It wasn’t commonplace to see someone fitted with an artificial leg or arm twenty years ago, but now those who would have been confined to wheelchairs can experience the freedom that most healthy people have, to a degree.
Most prosthetic limbs cause the user to limp, or have some issues with dexterity in the hands, for leg replacements and arm replacements, respectively. These musculoskeletal stresses eventually lead to joint pain, disease and other secondary physical conditions. The corporation BIOM Personal Bionics has developed a prosthesis system that does not have these issues, and claim that people fitted with these bionic limbs feel reduced hip, knee, and back pain in mere days.
Last year, BIOM was the first group to build an autonomous leg exoskeleton that reduces the metabolic cost of walking to a person with a severe leg condition. The exoskeleton works by simulating calf muscle, supplying around eighty percent of the power to walk. For someone with a muscular or skeletal condition this is an amazing boon. BIOM also says that the device could even be used by someone with normal physiology, although it seems that would be akin to the misuse of Walmart’s courtesy wheelchairs.
BIOM claims that the devices are so profound in their augmentation that wearing it for just twenty minutes leaves your legs feeling “heavy and awkward.” The benefits for these devices shine when you think of who would be using them. Injured veterans who want to hike with their family, or take part in athletic sports again could. One of the main reasons that elderly people can’t get around is due to knee-focused osteoarthritis and the degradation of calf muscle power that comes with age. The BIOM exoskeletal system essentially installs an 18-year-old’s muscles and bones into, or onto, anyone, regardless of their age or physical condition. Biology will always have age-related degradation, however bionics could effectively reverse the physical detriments of that inevitability.
Futuristic technology like this could even affect running times, jump heights, and all types of athletic performance. Imagine that you could run a mile in five minutes during your twenties, but got your best time in your seventies, albeit with the help of a little technology. Some would claim that it is cheating, but the general idea is that it is used to maintain a person’s inherent physical abilities. If people used bionics when they ran or trained, the pressure and stress on their joints would be less, all the while helping them get the exercise and health benefits they need. The elderly could pick up old, or new hobbies, without having to worry about breaking anything, as the sensors in the device have enough awareness to tell you to stop, or lower the physical stress themselves.
In many science-fiction novels, there are often visions of bionic devices connected directly into the nervous system. This too, is nearer than you’d think. Prostheses and exoskeletons are conventionally controlled by electrodes attached to the skin, though this is iffy at best. Sweat and oils on the skin can degrade the effectiveness of the electrodes, and slow down communication with the prosthetic.
Some groups have already began developing invasive techniques by piercing nerves, however this can cause nerve damage and intense pain. BIOM instead is developing a system that doesn’t require nerve piercings. They’ve discovered a way to place strategic cuts and nerve endings to literally graft nerves to a specific place, in an intricate pattern. Over time, they are hoping to create an interface that grows nerve tissue in and around synthetic materials, effectively closing the loop between human biology and machine technology. The interfaces on the device could detect nerve signals, and even transmit sensor information into the nerve via electrical impulses.
BIOM is also experimenting with other limb disabilities, such as paralysis. For someone who is a quadriplegic, or someone with a spinal cord lesion, you could bypass that section of nerve and in principle put stimulation technology to work in passing information around the damaged sections of the body. A person with this system would have an externalized spinal cord that transmitted information to the rest of the nerves in the body.
Most would consider the prospect of this technology laughable, as it seems to be incredibly futuristic. However, BIOM claims that within the end of this century, a conservative estimate of twenty to fifty years, bionics will be capable of ending physical disability as a whole.
This article originally appeared on TheMittani.com, written by Kristoff Merkas.