Be sure to check out the first entry in this series — Part One: The New Cyborgs
Using cutting edge tech, amputees bridge the gap between humans and cyborgs
Although the artists championing the Cyborg Foundation and defending a movement before it becomes mainstream do take up much of the room of the cyborg movement, many of those on the fringe are people just trying to recover what they lost.
Amputees, whether from combat or accidents, are actually the recipients of the most cutting edge of cybernetic advancements. The antiquated idea of in-field amputation and half-hearted limb replacements is quickly and thankfully becoming a thing of the past. Many of those trying to help the downtrodden are working to not only replace body parts, but have the body parts become one with the host. This way, the lucky recipients not only walk or hold something, they feel it.
While mountain climbing in 1982, Herr suffered a terrible fall eventually resulting in the amputation of both legs. In a short while, he was surprisingly walking and mountain climbing again. He had developed his own prosthetics designed for better balance on rough terrain. He can adjust his height, and basically refers to himself as “pretty much nuts and bolts from the waste down.”
Since then, he has not only become an advocate for the advancement of such prosthetics, but the director of biomechatronics research group at MIT. While there, he has been able to help those closest to him.
His friend and fellow rock climbing enthusiast Jim Ewing had suffered a similar fate to Herr, having fall of a cliff in the Cayman Islands and losing his left leg. Herr and his team at MIT, which he affectionately refers to as “Team Cyborg”, developed not only state of the art prosthesis for Ewing, but created a technique to make him actually feel like he has legs again.
This is done by mostly through what Herr has deemed Agonist-Antagonist Myoneural Interface, more commonly referred to as the AMI procedure. This is accomplished by a mixture of tissue sculpting, surgical procedure. Also required is upgrading the original procedure of amputation, which has still been just hacking of the limb leaving bone and nerves cut off. Instead of severing the nerves during the incision, Herr’s team were able to re-attach Ewing’s muscle and nerve endings back together to reconnect the neural network part of his leg. So once he was able to attach the new robotic leg, he was able to move and flex it as if you were moving and flexing the leg you were born with. The movement sent information to the brain. But not only did the leg respond well, but his mind felt the left move afterwards. He was able to connect and treat the robotic leg like he had had it all along.
I’m often asked when I’m going to be neurally linked to my synthetic limbs biodirectionally, when I’m going to become a cyborg . . .”
That’s the key to Herr’s work. It’s not good enough to get people walking. The brain and leg have to be connected. That’s the real cure.
Even though Herr has his own leg prosthetics figured out for his own needs, he considers himself more of a bionic man than a cyborg. The legs respond to his movement, but no signal is sent back to the brain.
It would appear Herr has his own reasons why not to take the next step.
“I’m often asked when I’m going to be neurally linked to my synthetic limbs biodirectionally, when I’m going to become a cyborg,” Herr said in a Ted talk in 2018. “Before my legs were amputated, I was a terrible student. I got Ds and Fs in school. Then after my limbs were amputated, I suddenly became an MIT professor. Now I’m worried that once I’m neurally connected to my limbs, once again my brain will romp back to its no so bright self.
“But that’s okay. Because, at MIT I already have tenure,” Herr said.
Apparently the funny bone is not located in the legs.
John Hopkins, Mind Controlled Robotics and Johnny Matheny
The John Hopkins Applied Physics lab also attempts to revolutionize prosthesis while bridging the gap of neural networking is. Funded by DARPA ( keep track of those IRS receipts kids), the aim is to build highly advanced robotic arms that, much like Herr’s AMI foot prosthesis, works with interaction from the brain and not just be a fake arm for someone to help ride a bike again.
The process requires the recipient to undergo a procedure to attach the bone to an osteo-integration implant that would extend past the point of amputation on the limb. This would allow for muscle memory to kick in as if the limb were there. Afterwards, a prototype arm would then be attached.
Being that the project is still in the developmental stages, only one known person has a currently decent working APL limb.
Johnny Matheny, who lost his left arm to cancer in 2005, is the first and only american to undergo the procedure and live with this robot arm. After months of research, testing and one operation, Matheny was gifted the arm in early 2018 with the intent of using the arm form 1 year while it is researched and bugs are worked out.
Even though it is still a proto-type, Matheny feels complete again after over 14 years of not having Lefty to help out.
“This is not a prosthetic arm. This is my arm now,” Matheny said to Quartz.com in June 2018. “We are not just a couple. We are one.”
In the same video, Matheny describes the original limitations of the application while simultaneously teaching himself to play “Amazing Grace” on the piano.
“You can do anything in a lab all you want to,” Matheny said. “There is going to be things that are not going to show itself in life. So, it’s a little rocky and gets painful. But you know, if you want the relationship to try and continue and strive, you have to be patient.”
With each passing day, biomechanics and engineers are finding ways to make robotics limbs more for people who need it rather than maintenance for machines.
Stay tuned for the final entry in our three-part series.