Bionic breakthrough towards future ‘superbodies’

A helping hand: But will man-made body parts lead to unfair advantage?

A Danish man has been fitted with the world’s first feeling prosthetic hand. It is a lost limb revolution, but what happens if people want to be more machine than human?

A firework accident nine years ago left Dennis Aabo Sorensen without his left hand. But thanks to pioneering prosthetics, this week he could once again experience sensation using his new artificial limb.

Scientists used electrodes to connect Dennis’s nerve network to sensors in the hand – it allows him to feel the difference between hard and soft, round and square. The surgery follows last year’s breakthrough, when a British soldier became the first person to move a prosthetic limb using just his thoughts.

Sorensen is the first person to have tested the sensory technology but it could vastly improve the lives of other amputees. And there are several other exciting projects under way: the University of Washington is developing an octopus arm that wraps around objects to move them; a company called Second Sight is working on bionic eyes; and a New Zealand woman whose legs were amputated can now swim using an artificial mermaid’s tail.

Some are optimistic that it will not be long until all failing organs can be replaced with more efficient parts. As machines become more adept, a time may come when a prosthetic limb is seen as an upgrade on our frail human form.

Nick Bostrom of Oxford University says that we are entering the era of ‘transhumanism’, which challenges the idea that ‘the human condition is and will remain essentially unalterable.’ This applies to the mind as well as the body. Google’s director of engineering has suggested that soon we will be able to upload our thoughts so that we will never forget them.

Yet others worry that people who can afford to upgrade their body parts will have an unfair advantage. When Oscar Pistorius won gold for the 400m in the 2012 Paralympics, his achievement was plagued by controversy about his artificial legs. Could the time come when our natural bodies are seen as sick, disabled and limited, and having a perfect man-made body will become more desirable?

Man versus machine

Many will see these advances as being the moment when man takes control of evolution. Physical pain could be eliminated as damaged parts become as replaceable as a laptop’s disk drive. We will be able to constantly purchase upgrades and better models – just as we do for other technologies.

Others find this idea terrifying. Only the rich can afford this kind of technology; it will create a two-tier society where the wealthy can live for longer while the poor have shorter, more painful lives. A person at the peak of health who retains all their natural limbs and organs will be seen as flawed and faulty. Even if such advances become possible, we should shun them, or we are in danger of losing touch with what it is to be human.

You Decide

  1. How would you feel about having a bionic limb?
  2. Is the human race becoming dangerously over-reliant on robots?

Activities

  1. In groups, design some robotic parts that would help you in your daily lives.
  2. Research how science-fiction writers have depicted robotics changing the society we live in. Then find out how soon we might have the technology they describe.

Some People Say...

“The machines men are so intent on making have carried them very far from the old sweet things’Sherwood Anderson”

What do you think?

Q & A

Will athletes have to compete with machine parts?
It is highly unlikely that bionic parts would ever be accepted into mainstream sports against human competition. Just look at the scorn poured on cyclist Lance Armstrong when he admitted to taking performance enhancing drugs last year. If our bodies are machines, drugs are the equivalent of bionic parts.
Are machines going to become our competitors in other ways?
An Oxford University study has found that 47% of current jobs could be done by computers in the next 20 years. Advances in the way that machines operate mean that employers will have less need to take on more expensive human staff. That’s a challenge for all of us.

Word Watch

Prosthetics
Prosthetic limbs have been rudimentary for much of their 3,000-year history. Ancient Greek history tells of Hegesistratus who was put in stocks by Spartan soldiers. He cut off his own foot to escape and had it replaced with a wooden peg. And the 16th century German, Götz von Berlichingen, had a pair of iron hands that were moved by catches and springs. After 1945, when nations were dealing with the many amputees of World War Two, the practice really started to advance into its modern form.
Thoughts
Corporal Andrew Garthwaite lost his arm while serving in Afghanistan in 2010. Scientists rewired his nerve endings to his chest, where electrodes pick up the nerve signals and transfer them to his prosthetic arm, causing movement. It took him two years to learn how to control it.

Subjects

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