From brains to eyes, hands to legs, and deep down to the internal organs; implants, prosthesis and rehabilitation are entering a new era potentially creating a new type of human being – The Bionic Person – in reality, not just on TV’s six million dollar man or the movie’s superheroes. But what ethical concerns arise as we mix technology with biology?
Restoring lost functionality with artificial limbs and other body parts that closely resembles their biological counterparts is the combining of robotics with the human body. One of the most obvious images that come to anyone’s mind is artificial limbs. Wood pegs and hooks were some of the early replacements thousands of years ago and have evolved, over the years, especially after WWII. Today we have a very sophisticated merging of: the science of the natural with the science of the artificial.
What if you don’t need a limb replacement but just want to enhance our existing limbs, or for that matter any body parts to adapt our bodies to the ever changing complex environment that we live in? Of course, Hollywood is a perfect example of people trying to enhance their faces and other body parts to compete in the entertainment business. Plastic surgery has become a new norm for body enhancements for appearance purposes, but what if we enhance the body’s functionality. Let’s review some the great medical technology innovations that truly benefit humanity.
If we narrow down the artificial limb to just the hand, you will see in your own hand all the flexibility you have with your 5 fingers. At the very least, the bionic hand needs 5 motors for each finger and many sensors in order for the hand to grasp an object like a human, whether the hand is used for bionics or humanoid robotics. This all has to be contained in a very small space. The robotic hand is actually a little easier to manipulate with its energy coming from a battery and controlled through software. The bionic hand is more complicated because it is controlled through an interfaced with the person’s nervous and muscular systems by ‘thought power’ with feedback. That feedback through the sensors is probably one of the most valuable psychological functions of prosthesis.
If you think about what any one of your limbs does, you will realize how complex the machinery has to be to recreate its functionality. In fact, the bionic/robotic hand actually has many more functions than the natural human hand such as complete 360 degree rotation. How many times have we needed that functionality?
For those who still have their limb but have lost mobility can regain usage with the use of an exoskeleton device that attaches to the outside of the limb. An exoskeleton device also uses thought power but through headgear with external sensors to the brain. The thoughts are translated by a computer to move the extremities wrapped by the device like a glove. These wearable robotic devices are in use today for rehabilitation purposes to regain control of the limb directly by the brain again.
The Center for Extreme Bionics at MIT is developing ‘Xtreme Bionics’ to augment the human body. Bionics is more about the interfaces between the natural body and the mechanical devices. Xtreme bionics is about extreme functionality and less about look-alike replacement. If you view the human body as biological machines, it is only natural for humans to want to restructure superior artificial synthetic human machines. Wearing an exoskeleton full body device, even I could out power lift Alton over at the gym.