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I am a below knee amputee. More importantly, I am also Mommy to two boys, a very active 10 year old (Robby) and an mischievous toddler (Timmy). I have learned that being a parent with a disability can create some unusual and sometimes humorous situations. This blogger is available for hire! Let's talk and learn how a blog can expand your business.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Envious? Doubtful!

I have noticed a disturbing trend. My first exposure was during Oscar's run during the Olympics, but the fury quickly died down so I didn't feel compelled to address it. After the Boston Bombings the issue has resurfaced, and I have encountered it numerous times during the past few weeks. At this time, I can no longer remain silent.

When I read the first newspaper article, which touted the wonders of prosthetic technology and referenced the "superhuman" that was being created, I chuckled. After all, I rely upon my bionic prosthesis on a daily basis. While I appreciate the technological innovations, it does not come close to recreating the biological limb. I chalked up the references to a sensationalistic desire to sell papers and didn't think much of it.

Then I read an interview with Hugh Herr, a gifted prosthetic designer and engineer who has created bionic devices which have revolutionized prosthetic technology.  In the article he repeatedly stated that technology is advancing to the point of creating "envy" within the four limbed population. Until they can create a prosthesis that will clean my house, do my laundry and cook dinner for me, I assure you that my friends will not envy my limb loss! I was honestly shocked that such an intelligent individual could make such an insulting and downright ignorant declaration.

Earlier this week I read an article which was titled "The future of robotics: in a transhuman world, the disabled will be the ones without prosthetic limbs." As somebody who is reliant upon this technology, I find that inference insulting on a variety of levels! Apparently the cyborg mystique has taken hold, and it is time to provide some facts. After all, I would hate to think that my friends would become so envious of my ability to utilize this Superman-like technology that they would actually cut off their leg. (Yes, I am being sarcastic.)

Herr developed the PowerFoot, which is a marvel of technology. This prosthetic ankle and foot system is the only foot that replicates the calf muscle, providing the wearer with a small surge of power with each step. I've walked this foot and I was impressed. But I'm more impressed with my biological foot.

I realize that Herr is now a salesperson trying to sell his invention, but his facts are wrong. His foot is reliant upon batteries, which are heavy and drain quickly, requiring the wearer to always carry a spare or risk losing the bionic benefits. There is nothing "superhuman" about the constant need of the bionic amputee to monitor their battery usage throughout the day. Should the battery completely drain (imagine loss of power), the prosthetic is relegated to the function of a heavy brick. The biological foot, with its readily accessible power source, wins this comparison.

Bionic prosthetic wearers can't dance in the rain, jump in puddles or go wading for tadpoles. The technology is good, but it has to be kept dry and clean. I am no expert, but I don't remember seeing Iron Man having to don a DryPro liner before getting wet! Again, the biological foot with it's utilitarian skin covering wins.

Computerized prosthetics require the user to master a variety of triggers in order to reap all of their benefits. When I want to walk up the stairs, my brain quickly tells my leg to lift and move. The bionic knee user must lift, dangle and tap their prosthetic foot in order to trigger stair mode. If any of those triggers are not done perfectly, the knee does not respond as expected. You aren't exactly leaping up the stairs like the Man of Steel when you are stuck at the landing trying to trigger the sweet spot so that the device works!

I realize that drawing superhero comparisons when discussing bionic prosthetics is a "sexy" angle. As an amputee, I find it degrading and insulting. The struggles, both financial and physical, that are hand in hand with bionic devices are swept under the rug and ignored. While the bionic devices are an improvement, they are heavy, expensive, break down and do not replicate the human body. Creating the mystique that amputees are "lucky" because they are missing a limb borders on the absurd.

1 comment:

  1. As an electrical engineer, I can see both points of view. You're making do with existing technology, where a designer is dreaming of technology that doesn't exist, and trying to figure out how to make it happen.

    In engineering, it can be very easy to see the whole forest and completely miss the presence of all those pesky trees. It doesn't help that there are many sorts of "borderline" technologies that would make many things trivial if they actually existed today.

    Several issues come to mind in prosthetic design.

    * Energy storage - This is actually an engineering "grand challenge" The best method we have of storing a high density of energy is in gasoline. Batteries don't even come close for the density of energy storage, and they are too slow to charge or discharge. Capacitors charge and discharge quickly, but store a fraction of the energy of batteries.

    Until we lick the problem with storing energy, much of our technology will come up short.

    * Brain/machine interfaces - This is actually pretty promising. We can wire into a brain's motor functions and teach a computer to respond to our thoughts. We've easily demonstrated it in monkeys, and have tried it on some humans who volunteered to help with the science while they were undergoing brain surgery.

    The problem is that there is currently no non-invasive method of brain/machine interface, and the human motor centers of the brain are hard to get to - so a simple surgery isn't possible.

    * Self-healing machines - If you cut your hand, you might need a bandaid, or worse maybe some stitches. After a while, your hand will usually recover. If you cut your prosthetic, you have to drive 40 minutes away and spend an afternoon with Dr. Elliot - who may be force to order or create a spare part.

    Material engineers have created some "self healing" materials, but their ability to heal is limited, and they are often poor for various other reasons.

    But these problems can be so easily dismissed by an engineer who is merely musing about a great idea. It is so easy to see how every bit of technology might all fit together, while forgetting that the required technology has yet to catch up to those dreams.