Archive for February, 2013

Cyborg Possibilities – The Arms and Legs (Part Three)

February 9, 2013 2 comments

See Part One and Part Two.

This article doesn’t need any of the special categories or explanations – the two classifications are pretty self explanatory. Let’s jump right in.


(We’ve come a pretty long way from this.)

The most recent advancements in bionic arms seem to be included in the BeBionic prosthetic arms. This arm can detect signals in the nerves that exist in whatever amount of the arm remains and then uses those signals to drive the prosthetic’s functions. Essentially, operation ought to work much like the user’s original arm did: The person thinks about moving their arm in a certain way and the arm responds.

Despite looking cooler, the BeBionic hand is still a ways away from a human hand. Yet, the improvements are impressive. Grip strength has improved from about 17 pounds to about 31. It can hold about 100 pounds of weight, up from about 70. It also comes in a range of designs. The hand isn’t exorbitantly expensive, but at $25,000 to $35,000 it isn’t exactly cheap either. At that price range, concerns that future human enhancement technology will be a possibility only for the well to do seem likely.

Fortunately, there are alternatives. For instance, two designers recently created a prosthetic hand for an extremely frugal $150. The hand is an excellent example of multiple new technologies converging, as much of the prosthetic is 3-D printed. This particular hand is impressive for the low cost, but there are downsides as well. For instance, this hand is operated via pulley system. Instead of electrical signal sensors powering the hand, regular old nylon rope attaches to the fingers of the prosthetic hand and a ripcord connects to what remains of the biological hand that attaches to the arm. When the ripcord is pulled, the fingers close. It does restore functionality, and it’s most certainly better than nothing, but it’s not exactly elegant. It also doesn’t seem very useful for someone entirely without their biological hand. Yet, for the boy who it was custom made for, the results are pretty impressive.

A few things are worth remembering, however. First, this is an extremely inexpensive prosthetic. There’s a lot of wiggle room between $150 and $35,000, and the sweet spot between price and performance may well lie a few thousand dollars to the right (though still within the range of many not-rich people.) Second, this is an early design, and it’s opensource, which means we can likely expect better functionality soon. Third, technology is advancing all the time, so things that are prohibitively expensive now will become cheaper in a year or two. The amount of functionality that $150 can buy will continue to improve.

Of course, that third point means that the top end technology will continue to improve too. So, assuming one is fortunate enough to be able to afford the latest and greatest prosthetic, what might that look like? Enhanced dexterity is one of the most important improvements that can be made, and some progress is being made on that front. Instead of detecting muscle movements, it would be very helpful if the limb could just read the wearer’s mind and perform accordingly. Although it is not yet ready for a prosthetic device, a team of MIT and Massachusetts General Hospital researchers have created a device that allows monkeys to move a cursor on screen with their thoughts. See below for similar technology in prosthetic legs.

The robot Rex, featured in Part Two, also has prosthetic hands that have individually controlled fingers.

Ultimately, prosthetic limbs shouldn’t just replicate biological limb functionality, they should improve upon it. Two students of Singularity University – the joint Kurzweil / Diamandis tech university – have created a glove that even folks who still have both their hands can use. This glove allows users to sense vibrations, temperature  and sound. It also has an accelerometer and a buzzer for important notifications. The next version will be able to detect ultrasonic waves, potentially allowing users to detect, say, breast cancer lumps and heart abnormalities. It’s easy to imagine the technology in this glove transferred into a prosthetic hand, and for additional functionality to be included. Why not equip your bionic hand with a screen, connect it to the internet, and insert a light source? Why not integrate cellular phone technology, or GPS? The possibilities are endless.



Much of the 2012 news about prosthetic legs focused on Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius. Rightfully so, I’d say – it’s pretty amazing that a person without biological legs can run within a few seconds of the fastest human beings on the planet. Perhaps even more impressive is that Pistorius’ legs aren’t particularly advanced. Certainly they’re state of the art in terms of lightweight running limbs, but there are no electronics in his legs. It was Oscar’s performance that was amazing, not the technology in his legs.

For hi-tech limbs, we can look at the leg developed by the Centre of Bionic Medicine at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. Like the bionic arms above, this leg responds to muscle signals. Unlike many other prosthetic limbs, this one can move at both the knee and the ankle. An on-board computer uses an algorithm that adapts to each individual user. As the algorithm gets better, the legs is better able to predict what the user is trying to do and assist them in that task.

Using this leg, Zac Vawter was able to kick a ball, walk around, and climb stairs (a task more difficult than it sounds for above the knee amputees.) Indeed, Zac was able to climb stairs so well that he took the stairs all the way to the top of the 103 floor Sears Tower in Chicago.

A similar leg was installed on the aforementioned Rex. The Genium leg is controlled by three microprocessors, has four sensors to sense its location in three dimensions along with its speed, and allows the users to “walk backwards, shuffle step, stop short, pivot on their prosthetic leg and perform a wide range of common movements naturally without concentrating.” The powered knee allows users to stand and climb stairs – something traditionally very difficult for above the knee amputees – and lasts for five days.

Other prosthetic legs seem to be at a similar stage of development.

Not everyone needs a prosthetic leg, however. Sometimes the bionic legs we have just don’t work properly. For some of these problems the Hanger WalkAide may be helpful. For patients who suffer from “foot drop” (an inability to lift one’s leg), the WalkAide provides electrical signals to the nerve responsible for lifting the foot at the correct times. Essentially, the WalkAide combines the predictive technology of a bionic leg with an easy to wear device that can be attached to a biological limb.

Finally, as with prosthetic arms, inexpensive versions of prosthetic legs exist. provides inexpensive foot, below knee, and above knee leg replacements to people around the world. As with cheaper prosthetic arms, the technology in cheaper prosthetic legs does not (and is not supposed to) match that of the more expensive versions. The Jaipur legs and feet have no microprocessors, no gyroscopes, and no batteries lasting for days. Yet, for folks who cannot afford tens of thousands of dollars for a state of the art prosthetic limb, the ability to walk again at a reasonable price is vastly more important than whether or not their leg is able to anticipate their next step.

Oh yes, that goes for cats, too.


Cyborg Possibilities – The Torso and Skin (Part Two)

February 3, 2013 3 comments

See Part One here.

Returning to our Deus Ex graphic, the next three categories are the torso, back, and skin. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll lump the torso and back together. The skin, however, deserves its own category.


The Torso:

I am construing the torso broadly here to mean the entire center region of the body, excluding the skin itself. I will also include some things that travel through the entire body, but are not specific to any particular extremity or the head.

Most of the work in the area involved replacing organs with mechanical analogues. The most comprehensive collection of these technologies was showcased by Rex just last week. Rex, an artificial humanoid, has prosthetic limbs that I’ll talk about tomorrow, but also an entire collection of artificial organs.


Rex has, for instance, a “spleen-on-a-chip” to cleanse his blood, an artificial kidney (which “packs the technology of a fridge-sized dialysis machine into a unit no bigger than a coffee cup”) and an artificial pancreas to adjust blood glucose levels.

The pancreas, for instance, encases insulin within a gel protective barrier. Designed by Professor Joan Taylor of De Montfort University in the UK, the gel responds to excess glucose by softening and releasing insulin. When the glucose levels stabilize, the gel hardens again, trapping the remaining insulin inside. Although still in trials, Professor Taylor hopes that it will be available for implantation into humans within seven years.

The kidney, designed by Professor Shuvo Roy at the University of California, San Francisco, is “made up of a silicon nanoscale filtration system” and is powered by the body’s own blood pressure. The blood passes through the filtration system to a cartridge of living renal tubule cells from a healthy donor (or, perhaps, engineered from the patient’s own cells.) Clinical trials are expected to begin in five years.

Additionally, Rex has an artificial heart and windpipe – both versions of technology that are already implanted into patients.

The SynCardia heart is designed as a holdover until a biological heart can be transplanted in, but has been operating on some patients for as long as five years.


The Guardian reports that this heart-lung combination is also connected to a “network of pulsating modified-polymer arteries.” Relevant to Part One, Rex also has cochlear implants, artificial retinas, and is at least somewhat artificially intelligent.

“Rich Walker, the managing director of Shadow, says: ‘We were surprised how many of the parts of the body can be replaced. There are some vital organs missing, like the stomach, but 60 to 70 per cent of a human has effectively been rebuilt.’

But the project does not just show what can be done for those who lose limbs or suffer organ failure. It heralds a future in which the artificial replacements are better than those we are born with.”

Yet, as cool as Rex is, there are different designs in the works that were not incorporated into him. For instance, the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine is working on an artificial lung design that layers gas pathways with blood channels and then grafts on endothelial cells. No word, yet, on how close they are to a clinical trial. For now, patients must still be hooked up to a machine outside the body.

Consider also this alternative power source for pacemakers and other medical devices. If an entire replacement heart is unnecessary, or perhaps if the heart is fine but another device needs to be implanted, this device ought to be able to take the energy provided by a beating heart to power the device. These sorts of device – one that produces power from the body’s own mechanisms – helps solve the battery problem and could help power human-machine hybrids.

Yet another way implants might be powered is through wireless charging technology. WiTricity, an MIT spin-off company, has invented a method of transmitting electricity though the air via coils. If this technology is scalable, and can be integrated into implants, one might charge their implants simply by being home or at another location where these wireless electricity coils are installed.


While still extremely early in the research phase, 3-D printers are helping researchers create nanobots that will be able to travel through our bodies to defeat toxins and disease. Entire artificial immune systems seem possible, but still have a long way to come.

Other versions of the artificial pancreas are hot topics as well. IRCM, in Montreal, conducted a trial of an artificial pancreas and compared the results to traditional insulin therapy. The artificial pancreas showed “improved glucose levels and lower risks of hypoglycemia.” One downside to this particular artificial pancreas is that parts of it remain outside of the body. Other models, like this one, also depend on external mechanisms. While this may be the best we can do for now, ultimately internal artificial organs help to reduce infection and are more convenient for the patient.

It seems we will likely see more of these devices in the future as well, because pharmaceutical companies are beginning to realize the implants can work better than drugs for treating some types of disease. While I think custom medication still has a lot to offer, and will become much better at targeting just the disease without causing all sorts of collateral damage (read: side effects), it seems virtually certain that engineered solutions like nanobots will eventually overcome the capabilities of any drug.

One challenge facing an increasing use of implants is security. It turns out that it’s possible to hack them. While it’s probably true that any technology that can be created can be hacked, there is a particularly difficult trade-off when it comes to implants. Either implants should be like toasters – non-networked devices that can’t really be hacked, but also can’t be updated – or should they be like cell phones – easily updated but also fairly easily hacked? Finding the ideal solution – easily updated but not easily hacked – will be a challenge for security professionals in the coming decades.


The Skin:

I’m going to construe the skin somewhat broadly as well. While I’ll start with the skin proper, I’ll also include technology that deals with tissue generally.

One of the biggest news stories of the past year was the invention on spray-on skin. Products like ReCell use the patient’s own skin cells and turn them into an aerosol spray. The doctor can then spray the cells back onto the patient so that a new layer of skin can form over burns and other wounds. This sort of purely biological invention might seem out of place in a cyborg article, but imagine how much easier healing any implant that protrudes from the skin will be with this sort of technology. If a wire, sensor, or other portion of the implant can stick out from the skin, but the skin can heal in days instead of weeks or months, the risk of infection is greatly reduced. Likewise, this sort of technology seems like it could be translated to other types of cells, allowing, say, a heart implant to graft into existing blood vessels by coating it in the patient’s own heart cells. Finally, if nothing else, this sort of technology ought to help reduce scarring that would otherwise occur from invasive surgery to implant a medical device.


For some mechanical integration an implant may not be the best solution. For instance, imagine a person just wants to monitor their glucose level or blood pressure. An implant seems like overkill in this situation. Fortunately, new technology is giving people an option. Stick-on tattoos embedded with electronics could monitor these sorts of things and provide a visible readout to the user without needing to implant a device underneath the skin. In addition to being safer because they do not require invasive surgery, they ought to be much cheaper and, thus, more versatile. For short-term readouts, this technology can’t be beat.


While a whole field of wearable electronics is outside the scope of this article, it’s worth highlighting one new technology: Screens on your fingernails. Engineers in Taiwan are attempting to find a way to coat fingernails in organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs) so that your nails become either screens unto themselves or extensions of other screens that they come near. If painting on a screen is as simple as painting your fingernails, we might find that these screen become more pervasive and that men suddenly care more about painting their nails. These, too, could help display internal metrics without the need for an implant proper, or they could easily display information from an implant.

On the other hand, it may be more beneficial to replace the skin entirely. If that’s right, then this touch-sensitive, self-healing plastic skin might be a good start. Admittedly, it’s not very attractive. While still very early in the research phase, this skin heals much faster than human skin and does provide touch sensitivity – something very much lacking in current prostheses, yet so very important for humans.

Still, if we’re not replacing the skin entirely, but need something more than just a stick on or paint on solution, perhaps a compromise can be found. For skin and other tissues, engineers are getting better at integrating tissue and electronics. This sort of technology allows machine and man to happily coexist. Implants can be wired up to the skin directly (perhaps providing information to those fingernail screens or other paint-on solutions) without having to find an entirely new replacement for skin itself. Devices can be grafted directly into biological organs if necessary. Harvard researcher Dr. Charles Liber says:

“We can use electrodes to measure activity in cells or tissue, but that damages them. With this technology, for the first time, we can work at the same scale as the unit of biological system without interrupting it. Ultimately, this is about merging tissue with electronics in a way that it becomes difficult to determine where the tissue ends and the electronics begin.”

The team was able to integrate electronics without disrupting tissues as well as create blood vessels with embedded networks that could monitor pH changes within the blood vessels.

According to NewScientist: “Lieber’s team also managed to grow an entire blood vessel about 1.5 centimetres long from human cells, with wires snaking through it. By recording electrical signals from inside and outside the vessel– something that was never possible before– the team was able to detect electrical patterns that they say could give clues to inflammation, whether tissue has undergone changes that make it prone to tumour formation or suggest impending heart disease.”


The next step, according to Lieber, is to try to control cells directly through these embedded networks. If this is possible, then even (mostly) organic organs can be monitored and optimized via computer. There are indications that this is possible. For instance, bioelectronic engineer Klas Tybrandt of Linkoping University in Sweden has created a chip that uses biological ions and chemicals instead of electrons. This sort of chip is ideally suited to integrate with a partially human body because it ‘speaks the same language’ as biological cells – sodium ions and acetylcholine for instance – instead of just using electricity. This sort chip is important because it could directly upgrade the human central nervous system. It could, for instance, restore mobility to paralyzed people. It might also be able to optimize flexibility and dexterity for healthy people. It could also hijack other central nervous system responses – short-circuiting a panic attack for instance – before it ever gets started.

Stay tuned next week for the third and final part where I’ll review some prosthetic limb technology for arms and legs.

Cyborg Possibilities – The Head (Part One)

February 1, 2013 5 comments

It has been a while since I last talked about prosthetic devices. For reference, see here, here, and here. This is part one in a several part series, but I intend to put out the whole series over the next week. What are the hottest new things to come out in the last year or so? Let’s start from the top, make our way down, and pretend this is Deus Ex.


Cranium Augmentations:

Direct brain augmentations are still getting off the ground, but there has been a lot of movement in this area.

Take, for instance, the first pacemaker for Alzheimer’s disease implanted in the United States just a few months ago. This little device has already been used for Parkinson’s patients, and could boost both memory and cognitive resilience. The device essentially runs an electric current through the brain in an effort to electronically stimulate the brain into regaining some of its functionality.

Similar electrical stimulation turns out to be really good for pain relief, too. Speaking to the benefits of implants over medication, University of Michigan senior researcher Alexandre DaSilva says:

“Instead of giving more pharmaceutical opiates, we are directly targeting and activating the same areas in the brain on which they work. (Therefore), we can increase the power of this pain-killing effect and even decrease the use of opiates in general, and consequently avoid their side effects, including addiction.”

Non-implant versions of this (called Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation) have shown some success in boosting the capabilities of humans functioning at a normal level. Indeed, the Focus headband is currently awaiting FDA approval. Various less corporate “body hackers” and “grinders” are trying to put together a similar device from readily available parts and believe they can help make these devices more efficient and compatible.


For all this, however, brain implants and brainwave detecting technology are just starting to hit the mainstream. Companies like IntraXon are creating devices that can sense brainwaves and use them for everything from video games to fitness and entertainment. There are even kids toys the use the technology, like the Star Wars Force Trainer.

(If this isn’t the future, I don’t know what is.)

Some very primitive experiments involving telepathy are already being conducted. For better results, the doctor says, he would need to implant the devices into the brain instead of use an external sensor. Admittedly, unless the results were -much- better, it doesn’t seem that the results justify sticking bits of tech in one’s brain just yet.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the various other Brain Control Interfaces (BCIs) that are being developed to control other things, but I’ll talk more about them in relation to various prostheses for limb replacement in another post.

Lest all this brain augmentation seem a little scary, you can take some comfort in the fact that Ray Kurzweil thinks you’re still you, even if you are jacked into a handful of neural implants. The philosophical jury is still out on whole brain replacement, but that’s a little outside the scope of this update.

Outside of the brain proper, implants are also able to restore the ability to hear in some patients. This implant, for instance, replaces the middle ear and uses bones to transmit sound to the inner ear.

ear implant

“The technique has been designed to treat mechanical hearing loss in individuals who have been affected by chronic inflammation of the outer or middle ear, or bone disease, or who have congenital malformations of the outer ear, auditory canal or middle ear. Such people often have major problems with their hearing. Normal hearing aids, which compensate for neurological problems in the inner ear, rarely work for them. On the other hand, bone-anchored devices often provide a dramatic improvement.”

The implant should be ready implantation by doctors within a year or two.

The ears, it turns out, are also viable power sources. By using nerve cells in the ear, wireless transmitters and other neural implants can function without the need for an additional power source – at least for short periods of time. Reducing the need to charge electrical implants is crucial in making those implants viable in the long term, and so this early research is encouraging.

Eye Augmentations:

A variety of implants, all aimed at restoring sight to the blind, have emerged recently. The MIT Technology Review put together a nice survey of these technologies at the end of 2012.

As they note, currently existing technologies often restore sight, but produce crude, roughly 60 pixel displays. This crude image is clearly better than nothing, but is hardly the sort of advanced technology for which anyone would give up their biological eye.


Yet, better technology is in the works. The next generation plans to nearly triple the resolution – moving from 60 electrodes to 200. An Israeli company has produced a prototype, currently being tested in pigs, that contains over triple that number – 676 electrodes – and believes the technology is scalable up to 5,000 electrodes.

It doesn’t take much to imagine that this technology will eventually give people 20/20 vision – or better. Remember that camera technology in cell phones rapidly moved from cruddy images in the late 1990’s to phones released just last year capable of 41 megapixel and 3-D images. In fifteen years, if the same technological progress holds, bionic eyesight might be much better than biological eyesight.

In addition to restoring sight to the blind, or perhaps upgrading current biological sight with enhanced resolution bionic eyes, a whole host of other technologies can be integrated into bionic eyes. Broadly speaking, augmented reality is the superimposition of additional images or information onto another image. Think, for instance, the yellow first-down line in football broadcasts. In this case, we’re talking about overlaying information onto sight.

While a complete overview of augmented reality is well outside the scope of this article, we are already beginning to see AR technology in devices. The much hyped Google Glass ought to be out this year and promises some amazing experiences.


Other technology integrates contact lenses and glasses to allow the user to focus on objects both near and far with the same eye – something difficult to do with glasses-only technology. Google’s augmented reality game Ingress uses cell phones to overlay a massively multiplayer game onto the real world, requiring participants to go to real world locations to affect in game objects. Linking this sort of augmented reality game with Project Glass or a bionic eye means that the user will be able to experience an entire world that is invisible to those people without the device or implant. Augmented reality, used this way, can literally create an entirely new layer of existence. Indeed, because more than one program can create these realities, multiple worlds can be superimposed onto the same physical space – a sort of virtual multi-worlds hypothesis made true on a single physical plane.

To conclude this portion, take a look at this post, where I explore the possibility of augmented reality in the legal setting (it’s not all fun and games, after all!) and the video below, Sight, which explores the potential for augmented reality and bionic eyes.

Categories: transhumanism