When I watched the movies Avatar, Elysium or Iron Man, I was thinking about how great it would be to have those so called exoskeletons in real life letting paralyzed people walk again. And then science fiction became reality.
On a sunny day in November, 2013 I attended the Europe Summit organized by the Singularity University in Budapest at the amazing venue of the Franz Liszt Academy of Music. We listened to Amanda Boxtel, who got paralyzed from a spinal cord injury in a ski accident in Aspen, Colorado in 1992. She told us how she felt after getting the diagnosis of never being able to walk again and how she refused to stop dreaming. Since then, she has established adaptive ski programs, carried the Olympic torch, organized disabled rafting expeditions, and even conducted research in the Antarctica. She has also become one of the ambassadors of an innovative company called Ekso Bionics.
Their exoskeletons are used by individuals with various degrees of paralysis and stemming by a variety of causes. Ekso Bionics have helped individuals take more than a million steps that would not otherwise have been possible. Boxtel is one of ten Ekso Bionics test pilots who received a customized exoskeleton. According to Boxtel, the project “represents the triumph of human creativity and technology that converged to restore my authentic functionality in a stunningly beautiful, fashionable and organic design.”
See it in action:
Another story includes Hugh Herr, who directs the Biomechatronics research group at MIT’s Media Lab and gave an amazing TED talk in 2014. Herr lost both his legs in a climbing accident 30 years earlier. He spoke of his plan to make flexible, smart prosthetics cheaper and widely available for those who need them. His team is pioneering a new class of smart biohybrid prostheses and exoskeletons for people with physical disabilities. It builds prosthetic knees, legs, and ankles that fuse biomechanics with microprocessors in order to restore normal gait, balance, and speed. They may even enhance biological functions including strength or speed. At the end of his talk came a surprise. Ballroom dancer Adrianne Haslet–Davis, who lost her left leg in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, performed on stage for us for the first time since her accident.
A San Francisco based company, Bespoke Innovations, went further in customization to make beautifully designed prosthetics based on the patient’s needs and personality. Scott Summit, the designer at Bespoke, explained that in single amputees, the remaining leg is scanned and mirrored to give the correct geometry.
A recent study showed that flexible spinal cord implants will let paralyzed people walk again. These include “flexible electrodes, cracked gold electronic tracks and fluidic microchannels to deliver both electrical impulses and chemicals while mimicking the spine’s movements and avoiding friction”.
There is a reason to be optimistic! The advances of 3D printing lead to better, more comfortable and cheaper prosthetics, as well as exoskeletons. Having a disability should soon mean no disadvantage to a patient. Moreover, it might lead to unexpected advantages. The first Olympic Games for people with robotic protheses or powered exoskeletons will take place in Zurich, Switzerland in 2016. It is going to be a milestone.
The list of examples and real-life stories could go on forever and hopefully the group of powered exoskeletons is going to be the hottest example about how technology can truly improve people’s lives.
Read more about such stories, even neuroprosthetics and the ethical dilemmas we will soon have to face in in my book, The Guide to the Future of Medicine.