By Doug Hornig
It was a novel idea back in the mid-1970s, when The Six Million Dollar Man hit the airwaves. Austin, a man badly damaged in an accident, was reconstructed by substituting more efficient bionic implants for some of his human parts. Thirty-five years on, we don’t have a guy who can run at 60 mph or see in the dark, like Steve could. But bionic replacements are routine medical reality, not science fiction. And that $6 million price tag has dropped considerably.
Whether we’re ready or not, the line dividing man from machine is slowly being erased. So sit back, put your (probably flesh and blood) feet up, and come with us as we explore some of the key interfaces where this historic transformation is taking place, right now.
Start by thinking about the Internet. What is it, really, but an electronic extension of our brain? It’s a neural network that places much of the accumulated wisdom of the entire world at our disposal. It may not be internal – yet – but it is surely an augmentation to everyday intelligence, one that’s open to anyone with the price of admission. It was undreamt of just a quarter-century ago; now it’s taken for granted.
Next, imagine that you don’t access the Net while sitting in front of your computer screen or punching it up on your iPad. Imagine that it’s with you every waking hour of your day. Imagine that you wear it.
Hard to envision? Yes. But that’s exactly what 47-year-old Steven Mann, an engineer at the University of Toronto, does on a regular basis. Mann believes that the wearable computer will transform our lives in ways even more profound than the PC has.
To integrate body and machine, Dr. Mann invented the EyeTap, a black plastic device that looks like a pair of glasses with only one lens. That "lens," which sits in front of his right eye, is actually a miniature computer monitor. It’s linked to a tiny camera mounted on the EyeTap, wirelessly connected to a backpack computer Mann wears under his sweater, and operated by a controller in his pocket – although he hopes that, eventually, brainwaves will do the trick.
The camera can function like regular vision, allowing the EyeTap user to see what’s in front of him with both eyes, if he so chooses. It can also funnel images to the wearable computer, which then transmits them to a hard drive back home, thereby creating an audiovisual log of everyday transactions. Theoretically, we could now record everything we see and hear, from our eye-level point of view, every waking moment of our lives. If we want, we can post the images to the Web in real time.
Among the implications of that: More crimes will come under citizen surveillance, while authorities such as law enforcement officers will be deterred from overstepping their bounds – and confiscating the camera won’t help. Promises will be made less lightly. "He said, she said" disputes will be instantly resolvable. Friends can coordinate concurrent activities at a distance. And readers can fill in their own blanks as to other implications such technology brings.
But Mann didn’t design the EyeTap to be a simple recorder. What the monitor displays is limited only by the imagination of the wearer. Some potential choices are obvious, such as shuffling through email while standing in line at the bank, playing an online game instead of reading People in the doctor’s waiting room, or eliminating the need for a Teleprompter. Others are less so. For example, Mann can display what is going on behind him or alter the colors of his surroundings. He’s also developed software that, in a stunning restructuring of "reality," transforms billboards and other rectangular shapes into virtual boxes that display personal messages rather than their actual content.
Essentially, we can now live in two or more different worlds simultaneously. But would we want to?
There’s no simple answer. No doubt, many people will find total immersion in the electronic world too disorienting or distracting. However, some form of wearable that extends our ability to interact with the physical world will likely prove too useful to pass up. The SixthSense – developed by researchers Pattie Maes and Pranav Mistry at MIT’s Media Lab – is a very simple and inexpensive ($350 in off-the-shelf parts at the moment) wearable system, and a good example of one direction in which these things might go.
Controlled by the user’s fingertips, SixthSense can stream information onto any handy surface, performing what would have seemed like wonders a few short years back. Follow this link to see the device in action.
And for a dark but plausible vision of where it all could lead, see the novels of Daniel Suarez – Daemon andFreedom™ – in which a small group of people in high-performance wearables are able to take control of much of the world. It sounds like science fiction… until you realize that the story is based on technology that, for the most part, already exists.
A Leg Up
Latter-day Steve Austins have benefited enormously from the advances in artificial hands and limbs. Prosthetics have been evolving at warp speed – so much so that the term replacement may yield to augmentation in the not-too-distant future. And at that point we’re going to have to redefine the whole idea of athletic competition. Will even the staunchest fan pay to watch a human hit a baseball 400 feet when a guy with bionic arms can hit one 600? That remains to be seen. But the flap over steroids will probably seem like a minor tiff by comparison.
Consider that in 2008, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), the governing body of the Olympic Games, was faced with Oscar Pistorius – a 21-year-old from South Africa trying to qualify for the Summer Olympics in Beijing – who was posting times comparable with the best of the world’s runners. Only he was different from all of them in a very obvious physical way: He was a double-leg amputee.
Born with a congenital absence of the fibula in both legs, they were amputated just below the knees. But to his benefit, as he developed, so did the science of prosthetics. With new materials and computer simulations in their hands, engineers have developed exotic-looking prostheses that enable amputees to walk and run with increased deftness and agility:
However, modern artificial limbs are not only more structurally sound, more efficient, and more "natural," they are also evolving in other ways. Notably, computer assistance can now supply us with fully self-contained robotic devices, like the PowerFoot One.
Developed at MIT’s Media Lab under Dr. Hugh Herr – himself a double amputee – the PowerFoot One is a complex mechanical ankle and foot that is now being commercialized under Herr’s direction by a Boston-area startup called iWalk.
Dr. Herr, an avid rock climber before an accident on Mt. Washington cost him his legs, began working in this field because he wanted to defy doctors who told him he’d never climb again. Not only did he prove them wrong, his prosthetics actually enable him to do things that he couldn’t have done with his biological feet – so much so that some other climbers have called him a "cheat." To which Herr only smiles.
Reaching Beyond the Claw
While technology can now approximate the functionality of a real leg, it’s not likely that the same will be said of hands any time soon. The human hand is one of the most complicated of biological structures, and its utility played a pivotal role in our species’ rise to the top of the evolutionary heap. Still, we’ve come a long way from the steel claw.
We now have the SmartHand.
Developed by a team of European scientists from several countries, the device utilizes neural pathways that remain even after one has lost a hand. The fact is that the brain doesn’t lose the ability to receive input from those nerves, and can send impulses down the neurons to the site of the amputation. So-called "phantom limb syndrome," the sensation that the missing body part is still there, is not a figment of the imagination. It’s based in physiology.
The next logical step is to use electronic sensors to pick up these control signals and relay them to a mechanical device. That’s what the SmartHand does. Ten years in the making, the hand is not perfect. Four motors and forty sensors can’t yield something that’s even close to the real thing. There are serious limitations in range of motion and variations in applied strength.
Yet the wearer regains the ability to manipulate fingers and pick things up. Best and most stunning of all, the sense of touch also returns. Because of the device’s direct relationship with the nervous system, beneficiaries can now feel as well as control their hand. For a video of the SmartHand in action, go here.
The SmartHand is unique and still only a prototype. It will be very costly when it’s brought to market. But there are several robotic hands available now that are based on a different technology: myo-electric sensors that read signals on the surface of the skin from residual muscle.
These have the advantage of being remarkably cheap. Touch Bionics’ i-LIMB Pulse goes for around $17,000, while the latest bargain basement entrant, RSLSteeper’sBeBionic hand, costs just $11,000. You can view the BeBionic’slaunch video here.
That’s it for part one of this piece. Next time we’ll look at restoring light and sound, voice synthesizers, and the ultimate warrior. Stay tuned…
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