Material Gains
Human-Augmentation Technologies are Worth the Risks
Advanced prosthetics highlight the value of pure research, with or without a business case.
I have said this before, but I am a huge fan of technology’s potential to help humanity, and particularly the opportunities to improve quality of life and restore impaired physical capabilities.

In my last column, I enthused about using augmented and virtual reality to create experiences and environments that help people interact and enhance their well-being. Physical augmentation, with technologies such as powered exoskeletons, have industrial and therapeutic applications and could also be used to help people with mobility problems get outdoors to tackle activities such as hill walking. Lack of mobility can have negative effects on the state of mind, as well as physical condition, so an assistive technology that tackles both these challenges could help us establish healthy approaches to aging and help us all keep engaged with the world around us for longer.

A prime application for exoskeletons is to help people suffering from disability or limb loss reacquire important capabilities such as walking. Remarkable as these technologies are, there is enormous scope for improvement to make them easier to use and more affordable and therefore accessible to more people worldwide.

A lot of exciting work is happening in this area, particularly at the interface between academia and the many young startups spinning out of medical research projects. One that came to my attention is Mitt, which is connected with the Imperial Enterprise Lab at Imperial College London. Inspired by finding that some 50% of medical patients who receive a prosthetic give up after about one year because the limb is uncomfortable, difficult to use, and complicated to acquire and maintain, Mitt’s team is developing high-tech solutions to improve wearers’ experiences. It’s not only the user interface – which, perhaps surprisingly, often comprises hooks and cables similar to the mechanisms used in prosthetics dating back as far as World War II – that is calling out for improvement. Affordability is a problem in the Western world, and even more so in the developing world, where limb loss is a greater problem. By leveraging technologies such as 3-D printing and smartphone-scale AI, we can hope these powerful restorative therapies become accessible to more than just a relatively privileged few.

Ideally, it would be best to control the prosthetic as easily and as naturally as a biological limb. Researchers have been developing brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) to achieve this, with limited success so far. Elon Musk’s Neuralink initiative has sought to address some scalability issues that have restricted earlier BMIs to a relatively small number of channels and hence placed limitations on their speed and capabilities.

“Engineering communities should take on projects for no better reason than because they can.”
By developing robot-assisted processes to insert fine, flexible electrodes into the brain, without causing damage or being constrained by the presence of blood vessels, Neuralink aims to permit BMIs to have any number of channels for the electrode transmission from just a few to hundreds or thousands. It has also worked out a way of inserting these quickly, using robotic tools, that could reduce the time for the process to just a few minutes. The electrodes are brought out to a device worn discretely behind the ear, which handles the processing and wireless connectivity that allows the wearer to control a device such as a computer or machine with their mind.

Neuralink is still in its early stages and may ultimately fall short of Musk’s hype. However, this work could at least help standardize aspects of the BMI and thus contribute toward reducing the cost of advanced prosthetic controls.

The issue here is not the accuracy of Musk’s claims but the value of the insights acquired. While Neuralink may or may not succeed, the body of knowledge within the scientific community continues to grow. This is the reason research must be allowed to continue without necessarily having a business plan behind it. Sometimes you have to start the journey before the destination becomes clear.

It’s important for scientific and engineering communities to take on projects for no better reason than because they can. Some may have scoffed at Honda’s Asimo, for example, as a hugely expensive project with little practical value. After all, the leading markets for robotics, such as automotive, are not looking for humanoid robots. So why build one? Arguably, however, lessons learned about the way humans balance and move on two legs has contributed to where we are now with the powered exoskeletons I mentioned earlier. The increased strength and endurance these can provide for industrial workers could help to defend certain jobs against the relentless advance of full automation for a while longer. At the very least, they could help protect workers against the risk of injury due to physical overstress and allow those who may be less physically strong due to factors such as gender or limb difference, for example, to compete more equally for employment opportunities.

As we continue to pursue scientific discovery and technological advancement, whether for its own sake or for more immediate objectives, blurring the distinction between humans and intelligent machines raises ethical questions that challenge us to understand what it is that makes us human. Despite these uncertainties, I’m convinced future generations will accept many human-augmentation technologies as part of everyday life and will take full advantage of these to overcome the challenges of the time.

Alun Morgan headshot
Alun Morgan
is technology ambassador at Ventec International Group (ventec-group.com); alun.morgan@ventec-europe.com.