During World War II, Dr. Ernest M. Burgess fitted disabled soldiers with prosthetics made of wood and leather, painted in skin tones—devices more cosmetic than functional. Based on his wartime experiences, Dr. Burgess later invented a breakthrough lower leg prosthetic at the University of Washington called The Seattle Foot, which allowed amputees to run and lead more active lives. Now, advanced prosthetics will return even more function to amputees, and blur the line between man and machine.
The Next Seattle Foot
Historically, America has led the world in prosthetic research due to funding made available after profitable wars; breakthroughs in prosthetic technology followed the Vietnam War in the 1970s and the Middle Eastern conflicts of the 2000s. In 2017, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) allotted $3.17 billion to projects such as Mobius Bionics’ LUKE arm, a revolutionary prosthetic allowing the user to experience the sensation of touch.
Since the 1970s, prosthetics have used sensors on a remaining limb’s muscle tissue to analyze the body’s intent and translate the perceived action to an external prosthetic limb. The LUKE arm and other cutting-edge technologies slip microscopic transponder devices into the brain’s motor cortex to forego interfacing with muscles and take orders directly from the brain, as well as feed the brain sensory information. During the LUKE arm’s public debut, first-time user Kevin Walgamott told The Washington Post,“I don’t know how to describe it except that it was like I had a hand again.”
Private enterprise will fuel future innovation once the changing nature of combat (fewer IED injuries, more drones) redistributes military funds away from prosthetics. After the Vietnam War, businesses advanced muscle interface technology toward commercialization; the same processes will advance brain-computer interface devices in the coming decades.
Naming the Incredible Bionic Man
In 2013, the Smithsonian selected Germany’s Dr. Bertolt Meyer as the subject for their documentary The Incredible Bionic Man, a scientific attempt to use 3D modeling and bionics to create a prosthetic replica of a human being. The documentary earned Dr. Meyer and his bionic counterpart, Frank, a small level of notoriety.
Dr. Meyer, a professor of social psychology at Chemnitz University of Technology uses an advanced prosthetic himself—an Össur i-limb quantum, dubbed “the new standard in myo-electric prosthetic hands” by its manufacturers. His own prosthetic hand distinguishes him as a celebrity among social psychologist, and ironically, his research in diversity and changing norms would, if realized, mute the factor that gives him voice. “Our goal is an inclusive society that judges the human condition, in all its diversity, as normal,” Dr. Meyer told us. “Our research found that if you label me as a ‘cyborg’, I’m viewed as a threat, and that’s bad because people target and harm what threatens them.”
Ryan Rosenow is also an Össur ambassador, a showcased user of prosthetic technology, working as a freelance artist in Cincinnati, Ohio. The tactile mediums of wood and leather became his earliest area of study and expertise, despite having just one sensing hand. Rosenow spoke enthusiastically about his next debuting project: a futuristic, Orwellian graphic novel, his first major digital artwork. The idea hatched after he encountered Petrograd,a graphic novel depicting the murder of Rasputin, the Russian mystic.
Rosenow has made art with just one hand throughout his life. He doesn’t view emerging technology as the proverbial “leg up” he’s been waiting for to advance his art, or something similarly grandiose. Instead, he sees emerging prosthetic technology like Dr. Meyer; he doesn’t want to be a “disabled” or “enhanced” artist—just a good one.
One marker of Dr. Meyer’s inclusive society would be an increased diversity in sporting events, and one such cybernetic athletics summit already exists. In 2020, Zürich’s ETH University and the Swiss National Centres of Competence in Research will host the second-ever Cybathlon, a competition where teams from universities and various corporations produce their own lab-created prostheses and sponsor disabled athletes to compete in a variety of events.
The Cybathlon explores the intersection of the disabled body and technology through inventive competitions such as the Exoskeleton Race, the Power Wheelchair Race and the Brain-Computer Race Simulation, which tests competitors in a virtual simulation. In the same way that the Olympics celebrates coexistence among the many peoples of the world, so too does the Cybathlon celebrate the human body in its numerous manifestations. Science, sports and people come together at the Cybathlon to revel in—and bring about—the world of tomorrow.