The future is here, we can feel through bionics

I have a tag ”future” but it only has so many posts. Actually, I thing it only has or three. The reason why I essentially stopped writing them was because they became largely irrelevant to the blog, and that they took very large amount of work compared to the length or content. The time could be spent better on more relevant topics.

However, for whatever reason the (still) upcoming Muv-Luv Kickstarter made me read about bionics. I looked up if there was any recent news on latest developments in artificial limbs and other body parts, and it turns out that a man can now feel through his prosthetic hand thanks to technology developed by none other than DARPA.

While we have always had artificial limbs in science fiction to some extent, most of them have been relatively same in idea. Generally speaking, if an arm has been amputated below the elbow all it really needs is a vessel where to house the mechanics. This housing is of course fastened to the arm in a way or another. With modern composite materials, the prosthetics can be relatively light, or comparatively extremely light in comparison full metal housing. Depending how much arm there is left, the housing can be fasted just over the stump and have the rest go up to the elbow.

The bebionic hand is a forerunner in the overall organic design of prosthetic hands. Its overall design is highly impressive. The bebionic hand is controlled by two muscles of the arm it’s installed in, and you are able to change between preset utility settings ranging from grabbing a key or having a trigger finger. Between some settings there is a need to manually change or active some of the settings, but that’s simply due to lack of direct motor control with the bebionic hand. That’s an inherent problem with artificial limbs overall, the lack of direct input we have naturally in our nervous system.

However, back in February doctors performed the world’s first bionic hand reconstruction, where they took what looks like a variation of the bebionic hand and crafted it’s receivers directly to the artificial hand. Essentially, the signals coming from the patient translates directly into mechantronic hand function.

A harder thing is to replace a whole arm. However, even that has been made. Essentially, a man without an arm would wear a harness that would read the muscle signals from the electronics on the subject’s upper body and translate those in to the functions of the limb. Controlling an artificial hand at first must be hell to learn at first, but to re-learn how to use a whole arm must be a special kind of challenge that may break the weak.

Ultimately, an artificial limb really needs a harness to which it is attached to and some sort of casting to make it look nice. You can even 3D print your own if you feel like it.

Depending the kind of fiction you’re interested in, artificial limbs may remind you of the real deal. On the other hand, you’ve most likely seen the idea of crafting some sort of metallic socket to the subject and then have him change between arms, or have one, massively bulky arm in there. Cyberpunk most often uses artificial limbs like candy, where you can just shop from the shelf and have them fit to you almost however you want, especially in games.

Fictional design also emphasizes the completely absurd and unnecessary lines on the skin, markings, and attachments simply are thrown there without much thinking how they actually work with the anatomy. This is understandable, seeing how they emphasize on the visual side rather than functionality. Concentrating on visuals is completely acceptable as long as realism isn’t a concern to some extent, or at least as long as it follows common logic within the work itself. In a cartoon world with cartoon logic it’s acceptable to have whatever kind of big and bulky arms or legs you want. Outside cartoon logic, with each step with technology there’s very little reason to stick with old designs.

Here’s the problem with that previous statement; long running franchises have a well defined style in how they portray the visuals of their technology, and suddenly just changing these pre-established visuals would be very jarring and cause a clash. On the other hand, the change in visual tone can also be explained with the evolution of in-universe technology.

Each product is of course a reflection of its time. With the Internet in our hands, we’re not slaves just to guessing how things look or have to use outdated books in the library.

How would a modern artificial arm look in modern science fiction then? Well, the answer is that it would look much like how bebionic hand would look, just with slightly smoother action and would use direct input from the user. Even when low level technology would be present in sci-fi they would look and function much like the bebionic hand, because it’s one of the forerunners at this moment with its competitors like the Azzurra Hand may be cutting edge technology at this moment, but whenever the bionics become more common place and cheaper to produce, the cutting edge technology of future will be much more what we have now in the present day and age.

Of course, the idea of bolting an artificial limb to a human body isn’t dead. While it is technically possible in theory, there are difficulties that need to be overcome. For one, the weight of the prosthetics needs to be around as much or lighter than what the actual limb was. If it’s too heavy, it would simply plop off from its socket. The redesigned Bionic Commando prosthetic is an example of a design that in the real world is just far too overdone in every way, but that’s the least of the game’s problems. I remember Masamune Shirow showcasing this in some of his comic, I can’t recall if its was in Ghost in the Shell or Appleseed. The attachment itself is an issue too. It would need to be attached to the bone structure and supported by the musculature if possible. This opens a point how much a bionics should resemble the limbs they’re replacing.

In reality, it doesn’t have any reason why it should. It can just be few pipes with joints and electronics inside. It is more a psychological issues, where more natural looking replacement helps the user to get accustomed to it, plus it would attract less attention. Using musculature as the basis how the bionics would look like has been very popular for the last few decades now. Complicating a functioning design with unnecessarily complex elements, even in fiction, is redundant. Sure it would look neat and emulate human biology, but without a heavy reason this should be avoided. On the other hand, it’s pretty damn popular simply because it looks cool. They’ve actually developed one, but as you can see the tubing does extent over the chest of the unit. It’s a novel approach, but in the a questionable one.

Power supply is a question that full arm prosthetics can’t solve all too well. For the bionic hand the power battery can be relatively small, but a whole arm would need more juice. That said, the harness to which the arm would be attached to should have enough places to have a hanging battery pack. Batteries haven’t had a major breakthrough for some time, and as such the most complex replacements have been tested in laboratory environment only.

The last thing is that I want to shine light on is the contact point between the skin and the craft. Recently the Australian doctors made a 3D printed titanium sternum and rib cage for a patient. The surface was sandblasted in order to secure the replacement that will allow human biology to latch and attach itself to the surface and grow on it, much like on real bone. Similarly, we can see that if the craft would be attached to a human body for bionics socket, it would need to be attached to the bone structure in similar manner. The socket then could be moved with muscles, thou that is rather needless unless we were to aim to emulate human biology. Nevertheless, the problem that would still arise is at the contact point. The skin and the metal may rub against each other, irritating the skin and causing problems with it. That’s why you always see a layer of another material used in real life prosthetics to prevent chafing.

While we are living in the high tech future, we’re still missing hover cars and widespread artificial limbs. Who knows what will happen in ten or fifteen years, but it’ll be one helluva time to get there.

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