The problem is, cyborgs get a bad rap. Relentless killing machines in the movies and misunderstood souls in literature have created a bad impression. And that is a shame as there is so much exciting research and development (R&D) going on in cyborg technology, from wearable tech and defence to sensory implants and something close to us at ForrestBrown – prosthetic limbs.
Fun, exciting, life-enhancing! Let’s celebrate the amazing developments that companies and other organisations are making to enhance or restore our bodies and minds.
An UnLimbited world
We lead with prosthetics because last year it was what we put at the heart of our charitable giving. E-NABLE is a community that promotes voluntary and open source design, manufacture and funding for prosthetic upper body limbs using 3D printing technology. It has become a hub for thousands of individuals and groups around the world to make and supply such devices fit for the 21st century.
Team Unlimbited are UK-based volunteers who are part of the e-NABLE collective. Building on the research and development of others (a key component of e-NABLE) and driving further improvement, their own R&D has focused on improvements to strength, weight, printing times and more natural shape forming. This has led to more comfortable and better fitting hands and improved user experience. The result is their Thermo-gauntlet and The UnLimbited Arm.
Countless numbers of people around the world are affected by missing or incomplete upper body limbs either since birth or through disease, accident or warfare. R&D into prosthetics is a wonderful story of the transformative effect that technology can have on the human body. Advanced materials, 3D printing techniques and good will are making an enormous difference.
And here it all is in action. Sydney asked for an Iron Man themed prosthetic arm and Team UnLimbited did this amazing job.
Scientists have been experimenting with electrical stimulation of our hearing function for more than two hundred years. Back then things were a bit crude. Count Alessandro Volta was sticking metal rods hooked up to a 50V circuit to his ear and noting down his observations (crackling and bubbling sounds in case you were wondering). Fortunately, it’s all moved on a bit since then and in the 1980s there was an amazing innovation – the Cochlear implant.
Unequivocally cyborg, cochlear implants just go to show how positive cyborg technology is – and how far away from popular perception of the term is! A standard hearing aid will amplify sound. Cochlear implants – created by Australian Graeme Clark – bypass damaged parts of the ear and stimulate the auditory nerve with electrical signals that the brain recognises as sound. Over the last 30 years, the device has enabled hundreds of thousands of people who were deaf or extremely hard of hearing to gain significantly improved hearing functionality.
Although itself the culmination of many years of research and development, the advent of a working human cochlear implant is really just the beginning of a story. Since the breakthrough, Graeme Clark has continued to innovate in this field. As with most digital technology, the implant has become more efficient and smaller. He has also focused R&D on speech therapy to improve user experience.
He makes some interesting predictions for the future direction of cochlear implant and hearing impairment research and development too. Implants so small that the whole unit will go under the skin (see our section on biohacking further on) and further use in conjunction with hearing aids. One day the implants may be entirely superseded by nerve growth hormone technology which has the potential to protect and regrow dying or damaged nerves.
Sight for poor(ly) eyes
Retinal implants, although nowhere near as established as cochlear implants, are another exciting area of cyborg R&D. There are a number of teams around the world working on developing technologies that will restore the sight of malfunctioning eyes. The Boston Retinal Implant Project is working on two solutions through its spin out companies Bionic Eye Technologies and Visus Technologies.
Visus Technologies is working on a sensory substitution solution – so converting visual information into auditory or tactile cues. This has been tried before by other teams but the challenges of overcoming technological limitations had previously proved too great. Visus’s R&D is focused on significantly improving the quality of information available to blind patients, particularly when they are on the go, and delivering this through wearable technology. Key goals are for the technology to be cosmetically acceptable, portable and to provide real-time, visually relevant information to the user.
Software and hardware combine and this video shows off the impressive results.
Bionic Eye Technologies is working on retinal implants. Unlike competitors, their research is concentrated on an implant that sits in the sub-retinal space rather than an epiretinal device. They state the advantages of this approach as having less chance of infection, better visual outcomes as the implant is closer to the retinal nerve and reducing the chance of damaging eye tissue. We would have shown you a video but the graphic eye surgery is a bit off putting. It would be designed to be used in conjunction with some hardware such as the glasses developed by sister company Visus.
As we said earlier, retinal implants are nowhere near as established as cochlear implants, and it was announced in July last year that the first ever bionic eye implant was carried out here in England – so you could say they are more than 30 years’ behind. The operation was carried out in Manchester Royal Eye Hospital and used an Argus II implant produced by an American firm called Second Sight. This bionic eye works with a camera and transmitter in a glasses unit that talks to a video processor via cable and then transmits signals to the implant on the back of the eye. The remaining cells of the retina are activated by electrodes which get the information to the brain.
The implant helps define distinct shapes or patterns such as a door frame. In this case, the patient had been suffering from a condition called Macular Degeneration which leads to the complete loss of central vision – it had stopped him carrying out basic tasks such as typing the numbers into a chip and pin machine and inhibited his pastimes such as gardening and going to watch the football.
Vision and hearing are two vital areas in which cyborg technology is trying to restore lost function, but there are many other bodily systems that are being explored too:
- AWAK is developing a wearable artificial kidney to help people with renal failure.
- Millions of dollars are being invested in the research and development of a biolung – a medium-term lung implant that can help people live a relatively normal life while they wait for a lung transplant.
- Artificial hearts have been around for decades and have been a key component of heart transplant surgery, but no amount of research and development has been able to yield a permanent total artificial heart. It is worth considering here that R&D does not have to be successful for it to qualify for R&D tax credits, and an element of uncertainty of outcome is actually a key qualifying criterion.
From restoration to enhancement
OK, so we’ve had a good look at how technology can augment the body to help restore lost functions. But what about enhancement? Technology that can connect us (to devices and the Internet), make us stronger, see better. For the rest of this article we will skip over everyday wearable tech and look at implant and more industrial augmentation that is going on or being developed.
So what if you have fully-functioning eyes to begin with, but you have to go into low visibility environments? Researchers in America are exploring a way of helping firefighters cope with poor visibility through a sensory augmentation glove that provides tactile distance feedback. The research and development focuses on pairing an ultrasonic rangefinder with a vibrating pair of gloves that maps objects and their spatial position in an environment on the back of the hands of firefighters.
Early testing has had mixed results. Subjects were able to detect the presence or otherwise of objects with 93% success. Good news there. Changes in the proximity of objects was detected with 74% accuracy, while absolute position mapped to tactile stimuli had an accuracy rate of 57%. The researchers cited particular challenges as the width of the sensor signal cone, response time-lag and challenges of absolute judgement. These illustrate nicely the kind of nitty gritty technological difficulties that may need to be overcome in any R&D project.
A new type of skeleton crew
You will not be surprised to learn that the Military has an interest in cyborg technologies. And one area in particular with a lot of potential is in exoskeletons: mechanical frames, worn over the body that enhance strength, endurance and other physical attributes to create better performing soldiers. As with many things ‘military’, big spenders America are driving much of this technology. One R&D programme that they are working on, in conjunction with defence firm Lockheed Martin, is the Human Universal Load Carrier – or HULC for those of you with a vivid imagination.
A huge number of areas of R&D collide to produce a functioning exoskeleton: materials, sensors, control systems, software, field testing, energy source… Then strength, balance, durability, user experience to name a few, all have to be tested.
HULC is designed to fit around the body of infantry soldiers and provide enhanced strength for lifting and carrying. Crucially it is designed to avoid inhibiting freedom of movement so a soldier could use it in in a warzone without being more vulnerable. How is this achieved? The HULC is controlled via advanced sensors that are controlled by interpreting the soldier’s natural movements like walking or raising an arm. Significantly the sensors have to be nuanced enough to be able to tell the difference between voluntary movements and involuntary ones such as a sneeze.
The materials are strong and lightweight but it is constructed in such a way that the exoskeleton’s own weight, as well as the weight of heavy loads it is designed to carry, is directed straight to the ground and does not put any strain on the soldier’s body.
The real world benefits of application will include allowing soldiers to perform heavy lifting tasks without other specialist machinery, and operating in the field with heavy equipment whilst preserving energy for executing key parts of their mission. It will also reduce injuries associated with lifting and carrying heavy objects e.g. back strains.
Technical challenges still to overcome include incorporating armour without significantly adding to the weight, keeping a lid on costs given the expensive materials that are most appropriate, and optimising the power source.
We know you have been waiting to see this. Here is the HULC in action!
The back street world biohacking
Back to civvy street, and what, for now, appears to be the back street world of biohacking. This is a world of implants designed to enhance the human body: add new senses, report on biometric figures wherever your imagination takes you. At a simple level, and perhaps there is not much R&D here, it is implanting a magnet under the skin in the hand. Because there is not a medical need for this, it is an operation more likely to be performed by a tattoo parlour than a by a doctor. If it all sounds a bit underwhelming and unnecessary, it’s worth thinking about it in abstract terms. It adds a whole new sense to the human body – the ability to sense magnetic fields. That’s a rather wonderful thought. And it could have practical functions too, such as for a builder needing to find studs within a wall.
So what else is going on in biohacking?
Identity chips. These can be implanted in the fleshy area between the thumb and index finger and used to store data or activate secure doors, barriers or systems. The actual technology is much the same as on say an Oyster Card, it’s just…in your body. This does have some advantages, for instance it is more secure as it is harder for a crook to scan it with a card reader, and it’s considerably harder to lose! Even so, it’s not for the faint hearted.
Such magnetic and chip implants can hardly be regarded as mainstream, but they hint at what may be possible in the future. The scope for research and development in biohacking is huge: What enhancement is being sought? What materials should be used? How is the body protected? How does it interact with the outside world? The world’s largest tech companies are already hoovering up start-ups in the spheres of robotics, AI, and virtual reality. Surely young biohacking firms will join these ranks too.
Are you developing cyborg technology?
If you are developing technology that restores function in the human body, or enhances its capabilities in some way, talk to ForrestBrown about R&D tax credits. This government funded tax scheme is designed to encourage innovation in the UK and can let you recoup as much as 33% of your qualifying costs. Limited companies in the Defence, Medical and Tech sectors can all benefit. We can help you determine if you can claim, what costs qualify and optimise your claim to bring the best results for you.