Friday, August 30, 2013

baby steps

I just listened to a Science and Creativity podcast by Studio 360; the episode is called "Becoming the Bionic Man." Producer Jonathan Mitchell talks to MIT professor Hugh Herr about his new prosthetic lower limb program that he has also spun off into a company called BIOM.*

Herr is a double amputee himself, and using his own prostheses he is able to return to the sport that first cost him his limbs: climbing. "I was actually able to climb at a more advanced level, with artificial limbs, than I'd ever achieved, before the accident, with biological limbs." Dr. Herr is obviously a talented and driven scientist, but he doesn't see prosthetic limbs as the ultimate solution for amputees, he sees them as the ultimate solution.

This field is called biomechatronics, and its come a long way from hooks and peg legs. The Studio 360 piece is chock full of Dr. Herr's dreams for the future, and some of those dreams aren't too far away from the Singularity idea that others are touting. "We're rebuilding humans, from the ground up," says Herr.  "The artificial part of my body is actually a blank palette for which to create."

Herr is also looking forward to the future of bionics: connecting the limbs to the brain. Maybe even sensory feedback. You know...touch. steve austin style, baby. And what's beyond that? There's plenty of room for speculation, but Herr and his team have some ideas:

"The next step is to say, well, maybe we shouldn't be cell- and tissue-centric, maybe we shouldn't view our biological hand as the end-all. Maybe that bionic hand is also okay, and acceptable. And perhaps beyond that, when we experience the biological hand being stiff in the morning, and maybe even being painful and arthritic, maybe that bionic hand over there may actually be attractive." Yeah, that's right. Grandma may get sick of not being able to lift a pan off the stove, or  have trouble getting up the stairs. Just pop down to the media lab for an upgrade, Grandma! jus' chop them ol' limbs off granma, and get you some new ones!

But it may not just be for the old, infirm, or those with birth defects. Herr adds, "People with quote, normal minds and bodies, will volunteer, I predict, to use these technology, to go beyond what nature intended."

Dr. Herr says that he gets limb upgrades every few years, and its no big deal; He doesn't weep or feel a loss of any kind, but speculates that this may not always be true. "I can imagine that when my bionic limbs are more intimate with my biology... when my nervous system is completely interfaced with the bionic limb. I can imagine that I will have a deeper relationship--emotional relationship--with the synthetic part of my body."

Jonathan Mitchell then adds, as a closer, "And maybe one day, our machines will be so good, that we'll love them, as though we grew them ourselves."

I told you: robot love. < go ahead. click. its a good one.

* BIOM was formally called iWalk, but I guess that name wore off. Click on the BIOM link above. There are some cool videos of the limbs in action. The ankles are amazing.

And yeah, that's Luke Skywalker up there. Who should I have used? Anakin? Pfff

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