Extreme Bionics: The Future of Human Ability

People talk about technology in terms of what we can do with it. But, what about what it can do for us? How can expand our physical limits? Those were questions that were explored in Extreme Bionics: The Future of Human Ability.

Hans Georg Naeder, President of Ottobock, the market leader for artificial limbs, was the first to speak about how technology has been a game changer in the field of bionics. The company makes 60% of all prosthetic limbs globally and has annual revenues over a billion dollars. In 1919, the prosthetist Otto Bock founded a company in Berlin in order to supply victims of the world war with prostheses and orthopaedic devices. He realized early that the demand for these devices could not be met with traditional craftsmanship methods. In the 1930s, prosthetics were made of wood, aluminum, and felt. Otto Bock conjured up a process to deliver a series of components and send them directly to prosthetists on site. Otto Bock played a critical role in laying the foundation of the orthopedic industry. Fast forward to modern day, Ottobock is on the forefront of fostering research and development in the industry. As Hans put it, “The area of med-tech is morphing quickly and he wants to be close to the young and crazy.” Ottobock has invested in a variety of state of the art facilities to make that possible including the Ottobock Science Center for Medical Technology Berlin.

There is a strong belief in the bionics community that futuring human mobility and developing medical devices will eventually come to a point where the advanced products will be accepted by the end user as part of their body – similar to the way the smart phone is accepted as an extension of our hands, so-to-speak. Doctor Hugh Herr, coined by Time Magazine as “Leader of the Bionic Age,” talked about some of the emerging work in the field of Biomechatronics, the interdisciplinary study of biology, mechanics, electronics and control. Dr. Herr has a very personal perspective to lend to the story of the importance of bionics as he is a double amputee, losing both legs to frostbite when he was mountain climbing. Some of the topics that Dr. Herr touched on were about the research being done to control muscle with enacting optogenetic virus, creating natural muscle dynamics through restorative surgeries and developing wearable bionic systems (exoskeletons).

From there, the discussion transitioned into some of the fantastic ways athletes are using bionics. Aimee Mullens, an actress, model and athlete brought her unique perspective to the conversation. Aimee was born without shinbones and had both her legs amputated at the knee at the age of one. Throughout her life she has gone beyond labels to expose the opportunities available for each one of us. Amy spoke with conviction when she said that, “Disabled is never a word we should apply to a human being.” Aimee competed in Atlanta’s 1996 Paralympics accomplishing three world records in the 100m, 200m and the long jump. Aimee was open to exploration with her limbs not only pushing for more offerings to make her stronger and faster but also exploring appendages that were works of art. She talked about her experience of walking the runway for designer Alexander McQueen on hand-carved wooden legs complete with six-inch heels in 1999. Aimee travels across the country giving inspiration speeches that discuss harnessing perceived shortcomings to open up the strength to achieve lofty dreams.

To end the discussion, the panelists talked about what the future may look like for bionics. Can we augment humans to give them superhuman powers? Are we able to explore linking the human nervous system with electro-mechanics? The panel encouraged the audience to consider that with the profound opportunities with bionics and AI there are profound opportunities, but many threats as well. Still, it could just be a matter of time until all of the world’s inhabitants have unusual bodies and minds based on advancements in this specialized field.