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.

“No matter in what world, you are you”

When we ask ourselves Who am I? the answer is usually simple. I am your name here. That encompasses most of it, if not all. Then we can ask what is it that makes you you. All your experiences, your memories and feelings. Then, what about your physical being? Does it dictate who you are to the same extent? It’s a good question, a question that we will have to ask more often in future where bionics will be more present.


With a similar bionic, the brains slowly rejected the implant and ultimately stopped working

With bionic eyes and hands, we will come to a point where we can replace complete body parts for functioning bionics. It’s the traditional sci-fi cliché, where a guy gets his arm replaced with a robotic one. There really isn’t anything to detract of who he is, we all can agree with that. This guy is just a guy with a robot arm.

Then what if we have a full body prosthesis? Imagine this; your body is 90% replaced with artificial components. The only things that has left untouched is your brains, and part of digestive system is left in to keep the brains running. When you look at the mirror after waking up, you do not see yourself any more, but your new physical self with robotic face, if even that. Would you regard yourself to be you? You still have your memories, your experiences and all that what made you mentally. Your body isn’t what it was. To an extent, it’s not your body, not the one you grew in. Is it still you, or is it just you in another body? The schema of self is most likely fixated to our physical bodies to a large extent, and with a full body prosthesis this schema is rattled to an extreme.

As your brains have not been altered, it has to adjust being inside a completely different kind of body. The question is if the brains rejects the body, will the mind so as well? We could presume that the brains have input similar to what a human body would give through neural pathways. How would you see and feel at first, and how off they would fee before adjusting them to feel more natural and pleasing? There are more questions than answers, as we can’t truly predict how human psyche and biological parts will act with full body prosthesis. We can make educated guesses, and it has to be enough for now.

Some people feel that they have been born into a wrong body and fix their bodies more to their liking. Perhaps this kind of feeling is what will linger after a full body prosthetic. Let’s assume that you get used to your new body rather fast, and at some point it’s functions become completely natural. Isn’t this somewhat the same way how babies learn to control their bodies as they grow? As you’ve grown with the new body, you have new experiences and memories. It can’t be said that the body becomes part of you as much as you learn to control it.

I assume that legally this person has all the same rights as he was before full body prosthesis, as the only that has changed is the physical body you have. This actually happens now as we are, but in more ‘natural’ way if you will. We grow new cells to replace out old ones all the time, so in X amounts of years vast majority of our body has been replaced with a new one. Full body prosthesis can be seen as accelerated change of the body. Naturally, what the society at large would think of this kind of body change is an open question, and how would this respond affect the mind within this body. An example of full body prosthetic in sci-fi, is Robocop. I’d recommend you to watch the two first movies again and keep on eye on these matters, as the movies touch on the subject quite a lot.

Let’s leave prosthetics out for a while, and ask how would you need to be treated if you were reconstruction of yourself.

Quantum teleportation is true at some level. Much like in Star Trek, quantum teleportation basically breaks down the object, reads the data and reassembles it at the other end. To put it bluntly, your body is practically killed and all the information it had is put together the way they were. Is the person coming out you, or your clone? This is an age old question that the Trek fandom has discussed over and over again.

How would the legal department consider this person the same as the one who was transported? Biologically and mentally it is the same person, so I believe there would be no conflicts. The continuity of self has no stops. However, what if the person begins to feel that he is a copy of himself rather than real him? There might be underlying psychological problems with quantum transportation that we have yet to see.

In the end, what we are is just information within a body. Whether or not it matters if this information exists inside an artificial body or in a reconstructed one is a personal question to us all at the moment. After all, some part of our physical self always will be there with bionics.

But what if everything physical was replaced with machinery? There is at least one story that dwells a little bit into this kind of scenario; Muv-Luv Alternative.

Kagami Sumika in Muv-Luv Alternative does not have a body any more. Her body was violated and then ripped apart, and only her brains was left alone floating inside a glass tube. To give her a body, the last bit of her physical self, the brains, had to die. Her soul, or to loan a word from Ghost in the Shell, her Ghost was implanted into a physical mechanical body. This body is not a perfect replication of human body, but almost as close as possible.

The question is whether or not she is the same Sumika she was. Her body in and out is completely different, only her mind stays. In this case we have no difficulties with brains rejecting the body, but what about the mind? How does the mind understand what the machine understands and all of its underlying complications? For example, the machine brains most likely offers higher levels of memory recollection. How will her psyche handle this new body it resides in? Does it start from the baby steps and on some level become growing into it, and adjusting itself accordingly? If we’re to believe the story itself, Sumika’s body is a replication, and her mind “grows” as it becomes more and more accustomed to the body. Perhaps it could be said the she becomes herself again.

Let me ask again; what makes you you?

If we are mostly a sum of our experiences and memories, then the body should not have much meaning to who we are, to the self. Fiction usually has one common theme when it comes to body replacements; accepting it. In Robocop Murphey had to accept the facts that had come to, and only then was able to continue on. Similarly Sumika needed to accept everything that had happened to her, and what she was in order to become ‘human’ again.

The time will come when we have to start testing the limits that our physical limitations allow us to reconsider what is an individual and human.