosthetic hand top in my thoughts for the past few weeks, it might be supplanted.

Jaime Lannister's golden hand

Sure, the Segway is the butt of many jokes, but Dean Kamen still impresses the hell out of me. My RL stepson had a rare period of initiative and teamwork when he participated in the FIRST Robotics Competition that was founded by Kamen. Kamen has been devoted to inventions to improve the quality of life for people who face physical challenges for decades.  Now, the Luke arm (yes, named after another amputee familiar to many of us) developed by his company, Deka Research & Development, just received FDA approval. What makes this arm unique? It’s a hell of a lot more useful than the gear the Kingslayer is rocking.  It’s bionic, mind-controlled, and capable of dexterity and pressure delicacy that other models lack.

The Luke arm has been in development for a long time —  Kamen spoke about the arm in a 2007 TED talk — and with a target userbase of disabled veterans, DARPA provided $40 million in funding toward the project.

I find it inspiring to see this sort of manual dexterity in a prosthetic, and not only because I get to spend a lot of this month in physical therapy for a shoulder injury. We’ve come a long way since replacement simply for aesthetics or the crudest of functionality. I’m hopeful that pushing the standard higher for top-notch, cutting edge prosthetics will have a bar-raising effect so that even those who aren’t wealthy or in special populations (veterans, athletes) will see the quality of their options improve.

 
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Posted by on May 12, 2014 in Health - Mental & Physical

 

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Robotics for mobility assistance

A mind-controlled exoskeleton piloted by a paralyzed person is scheduled to make the ceremonial opening kick at the World Cup this June. There is some skepticism in the article I linked, but it could bring the idea of assistive robotics to a huge audience.

There are a number of companies and research organizations working on robotic walking solutions, some seeing them as useful in rehabilitation therapy, to augment strength for healthcare, military, and manufacturing uses, or to replace a wheelchair.

HAL by Cyberdyne

HAL by Cyberdyne

I’ve embedded a couple of demonstration videos that focus on mobility below. This is of personal interest, since I’ve used a wheelchair and still use a cane when I’ll be walking for more than an hour, and I’d like to see a future where a supportive external device could keep me upright and mobile.  I’d much rather be on my own feet than in a medical scooter or chair, as long as possible.



 
 

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Cybalthon 2016

Via io9, the first championship for tech-assisted athletes will be held in Zurich in 2016. Awards will be given both to the “pilot” of the prosthesis (the parathlete) and the company/organization that provides the winning device. Prototypes as well as commercially available devices can be used.

Perhaps competitions like this can drive technical innovation in cybernetic prostheses like the new Formula 1 rules are spurring innovation in automotive energy use. I certainly hope so.  Read more at the official Cybathlon website.

 
 

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Prosthetic history

io9 published a photographic history of prostheses yesterday, going back to an iron arm from the 1500s. Some of them are quite beautiful, like this Victorian hand:

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Mechanical and electronic enhancement of the human body fascinates me.  I’m interested in how the prosthetic part is (or is not) incorporated into a person’s proprioception and sense of self. I’m curious about the possibilities for enhancement beyond human standard abilities.

I have a hidden prosthetic: an artificial hip joint. It’s purely mechanical and attached to my bones. I walk a little strangely and my hip is often sore, but that was true before the surgery too. The process of incorporating the prosthetic into my selfhood was barely different from accepting a dental filling as part of my tooth; it’s invisible to me and except for when I notice some stiffness or that eight inch scar, I forget about it.  That’s dramatically unlike someone with an external prosthesis.

Like the experience of presence in a virtual world, incorporating a prosthetic is the extension of the self into the inanimate, mechanical or digital. However, I think there’s a risk in getting too philosophical about it, as that’s not a uniquely human characteristic. We successfully equip a wide variety of animals with prosthetic limbs. Perhaps we’re simply designed to make the best of the situation in which we find ourselves.

 

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