Intelligent prosthetics, how long before we are offered an upgrade to ourselves?
Updated: Feb 24
An astonishing story has recently surfaced of technological progress to overcome disability, about a man called Les Baugh who lost both arms in an electrical accident 40 years ago. That with the help of Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory and DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), has today a significantly reduced level of disability thanks to the development of Modular Prosthetic Limbs
What is astounding in this story is the fact that the intelligent prosthetic arms are able to interpret muscle movement and nerve signals when Baugh thinks about moving his arms, enabling the arms as a result to respond and move accordingly.
“Baugh is the first bilateral shoulder-level amputee to wear two Modular Prosthetic Limbs at once, according to the researchers. He’s spending a lot of time practising different tasks.”
Man and Machine Co-joined
Technological developments in robotics is certainly starting to break down the human (biological) / machine boundaries and certainly, the early beginnings of a whole new dimension in respect of how disabilities may be overcome is opening up.
“Maybe I’ll be able to — for once — be able to put change in a pop machine and get the pop out of it,” Baugh said in a video about the breakthrough. “Simple things like that that most people never think of.“
Presently he can only use the arms in the lab for now, but someday he will have two of his own.
Mike McLoughlin, the program manager at Johns Hopkins
“There’s just a tremendous amount of potential ahead of us, and we just started down this road. I think the next five, 10 years are going to bring some really phenomenal advancements.“
These new developments in intelligent prosthetics capability offer hope to millions of people struggling with the disability of a missing limb, and this will likely be the focus of developments for this next 10 years that Mike McLoughlin is referring to.
But what about beyond this? It is likely increased capability and improvements in performance, will create the potential for the application of this technology to go further, some people will want upgrades to deficient limbs, and even perhaps will seek to replace perfectly capable limbs with solutions that offer enhancements and improvements, ones that biologically alone cannot be achieved.
This will likely arise from the perspective that those once inhibited by disability, not only have the disability overcome, but that their individual abilities returned, are perceived to have become artificially enhanced. Ironically, in this scenario the tables become turned, in that the able bodied are now perceived to be the disadvantaged.
In a much more simplistic sense we have already born witness to this notion in the great debate that surrounded the discussion following the decision to allow Oscar Pistorius, “the blade runner”, to compete against able bodied athletes at the London Olympics.
Whilst the decision was arguably a triumph for those living with disabilities, Ade Adepitan, who competed in wheelchair basketball and now presents Channel 4’s That Paralympic Show, had more conflicted views when he offered his thoughts to the Guardian Article, suggesting that Pistorius could be a radical role model for disabled athletes, saying:
“If he gets into the final it’s going to send shock waves round the world, and if he wins a medal, wow,” picture a double-leg amputee on the podium at the Olympics. What doors would it open up? What implications does it have? None of us will know until it happens, but that’s the great thing about what Oscar is doing: he’s asking questions.“
In the same article another, as the Guardian author Tim Lewis put it – reliable erudite Roger Black, the UK’s greatest 400m runner, was one of the first to speak out. No scientific consensus, he pointed out, had been reached on whether the blades provided Pistorius with a benefit and until that was clear we did not have the faintest idea whether he was:
“an amazing athlete or a very good athlete with an advantage“
Black also placed himself in the spikes of an athlete beaten – maybe even to a medal – by Pistorius. Would they think, perhaps even justifiably, that it was unfair?
Given human nature being what it is, humans wanting upgrade to overcome limitation of the human condition are an inevitability. A fact already explored by Yuval Noah Harari a historian in his book Sapiens, within which the human race takes on the role as intelligent designer, to surmount evolution by provision of the ability to upgrade ourselves.
The fundamental problem as Hatari sees it is that this upgrade ability will be restricted to the rich, leading in a relatively short space of time to a social inequality of great significance.
Best summed up by the Guardian article, what we are faced with is a revolution already in progress, borne of engineering and exploits mechanical, electronic, chemical and genetic,
“In the 20th century, the main task of medicine was to bring everybody to a certain level of health and capability. It was by definition an egalitarian aim,” Harari told the Guardian. “In the 21st century medicine is moving onwards and trying to surpass the norm, to help people live longer, to have stronger memories, to have better control of their emotions. But upgrading like that is not an egalitarian project, it’s an elitist project. No matter what norm you reach, there is always another upgrade which is possible.“
The question perhaps, is given the increasing rate of technological advancement, could this next stage of human evolution be a reality within the next 10 years?