Exoskeletons, Cyborgs, and Prosthetics—Oh My!


Ellen Ripley’s power-loader, Matt Damon’s Elysium exoskeleton, and Iron Man’s get-up aren’t just fiction anymore. Italy’s Perceptual Robotics Laboratory has created a “body extender” that allows wearers to curl 100 pounds in each hand.

Someone who calls himself Hacksmith has been posting videos on YouTube featuring his Elysium-inspired homemade exoskeleton, which enables him to curl a 170-pound barbell. And anyone who saw the opening ceremonies of the World Cup witnessed a paraplegic teenager kick a soccer ball thanks to the exoskeleton built by Walk Again Project scientists, including Miguel Nicolelis, whose pioneering work with monkeys who control avatars and robots with their minds paved the way for the breakthrough. Exoskeletons are just one innovation for people with limited mobility. Prosthetics are another, and that field is advancing just as rapidly.

Back when Oscar Pistorius was more famous for his incredible track career than he was for shooting his girlfriend, he started a pretty huge debate about whether he should be allowed to compete in the Olympics after having earned a slew of gold medals and world records at the Paralympics. The IAAF challenged him, citing an amended rule that banned “any technical device that incorporates springs, wheels or any other element that provides a user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device.” On the one hand, it seemed ridiculous to argue that a double-amputee could possibly have an advantage over someone with fully functional natural limbs, but some people believed that his carbon-fiber blade-shaped prosthetics allowed him to expend less energy to run and took less work to move because of their relative lack of friction against the ground. Ultimately, he was allowed to compete in the 2012 Athens Olympics, though he didn’t medal.

Pistorius brought to light the issue of prosthetics in sport competitions. While the use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs has generated countless scandals, the question of fairness when it comes to prosthetics is more difficult, especially when it involves someone for whom the use of a prosthetic is about functionality and mobility, rather than performance enhancement.

Although the word cyborg generally conjures images of Star Trekian borgs and the Six Million Dollar Man, someone with a prosthetic (or an exoskeleton, though those tend to be worn temporarily) could be considered a cyborg. But there are a lot of other cyborgs out there, both in the sci-fi world–Luke Skywalker, Geordi LaForge, Dr. No, even Inspector Gadget–and in the real world. Think of how many people have titanium knees and hips, or pacemakers.

Achilles' Choice

Science fiction not only popularized the idea of the cyborg, but it also predicted the integration of cyborgs into athletic competitions such as the Olympics. In Achilles’ Choice (that’s some cover, eh?), a book by Larry Nivens and Steven Barnes, the futuristic world is ruled by an elite class who are enhanced and linked by internal computers. In order to become one of the elite, people have to compete in an Olympics competition that tests academic, athletic, and artistic abilities. The contenders have to choose whether to “boost”—basically dialing up their bodies to a maximum and unsustainable output—to improve their chances of winning. Boosting makes competitive success far more likely, but if one boosts and doesn’t win, death within ten years is certain. The detrimental effects of boosting can only be mitigated by winning the competition and becoming one of the linked.

While not Nivens’ best book by any means, the concept of athletes—or anyone, really, who has to make a weighty decision to keep up with the technologically enhanced elite rings more true all the time. These days, there are drugs that enhance physical performance, as well as drugs that enhance attention span, focus, memory, and other aspects of mental performance. But now, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

While it might seem drastic, there are people who would opt for voluntary amputations, and some who would rather have prosthetics than even functional human limbs. This gets back to Pistorius and whether his prosthetics offer advantages. This also makes me think of an article I read recently about Daniel Engelbrecht, a German soccer player who began suffering serious career- and potentially life-threatening heart problems at the age of 22. In an effort to save his game, as well as his life, doctors implanted a defibrillator that can deliver up to 800 volts to try and jumpstart a failing heart rhythm. Because of an irregular heartbeat caused by a rogue node that doctors had difficulty disabling, there was a terrifying span of time in which Engelbrecht’s defibrillator could have killed him, but that was corrected during surgery and Engelbrecht—now a cyborg—made an improbable return to professional soccer this fall. It seems likely that we’ll hear more and more stories like this, which raises the question: Could we eventually reach a point that we opt to substitute our working human parts for more efficient bionic ones?

Time will tell the answer to that question, but regardless, a futuristic version of the Olympics is on the way: the Cybathon. The National Center of Competence Research is sponsoring the Cyborg Olympics, which will be hosted in Switzerland next October and will feature a bike race, leg race, wheelchair race, exoskeleton race, arm prosthetics race and Brain Computer Interface race for competitors with full paralysis. Competitors’ efforts represent a partnership between their own physical and mental abilities and the abilities of the machines they’re using to compete. Thus, both the athletes and the companies that create the technology will win awards.

It will be interesting to compare the cyborg athletes’ achievements to those of non-technology-assisted athletes. The Cybathon might raise more questions than it settles with regards to the benefits of technology and how much of a “boost” it gives competitors, but it sure will be interesting.

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