The Bionic Person, One Step Closer

When The Six Million Dollar Man first arrived on the scene in January of 1974, most people thought it was simply another science fiction television show. The addition of The Bionic Woman in January 1976 was just more good entertainment. The only problem is that these shows really aren’t just entertainment anymore. I’ve already discussed the use of exoskeletons to help those who have lost use of their legs in Exoskeletons Become Reality. No, none of the people using these devices can run 60 mph or make incredible leaps—that part is still science fiction, but I’m beginning to wonder for how long. (Just in case you’re interested, there is also a bionic arm in the works.) Today I read an article entitled, “Australians implant ‘world first’ bionic eye” that appears to take the next step in the use of bionics with humans. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that these things would happen when I originally wrote Accessibility for Everybody. I’m happy that they have !

Of course, the bionic eye of today is quite limited. Early bionic eyes have relied on a camera built into a pair of glasses to help someone see. You need a lot of hardware to make these eyes work and the best you can hope to achieve in many cases is to see light and dark. The part I find interesting about this new bionic eye is that the apparatus is actually inserted into the person’s living eye on top of the retina (yes, you still need the glasses, but just for the camera part of the technology)! This is a true innovation because it means that we’re headed in the direction of bionics becoming nearly impossible to detect. Once this technology leaves the laboratory, the doctors envision the person being able to see a 1,024 × 1,024 image. OK, that’s not HDTV standard, but it’s a lot better than someone who is blind has today.

In many respects, the technology advances we’re seeing today are both amazing and a bit scary at the same time. Scientists are literally probing every element of the human body, discovering how they work well enough to help people live better lives, and then using technology to fill in the gaps. I see a time coming when no one will have to suffer with a devastating loss that significantly limits the enjoyment of life. What do you think about the coming of the real bionic person? How far do you think this technology might go? Let me know your thoughts at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Thinking About Robotic Physicians

I have had a long term interest in enhancing the human condition using technology in a positive way (which is the main reason I wrote Accessibility for Everybody). For example, I explored how exoskeletons can help those who don’t have use of their legs to walk as if they did. The Robotics in Your Future post started things off though by reviewing the topic of robotics as they relate to humans. Recently I read an article about robotic physicians in ComputerWorld. The robot is simply a method for a real person to interact with a patient over a distance. Using the robot’s functionality, a doctor can perform a number of checks on a patient and learn what has gone wrong. The technology is obviously in its infancy at this point, but I already had questions about it as soon as I read the article.

While writing Determining When Technology Hurts, I tried to consider the negative aspects of a particular technology. For example, a doctor doesn’t have a face-to-face environment in which to interact with the patient in this case. Consequently, the doctor could miss subtle cues as to the actual issues that a patient faces. This sort of technology depends on the doctor’s ability to use instruments that are attached to a robot in a remote location. The doctor may not even know whether the instruments are fully functional and providing accurate information. I’m sure the technology will eventually include safeguards (and may even include some now), but these concerns are something that we as a society must ponder before making the technology generally available. Of course, there is the major issue of dealing with the human reaction to a robotic doctor. I’m sure many people will refuse to the submit to the cold hand of technology in place of the warm hands of a real doctor.

Even with these concerns, however, there is real potential for the robotic physician. For one thing, you can find any number of articles online about the expected shortfall in doctors. There simply won’t be enough doctors to go around at some point. Some plans for addressing this shortfall include using nurses to perform more of the work normally associated with doctors. Of course, because a nurse doesn’t have the same level of training, there are some serious issues with this approach. The robotic physician could help address the shortfall, especially in rural areas where patients typically have to wait now for the one day a week that a specialist visits.

The robotic physician could also fill in when there is no doctor available. Smaller, isolated communities could finally have a doctor available, even if that doctor isn’t physically present. A robotic doctor will also be necessary as our ventures into space increase. It’s also easy to imagine larger nursing homes staffing a robotic doctor who could help with critical patients until physical help can arrive and take over. The loss of life will be reduced in such situations because the doctor could be there in seconds. In short, this is an exciting development in technology that will have practical uses as long as we’re careful in applying it.

How would you react to a robotic doctor? Would you even let it touch you? I would imagine that human reluctance will be one of the major issues we’ll have to overcome, but I’d like to hear your take on the matter at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Exoskeletons Become Reality

It wasn’t very long ago (see Robotics in Your Future) that I wrote about the role of robotics in accessibility, especially with regard to the exoskeleton. At that time, universities and several vendors were experimenting with exoskeletons and showing how they could help people walk. The software solutions I provide in Accessibility for Everybody are still part of the answer, but more and more it appears that technology will provide more direct answers, which is the point of this post. Imagine my surprised when I opened the September 2011 National Geographic and found an article about eLEGS in it. You can get the flavor of the article in video form on the National Geographic site. Let’s just say that I’m incredibly excited about this turn of events. Imagine, people who had no hope of walking ever again are now doing it!

We’ve moved from experimental to actually distributing this technology—the clinical trials for this device have already begun. The exoskeleton does have limits for now. You need to be under 6 foot 4 inches tall and weigh less than 220 pounds. The candidate must also have good upper body strength. Even so, it’s a great start. As the technology evolves, you can expect to see people doing a lot more walking. Of course, no one who has special needs is running a marathon in this gear yet. However, I can’t even begin to imagine the emotion these people feel when they get up and walk for the first time. The application of this technology is wide ranging. Over 6 million people currently have some form of paralysis that this technology can help.

eLEGS is gesture-based. The way a person moves their arms and upper body determines how the device reacts. Training is required. The person still needs to know how to balance their body and must expend the effort to communicate effectively with the device. I imagine the requirements for using this device will decrease as time goes on. The gestures will become less complex and the strength requirements less arduous.

So, what’s next? Another technology I’ve been watching for a while now is the electronic eye. As far as I know, this device hasn’t entered clinical trials as of yet, but the scientists are working on it. (It has been tested in Germany and could be entering trials in the UK.) The concept is simple. A camera in a special set of glasses transmits visual information to a chip implanted in the person’s eyeball. The chip transmits the required signals to the person’s brain through the optical nerve.  However, the implementation must be terribly hard because our understanding of precisely how all of this works is still flawed.

Even so, look for people who couldn’t walk to walk again soon and those who couldn’t see to see again sometime in the future. There will eventually be technologies to help people hear completely as well. (I haven’t heard of any technology that restores the senses of smell, taste, or touch to those who lack it.) This is an exciting time to live. An aging population will have an increasing number of special needs. Rather than make the end of life a drudge, these devices promise to keep people active. Where do you think science will go next? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

Robotics in Your Future

I’ve mentioned more than once that I’m intensely interested in accessibility in all its forms. In fact, in my view, one of the most important uses of computer systems is to make life easier for people with special needs. Eventually, we all experience a special need. If nothing else, age tends to rob us of mobility and the use of our senses, making some form of aid imperative.

Of course, most people are aware of robots. I read Asimov books such as, “I, Robot” with great interest as I grew up because like Asimov, I saw the huge potential of robots in a number of ventures. The first venture I became aware of was in industrial automationpainting cars I believe. Painting cars was only the beginning. Today, we couldn’t explore space successfully without robots.

All of these uses for robots are nice. However, the use that really piques my imagination is the use of robotic technology to help people in ways that we couldn’t even imagine just a few years ago. I’ve read with great interest about the use of exoskeletons for military personnel. Then, when the press started talking about the use of exoskeleton technology for the space program, I got really excited. However, a news story I read yesterday fulfills a promise for exoskeleton technology that I’ve always wanted to read about. In this case, a paralyzed student has been able to walk again. Amazing!

The technology still requires a lot of work, but I foresee a time when exoskeletons will make it possible for someone with just about any severe injury to lead a completely normal life. You won’t see someone who is struggling just to get by anymore; you’ll see someone who looks like absolutely everyone else. I can’t imagine a better use of technology to meet the needs of people who require it.

As with any technology, there are going to be abuses of this one. It’s unfortunate, but someone will find ways to use this technology in ways that actually hurt other humans or the person employing the technology. What good uses for this technology can you think about? What are the potential bad uses that come to mind? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.