Monday, October 11, 2010

Gadgets, Gizmos & Technology

I recently read (and posted) an article about Berkley Bionics new "eLEGS" exoskeleton, for paraplegics. I'd heard of, and seen similar prototypes on television shows ( mostly on the Science channel), discussing futuristic military equipment and upcoming medical technology, in addition to this particular article. Being an avid anime fan and science fiction geek, means I'm no stranger to the concept of bio-tech gadgets, likemecha suits, holobands, exoskeletons, android, robotic and avatar like devices. Science fiction is becoming fact, for many of these types of devices. We've begun mixing man with machine, in order to enhance our abilities, entertain and excite our senses, as well as return function, to those who have lost abilities, due to injury, or disease. While I view these technologies as helpful, and interesting, I tend to get frustrated and resentful at the thought of having to rely on machinery, instead of my own physiology. It's one thing to use gadgets for enhancement, or excitement, like video games, simulators, sensory stimulation (like HD tv, surround sound & 3D movies), or even rides. It's entirely different to be dependent on machinery, to move, feel, or function. While I'll admit, it's a first step (no pun intended) towards regaining function, I see gadgets as temporary compromises, and have a limited amount of enthusiasm towards them. Machines are just one more compromise, in a life already saturated with compromises, modifications, adjustments and having to settle, with what I have.

If you're not into gadgets, and technology, you'd probably be amazed to know some of the current technologies that we already process, and/or that are being developed in the here and now. I've seen pacemaker like devices, to assist in breathing (Christopher Reeve used this technology). There are devices that allow people to remotely control their limbs, bowel, bladder, and sexual function. I've also seen devices that actually "plug-in" to a persons brain, to allow them to operate a computer. There are devices that use eye movements to control computers, or machines. There's also a company out there that has developed a gaming system that is controlled by headgear, which recognizes various electrical impulses sent out from the brain. I even saw a prototype for a body suit that can receive sensory stimulation, meant to be worn and connected to the computer, which partners could use to send sensory signals to one another (essentially taking virtual intimacy to whole new level). I find technology, machines and computers fascinating, and enjoy reading and watching about them. However, for as much as I'm intrigued by mechanical engineering and technology, I'm equally frustrated by it. I feel as though machines both liberate and limit us, and get frustrated by the amount of time, energy, money, and brain power that our society invests in them. In the end, what good are machines, if there is no one is able to use them. Why focus on machinery, instead of our own bodies? Shouldn't we discover how we work first? Shouldn't we unravel all the mysteries of ourselves first? I think more emphasis needs to be put on humanity and health. Let's understand how to work with the biology we were born with, and how to fix it, instead of settling for compromises, or worrying about enhancements.

It boggles my mind how much money and time is spent on trying to find answers to questions of curiosity or weapons of destruction. Most space exploration is a huge waste of resources, in terms of practical, tangible knowledge, yet we spend BILLIONS each year on it. Although it's tantalizing to think of discovering other Earth like planets (none of which we have -even remotely close- the technology to actual reach in a single lifetime), or microorganisms deep inside the water, that may, or may not be beneath Jupiter's moon's surface, none of it is practical information. What benefits can humanity hope to gain through this type of research? How can we apply the information we learn from the billions being spent on projects like exploring Europa (Jupiter's moon)? The answer is, we can't. The type of life we hope to find in space is either too far away to reach, or so insignificantly small, that it has nothing to offer us, other than quenching our thirst for knowledge. Sure, there's a ton of interesting mysteries in our universe that are worth answering, but to what extent? Doesn't it seem logical to prioritize our time and energy, and first unravel the mysteries of our own bodies, ourselves? Why is it acceptable that we can't fix the spinal cord, but we can justify diverting resources to building weapons, exploring deep space, or building better gadgets? Shouldn't we ask ourselves how the things we do impact life; how they can improve the quality of life? I don't think it's just, that in the year 2010 people are still suffering with ailments like paralysis and cancer, which have plagued humanity for centuries (probably forever, but we didn't have the technology to detect or manage them). It's alarming to me, that geniuses, like Steven Hawking (especially ironic, in his case, in particular) prefer to use their incredible minds to answer fascinating, yet often low priority riddles, in terms of the concrete impact the information they gather has on everyday life. Don't get me wrong, I know quantum physics and associations like CERN, and NASA do offer us with some practical applications, like satellites, GPS, nuclear fusion, etc.. Unfortunately, a large bulk of effort is spent on impractical priorities, like searching for extraterrestrial life, "God particles," and explanations on dark matter. That's all well and good, but can't we worry about that stuff AFTER we figure out ourselves?

Another reason why I'm not personally jumping for joy (figuratively, of course) about this new technology, is that the Berkley Bionics exoskeleton is designed for paraplegics. You need to have a functioning upper body in order to operate it, which I don't. It's touted as being relatively lightweight in design (compared to similar prototypes), although it includes a leg/foot cast apparatus, two arms poles and a backpack (which I'm assuming is the battery). It looks bulky and cumbersome to me, however let's face it, a wheelchair is no better. The device requires the user to be able to transfer his/her lower extremities into the device, fasten all the straps, put on the backpack, and grab onto the arm poles, all before even being able to stand up. Even so, if I had a functioning upper body, I'd gladly trade in my set of wheels for a suit, regardless. The health benefits of wearing the exoskeleton far outweigh any hassles, that will surely come along with using it. Being able to bear weight on your bones is crucial. After five years of sitting, I'm sure my bones are equivalent to those of a ninety year old woman. Being able to walk , upright also has countless other medical benefits for circulation, and digestion. Despite the bulkiness and awkwardness of having to strap on so much paraphernalia, I'm sure users will have more confidence and self worth, as compared to rolling around it a chair. The one woman quoted in the article, mentions that fact. I own a tilt table, which allows me to bear weight on my bones, but it's no where near as helpful as actual locomotion. Not to mention, in a tilt table, or standing frame, you're strapped in and stationary, so you can't really interact with the environment in any productive sense. Since I have no functional upper body control, my trunk is to weak to remain upright, so it must be strapped down, to avoid me from falling forward. Plus, I have no functional arm/hand control, which makes interacting with my environment a mute point. For paraplegics however, this type of technology is very exciting. It would give people with lower extremity paralysis back much more independence, and dignity. If you watch the video demonstrations of her using the exoskeleton, you see her being able to stand eye level with her best friend, and be able to embrace her, standing up. The medical and therapeutic possibilities are amazing, but things like being able to stand next to a loved one, and hug them are priceless.

Like I said earlier, it's a stepping stone, to giving people back their independence and self confidence.Gadgets are ok, but they'll never be as good as the body I was born with. All the machines in the world can not replace all that paralysis takes away. Having to rely on a machine, is not that much better than having to rely on another person. Dependence, is dependence, no matter how you slice it. Reliance on machinery is a step up from relying on people, because it gives us the illusion of more control, and gives us a boost of confidence, in having the dignity of privacy to handle matters ourselves. However, machines have their own limitations and obstacles. The fact that the exoskeleton will rely on electricity is a key example of limitations. Yes, the user will have more control over assuring that they charge the battery, or have backups. You can control maintenance on a machine, and have reliable back up plans, more so than the unpredictability or control over a human aide. However, machines will only ever be a compromised version of our "God given" abilities. Another example of this is the fact that users of the exoskeletons will be able to walk, but will not be able to feel. The exoskeleton will give paraplegics back locomotion, but not sensation. The exoskeleton will not solve the second biggest (or first most, depending on your point of view) problem of paralysis, which is the lack of feeling. Users will be able to take a step, but unable to feel their feet touching the ground. The exoskeleton solves the problem of getting around, but doesn't even begin to address other aspects of paralysis: incontinence, sexual function, pain and/or numbness. The exoskeleton has a much greater potential to help newly injured people, retain abilities, while the body still possess muscle memory, but will not be able to address those concerns, in people that have been paralyzed for years. That is why, the best "cure" or solution, is always going to be, first and foremost, the reparation of the spinal cord itself. There is just no equal substitute to the biological wiring within our own bodies. That is where the great majority of the research, time and energy needs to be. It'll be nice for some people to get around, in the interim, but please, just give me back my body. I'm happy for those people that will benefit from this technology, and agree that every little bit helps. I'll use whatever I can, to improve my independence, but all I want is my own body. It's not enough to just go through the motions. I don't just want to move; I want to FEEL. I want to be able to truly experience every aspect of walking again. That's part of what's so hard about a spinal cord injury; it's that I KNOW what it's like to run, dance, walk, swim, and ride a bike. I remember what I'm missing, and I want it ALL back. I want to be truly independent, and not have to worry about having to buy replacement parts, rely of batteries, on mechanics to live my life. I want people to see the whole picture, and think about what counts most. Let's focus on the core problem and refocus priorities to the most basic of human necessities, health and independence. Granted, figuring out how to control and repair the central nervous system is highly more complex, than building machines, I get that. However, shouldn't that be all the more reason, for pushing for MORE support, and extra emphasis, on solving the REAL problem?

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