On a warm, rainy evening in June 2015, a young girl visiting the Science Center Berlin at Potsdamer Platz was fighting to keep her balance while walking a narrow path across a plunging virtual ravine. Fun (and safe) as it was, the balancing act in the “Discover what moves us” exhibit helped to demonstrate just one function in a human’s ability to control more than 200 bones and 600 muscles: perception.
Science Center Berlin was established in part to show people like that able-bodied girl how technology assists those who need help walking, balancing or grasping objects. The exhibits also illustrate how technology is bridging the gap between “disabled” and “able” and how science is shifting the line between human limitation and human potential.
Hugh Herr lives with physical challenges daily. In 1982, Herr lost both of his legs to frostbite in a mountain-climbing accident. “At that time, I didn’t view my body as broken,” Herr told a TED Talk audience in the spring of 2014. “I reasoned that a human being can never be ‘broken.’ Technology is broken. Technology is inadequate.”
Today, Herr leads the Biomechatronics Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab, where scientists and engineers are developing innovative technologies that restore and enhance human capability. “From synthetic constructs that resemble biological materials, to computational methods that emulate neural processes, nature is driving design,” Herr said. “Design is also driving nature. In realms of genetics, regenerative medicine and synthetic biology, designers are growing novel technologies not foreseen or anticipated by nature.”
Össur, a noninvasive orthopedics company based in Reykjavik, Iceland, dramatically demonstrated Herr’s predictions when it unveiled a bionic leg that reacts to signals from muscles in the thigh. While similar devices have been demonstrated in the lab, including neural devices implanted into the brain’s motor cortex that allow an amputee to control the movement of a robotic limb with thought, Össur’s is the first such bionic limb available commercially.
Össur’s breakthrough is just one of many being reported almost daily. Second Sight Medical Products, a California company, has patented a retinal prosthesis system that creates the perception of light patterns in the brain. The system looks like sunglasses wired to a small video processor. A miniature video camera transmits electrical pulses to the brain of a blind person, who learns to interpret them as visual patterns.
Meanwhile, synthetic “skins” are being developed for prosthetic limbs; the skins stiffen and soften, mirroring the behavior of human skin where it attaches to the body. The result is more natural, integrated support, creating flexibility and comfort between the human and the device. Researchers say the same technology can make everyday clothing and footwear more comfortable and functional for all. In fact, companies are developing bionic systems for otherwise able-bodied people – products marketed for human potential, not just for overcoming limitations.
In 2014, Keith Fitz-Gerald, an investment strategist with Money Map Report, described human augmentation as an “unstoppable trend.” In a 2015 update he wrote: “At the time I noted that the human augmentation market will conservatively be worth hundreds of billions of dollars by 2020 ... I think I may have understated things.”
One reason is that companies worldwide are leveraging human enhancement technology to improve the safety and capabilities of their employees. Assembly line workers at Audi’s new facility in Neckarsulm, Germany, for example, have been equipped with powered posture-support devices from the Swiss-based company Noonee. Workers wear the “Chairless Chair,” which takes the weight and load normally placed on an individual by various tasks, to reduce fatigue and the risk of injury to the back and legs.
Other well-known companies are commercializing human augmentation technologies for other work environments. In 2015, Honda Motor Company began leasing its Walking Assist Devices, which supports those with weakened leg muscles, to hospitals and rehabilitation facilities in Japan. Panasonic, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon are developing similar technologies.
Investors are lining up to commercialize an unpowered lightweight lower-leg device with a spring and clutch system that works with calf muscles and the Achilles tendon to reduce metabolic energy consumption while walking. The device was developed by engineers at US universities North Carolina State (Raleigh) and Carnegie Mellon (Pittsburgh). “The market projections are pretty crazy,” said Greg Sawicki, who worked on the project.
“WE’RE BEGINNING THE AGE IN WHICH MACHINES ATTACHED TO OUR BODIES WILL MAKE US STRONGER AND FASTER AND MORE EFFICIENT.”HUGH HERR
BIOMECHATRONICS GROUP LEADER, MASSACHUSETTS INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY MEDIA LAB
Military applications also are booming. Ekso Bionics, for instance, is working with the US military to develop an armored exoskeleton to help foot soldiers walk, run or climb farther and faster and to carry heavy loads over rugged ground. MIT is working on similar systems that assist normal walking for healthy people. “We’re beginning the age in which machines attached to our bodies will make us stronger and faster and more efficient,” Herr said.
With so much activity, futurists have begun to predict where the trend of human augmentation may be heading. Ray Kurzweil, renowned inventor, futurist and director of engineering at Google, told audiences at a New York finance conference in June 2015 that humans will become hybrids in the 2030s, and predicted that our brains will be connected to the cloud via nanobots made from DNA strands. “Our thinking then will be a hybrid of biological and nonbiological thinking,” he said. “We’re going to gradually merge and enhance ourselves. In my view, that’s the nature of being human – we transcend our limitations.”
Such predictions have ethicists and policymakers wringing their hands. Who decides which enhancements go too far? Performance-boosting steroids use by professional athletes: bad. Cosmetic plastic surgery: fine. Vaccines against deadly diseases: great. Military use of “personality pills” and “thought helmets”: weird.
One problem, experts say, is lack of consensus about simple definitions. For example, what is a disability? According to the United Nations, about 1 billion people worldwide (about 15%) are considered disabled. If, however, the definition of disability is expanded to include depression, schizophrenia, autism and other cognitive conditions, more than half of the world’s population would be included.
According to the United Nations, about 1 billion people worldwide are considered disabled.
Researchers from the Academy of Medical Sciences, the British Academy, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society, who looked only at the impact of human enhancement in the workplace, were troubled by the lack of data they found. Their 2012 report, titled “Human Enhancement and the Future of Work,” posed a number of questions. For example, should employers expect enhanced workers to do more dangerous jobs? Does an “enhanced” individual have unfair advantages over a “normal” job applicant? And who pays for the devices: governments, insurers, employers … or workers?
These questions, ultimately, ask what it is to be human. For Hans-Willem van Vliet, managing director of R&D at Otto Bock Healthcare, this is the premise behind the Science Center Berlin exhibition where the young girl walked the virtual gap – that humans desire “soft solutions.”
For nearly a century, Otto Bock has been making artificial limbs, most of them clunky, cold and devoid of sensory input. But “people are emotional beings,” van Vliet said. The future, he predicted, will therefore lead science into the neural pathways of the human brain to tap the senses where human emotions are born, “to feel the wind, a touch, goose bumps, holding hands.” ◆