Why I want a smarter arm.
A robotic hand designed and built by DARPA. Image: DARPA
Right now, as I write, my arm hurts. I just want to take it off. It's nothing out of the ordinary, just some tendonitis and tennis elbow, due to overuse. But had I been a car, I hope my owner would have changed that faulty part a long time ago. Also, trying to figure out what to do with the arm that isn't hugging my girlfriend when we try to fall asleep, has perpetually made me wish I could take my arm off and put it next to the bed. I just want a smarter arm.
Of course, considering the horrifying trauma of losing a limb in an accident, to disease, or sacrificing it on the battlefield, one could argue that wishing one's arm away is equally ungrateful and disrespectful. Yet if things turn out the way some researchers are predicting, giving up an arm voluntarily may not be quite as socially unacceptable in the future. In fact, it may well be worth the initial investment of dollars and human flesh and bone.
Developments in the field of advanced, intelligent prosthetics is moving faster than anyone would have expected. Costs are plummeting and technological advances are accelerating. Today, it's almost trivial that artificial limbs can be controlled by the brain and send sensory inputs back to it with TMR, or target muscle reinnervation, a technology that connects the brain to the artificial limb through cables literally spliced with nerve endings.
"Simple scientific discoveries about how the nervous system works can be exploited to develop more effective neuroprosthetic technologies", said Dr. Silvestro Micera from EFPL in Switzerland. Last year, Micera attached the world's first artificial hand with sensory capabilities to a patient, something he told me is only a 5 - 10 years away from clinical trials and a subsequent market introduction.
Micera stresses the importance of the ability to send sensory signals back to the brain. Otherwise, the amputee won't know how strongly he or she is gripping something. And since an artificial arm is a tough piece of hardware consisting of metal, motors, and ultradurable plastic, controlling grip strength is important.
Who sets the limit for how strong an artificial hand or arm can get? Can it only be as strong as your other arm?
In fact, the strength and power issue has ignited some serious discussions among academics and socio-technological thinkers. Who sets the limit for how strong an artificial hand or arm can get? Can it only be as strong as your other arm? Or could it be stronger than everybody else's? Will it, too, have a troubled case of man hands?
DARPA, the Pentagon's blue-sky research wing, has funded work in intelligent prosthetics for years. And with a good chunk of change from the Obama administration, DARPA is now charging ahead with project HAPTIX. It's a continuation of the work that led to TMR techniques, and also to "Luke", which is Segway inventor Dean Kamen's name for his artificial hand.
But the acceleration of developments in artificial limbs has caused some compelling questions to arrive at our doorstep decades before we were expecting them. Right now, the artificial arms that are given to amputees in military service cost the same as a tricked-out Tesla Model S: $100.000. Less capable arms can now be 3D-printed and cost as little as $350.
At the University of South Florida, a group of students are currently making 3D-printed arms for children with birth defects, and are working on more intelligent models which draw brain power from the amputee's smartphone. One such 3D-printed, smartphone-controlled arm was presented at SXSW this year by Japanese startup EXIII. The price tag for the prototype before labor costs? $300.
The Otto Bock/Advanced Arm Dynamic 'Michelangelo Hand' was projected to cost well over $100,000 back in 2008. Its price has now dropped to $73,800. With 3D-printing putting a foot on the accelerator, prices on artificial limbs are dropping so fast that sense-capable arms could be on the market for around $20,000 within the next decade.
Which raises the question: How fast would I be able to make that money back by replacing my right arm with an artificial one that had more strength than regular human arms? When would it actually start making financial sense to get a new arm, even if the one I was born with is fine (apart from a little tendonitis)?
Dr. Bradley Fidler, who studies social implications of developments at the junction of technology and medicine at UCLA, is one researcher who is anticipating a wave of voluntary amputations in order to be fitted with intelligent, strong prosthetics.
"If you think only in terms of technologies that give someone a competitive edge in their use of the body, be it aesthetic, psychological, cognitive, or physical, you can see a lot of examples of rapid uptake throughout history," Fidler told me.
Some people are already lining up to give away their arms. "I once built a house from start to finish, and it was tough work carrying so much lumber day after day," said Zoltan Istvan, a prominent transhumanist, author of The Transhumanist Wager, and occasional Motherboard contributor. "With robotic limbs, that work will be so much easier. My arms won't tire and I'll be able to carry five times the weight. I look forward to the day when I electively get a robotic arm to replace my biological one."
"Once it's clear that an artificial body part is better than a biological one, the game will fundamentally change all over world"
But this isn't just about the dream of a transhumanist future, as interesting and fraught as that may be. As voluntary amputations for work start happening, humans are going to be faced with some strong moral challenges. According to Istvan, "prosthetics are soon going to give advantages to people in the work place. Once it's clear that an artificial body part is better than a biological one, the game will fundamentally change all over world. To remain competitive as an employee, you will have to get upgrades and prosthetics."
The challenge, of course, is that the types of tasks in which stronger arms would prove a more valuable asset are those still typically undertaken by manual laborers. It doesn't take much to imagine how the harbors workers of the world will be at odds with each other, because the guys with the robot arms don't get as fatigued and can lift heavier stuff.
We're already doing it
For Fidler, that discussion is already ongoing. It's a discussion about swapping out limbs, but also about brain cells. "It's generally considered valid to take lithium to reduce suicidality," Fidler said, "but it's somehow immoral to take other medications to focus or to fit in better in the workplace." Whether you adjust the neurotransmitters in your brain to reduce suffering or to improve performance, "it's done at least in part to function better in society, to compete better."
Maybe the moral dilemma is actually more of a double standard. In that case, it's not a problem as long as what we alter about ourselves isn't visible, and as long as we only take alterations to the limit of what is human. Whatever that means.
Fidler brings up the example of the current developments in intelligent brain implants. "Right now, as I understand it, all the military research in body extensions is hampered by not being able to make anyone better than what they would be without the technology. So you can use deep brain stimulation to help, say, PTSD, but not to increase psychological functioning beyond a level with the new intervention."
Maybe I'll just fill my brain with acetaminophen next time my arm hurts from sleeping next to my girlfriend. There'll be plenty of time to upgrade myself later. I hope.
Goodbye, Meatbags is a series on Motherboard about the waning relevance of the human physical form. Follow along here.