PRACTICAL APPLICATIONS FOR EXOSKELETON TECHNOLOGY
considering the devastating nature of brain and nerve injury, it is no surprise that people are very excited about research in the areas of biomechatronics, robotics, and other areas exploring ways to support and/or rehabilitate people with weakened or paralyzed bodies(1). Here are some examples of exoskeletal technology put to better purpose than superhuman strength and killing people. According to my constructed definition of a cyborg in SMORGASBORG #1, these thing wouldn't qualify one to be a cyborg because they lack an information exchange between the machinery and the body wearing it. But what the heck...
There's a video ad of the suit at this link, but a better version is on YouTube.
A company called Argo Medical Technologies is developing an exoskeletal system for the legs. The exoskeleton, called ReWalk, doesn't provide an exchange of information between it and the wearer. You have to cue actions individually. The suit doesn't know if you want to go up one stair, or five(2). But who cares? It's so cool! There's a control panel that you can strap to your wrist. You cue ReWalk by pushing a command button that says something like "stand up." Then you cue the suit that you're ready to stand by tipping yourself forward, and the suit stands you up. Crutches have to be used to help maintain balance. It looks a little cumbersome, but trying to get a wheel chair up even one step can be really hard.
(If I have to listen to one more Western newscaster say
"Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto" one more time - I'm going to SCREAM!)
Above is a link to a video about a Japanese company called Cyberdyne! Argh! Can you believe it? They have been doing research, and have now started marketing a robotic suit called HAL. Argh! Can you believe it? I assume this isn't a hoax. If it is, I suspect the technology is very nearly there for this kind of thing. These suits(3) interpret nerve impulses that are trying to stimulate muscular contraction. The suit will then move the wearer's limb the way the person is trying to move it. It can give extra-human strength to a normal person, or produce normal strength for a weakened individual. It essentially anticipates and performs the movements of the wearer. In the video, they show elderly people who have suffered strokes using a half suit, and care-givers using the full body suit to carry a patient.
The full body suit's structure will hold your joints in alignment to prevent injury from forces they can't handle. The half suit doesn't seem to offer much support around the pelvis, so it might be uncomfortable if you don't have the strength to hold yourself erect for any period of time. That would limit who could use it and how it could be used.
Exoskeletal devices such as these would help someone confined to a wheelchair feel more normal and independent. Stairs could be negotiable without a ramp. You wouldn't always have to be looking up at people as they stood over you. For many people with flaccid paralysis or paresis, these types of devices wouldn't be a cure, but would provide a form of exercise(4) and potentially improve posture, which would improve health.
Luke and Yoda
The kid is using his hand for show. The sensors go on your head.
USE THE FORCE, LUKE!
Here is a trivial step on the road to great things. A toy called The Force Trainer teaches you to control a fan with your mind. Yes... a fan... yes... your mind. The fan in turn blows a ping-pong ball into the air, in a clear plastic tube, to levitate it. I can't decide if this toy is cool, or lame. Eventually, I assume that people with spinal cord injury may be able to use a brain wave sensing device that either helps them move their body, or control a robot that can more things for them, which sounds more interesting.
BETTER THAN A PING-PONG BALL...
"What is it like to mentally float an object and then hurl it far into the distance? The Adventures of NeuroBoy fulfills this classic dream by demonstrating the experience of superpowers." You can also blow things up. You wear a headset and manipulate an animated game with your mind. I'm sure it's not nearly as disappointing as it looks online.
SPEAKING OF LUKE SKYWALKER
Look at this! A "bionic hand controlled by a patient's mind and muscles." It's expensive, but probably worth it.
Enough with exoskeletons. Next time we will look at some of the factors involved in implanting devices into living tissue. It turns out that building an army of human killing cybernetic organisms is trickier than you'd think.
1. Some new devices may be able to "retrain" someone's nervous system. Some devices will not help with recovery from injury, but will facilitate more physical independence. It all depends on what caused a person's paralysis in the first place.
2. Oh! I can see the madcap Adam Sandler comedy already!
3. HAL is a lower body model. They will have a full body model out soon.
4. "Exercise" is a relative term meaning any activity that will physically challenge a particular body.