Beyond bionics: how the future of prosthetics is redefining humanity


Lose your arm and it’s like:
‘Oh, woe is me. Life sucks.’ Six years later, here I am,
hopefully about to develop some of the best technology
for people out there. Evolution hasn’t stopped just because
we are here. We probably are becoming
the first species that is capable to
influence its own evolution. I can have this hand look
any way I want. What if I don’t want a hand?
What if I want a tentacle? Modern advances
in the world of prosthetics are changing lives
across the globe. Where once there was stigma,
amputees are now empowered and enhanced. From low-cost
3D printed designs to hi-tech innovations,
I wanted to see how access to these
technologies has changed, what further developments
are around the corner and what ethical battles lie ahead. This is bionic actor
Angel Giuffria. Angel is a congenital amputee,
born without her left hand. Is it safer to do it
with your other arm? Yeah … We met up at her home
on Louisiana’s Pearl River. My mum was put on bed rest
a few weeks before I was born, had no idea that I was going
to have one arm. She happened to see
a programme on TV, no joke, about the first ever
myoelectrics for children being brought into the United States. She cried the whole thing, right? Because she was pregnant. ‘These babies, they are giving them arms,
that’s so great’, right? And then, two weeks later,
she has a baby, missing her hand. My mum was like: ‘Oh great,
I know where I can get her one.’ And everyone thought
she had lost it, right? She was like: ‘These tiny little robot hands,
I’ve seen them for babies.’ Angel is the youngest baby in the world
to receive a myoelectric arm. Surprisingly, many doctors
are still in the dark about today’s
prosthetics technology. They just, with ultrasound,
thought her arm was in a shadow. So, we didn’t know,
until right then. They were telling me
that I would have to put a harness on our little girl that was controlled by a pulley
that opened a hook. Prosthetics technology has gone
from hooks, like this, to hands with limited motion, like this. In the future they will look and move
like this. And I will tell you this thing
is kind of heavy. Let’s see – oh goodness. First day of school,
we’d stand up in front of the class, just from when I was five years old, and then I would talk about my arm. I would take it off
and I would show it to them. I thought it was so cool. I never thought there was
an issue with my arm. And then, I met kids
and I met other adults and I started to realise that
everyone doesn’t think this is as cool as I do. You know, I had kids
that were afraid of me. I had a kid that cried
when I took off my arm. What kind of a toll
do you think that took on you? I have one hand. A big thing about this one was I was tired of telling people
that I had one hand. We’re having a conversation,
say we just met, and the whole time
in my head I’d be going: ‘Did they notice yet? Did they notice yet?
Did they notice yet?’ And I was like: ‘Oh they noticed.
OK, I should probably bring it up.’ Like you would see
them do this and be like: ‘OK, something’s wrong with her hand’, right? This was the first of
the multi-articulating hands. It had a glove over it
and I didn’t like it. So I took it off. Look how big it is. It’s heavy as well. Yes, this was the first hand
that came out. With an arm like this, I would image it’s
a lot more empowering. This is now mine.
I designed this. This looks the way
I want it to look. So, I think it helps a lot with
wanting to wear the device, wanting to learn
to use the device. This is out there
and this is OK. And I think that
does get rid of a lot of the stigma
that’s attached to it. Because stigma implies
it’s something you should be embarrassed about
and we’re not. A cutting-edge bionic arm like Angel’s
can cost upwards of £20,000 but even people without access
to such funds have options thanks to the revolution
in 3D printing. I paid a visit to Callum and Jamie Miller
at their home in County Durham. This arm is all 3D printed,
most of it in plastic except from the part where it connects
to all of the fingers which helps me move it. All of these, they can’t move
unless you pull it there. So, when I do that it makes
me clench my fist. After finding out
that the waiting list for a printed prosthetic arm
was 18 months long, Callum struck upon an idea. Some advert just popped up on my
Facebook page for a 3D printer. 3D technology, I’ve never dealt with it,
never done anything with it at all. It is mesmerising.
You just sit there watching it doing something, gazing at it
just printing something from nothing at the end of the day. How long do you find yourself
wearing them? If I am comfortable,
like for the first hour, than I am probably comfortable
for the next five hours. Can you release it? It makes me feel emotional
when I watch him doing stuff for the first time. ‘Oh my god!’ Creating your own prosthetic
arms at home means an inevitable fusion
of the ordinary with the extraordinary. This is what, three months since
you got the printer? So, what’s next? We’ve looked at the myo-electronics
which work on muscle movements those senses then go to
turn a motor to open and close, which means he’s not
having to bend anymore. Do you think it’s brought
you closer together? I don’t think we’re
any closer now than we were
before Christmas, are we? Not really. We talk to each
other a lot more. Do we?
[Laughs] In Mcdonough, Georgia,
I caught up with musician Jason Barnes. Hi Jason. Hey, how is it going? Good, thank you! We listened for the drums
and just kept coming. Oh, yeah … Unlike Angel and Jamie,
Jason is an acquired amputee, having lost his hand in an accident at work. Wrong place,
wrong time scenario, a transformer overloaded and arced
a bolt of electricity into my back. When it happened, I was standing
in a puddle of water with rubber boots on. So the electricity, I wasn’t grounded,
so it couldn’t pass through me. So that’s where
it did the damage, it went to the left side
and exited through the right side of my body. I woke up in the hospital
and had no idea what happened. I just remember being burnt
and the explosion sound. So I was just like,
‘did something like blow up or like something happened,
you know?’ And they were like:
‘no, you got electrocuted.’ And I was just like: ‘what?’
I had no idea. Jason doesn’t remember anything … We didn’t even know
what hospital was he in. I didn’t even know
where he was working that day and he was just totally burnt,
you know, his eyebrows and eye lashes
were singed off. His doctors said: ‘OK, we are going to take
him off to surgery.’ And I said: ‘Surgery? why?’ And they said ‘Well, because
we have to splay his arm open.’ It was horrible. We talked and, you know,
when we made the decision to amputate his arm,
he just kind of broke down in my arms
and said: ‘Mum, I’m never gonna play the drums again
and my life’s over.’ You know, that’s what he thought. I was depressed beyond
the normal person at that point in time.
I finally was like here recovering and I just got so bored one day
that’s when I dragged the drum kit out and I was like: ‘You know, I’m gonna
tape the drumstick to my arm.’ And then started playing I will never forget that feeling,
but when I went out there playing it was just like: ‘I can still do this.’
You know what I mean? This is the turning point.
There’s no point in trying to stop. Jason took me to
Georgia Tech University in Atlanta, where he’s been
working with musician and inventor Gil Weinberg
on several limb adaptations that push at
the boundaries of music. He wanted to recreate
the motion of the wrist so he can hold the stick tight but then I asked him
if he’s willing to play with us and do something different and more.
By having a second stick, now Jason can create
all kind of polyrhythms because one of them can play
19-hits-per-second the other one can play
20-hits-per-second and create all kind of sophisticated
rhythms that no [other] humans can do. And this very much bridges
the biological and the technological. We later figured it out
that with ultrasound we can actually have much more control. We can try to predict finger-by-finger,
continuous control of each finger based on how his muscles in there,
in your residual limb move. So that would be my pinky
and then this would be my index. So the image looks completely different
in the ultrasound. How does the
ultrasound technology compare to the traditional
electrode approach? With ultrasound, it allows
for individual finger control and continuous control
on top of it. What’s being done at the moment
to improve what you have here? All the hardware built into
the arm so it doesn’t have to be connect to a computer
and everything’s smaller so we could eventually,
hopefully, replace the more traditionally
used EMG technology. There’s a great deal of research going on
at the moment in this field – kind of where robotics and science,
and medicine all kind of meet – but a lot of this work
is perhaps a bit more invasive but potentially can yield
even greater results. I am not in the position
to ask Jason even though I am sure
he would say yes, to inject something
into his body or to implant something
into his brain. If anyone would do it
it’s probably Jason but I would like
a doctor to do that and we will be excited to see
what they come up with. Scientists at Duke University
in North Carolina, are working on such research
with profound implications for the future of our species. So this is … The tiny little sensors,
these are wires, micro-wires, that are implanted in the brain,
from where you can record the electrical signals produced
by neurons. This is the electronics
that I applied on top of it to basically amplify, filter
and broadcast these signals. Miguel Nicolelis is
a Brazilian neuroscientist who rose to prominence in 2014
when his mind-powered exoskeleton helped a paralysed man
deliver the first kick of the World Cup. And we are showing to the world,
that there is hope. Getting a paraplegic to move …
Here we were, using science and the human spirit
to do it. And he did,
it was a humble kick it was a tiny thing compared
to what would come in the future, of course,
but the symbolism, of that moment, for me,
I will never forget. I mean, it was incredible. Miguel invited me into his lab,
where he recreated an example of his current research
for our camera. We have here a wheelchair,
driven by the brain of the monkey that is trying to reach
the location in the room where he can collect a reward. This monkey is imagining
the kind of trajectory that he has to produce
to get there. How necessary is it that we do
this research with animals? I introduced this concept
in 1999/2000 with two papers one in rats
and one in monkeys that are describing what is considered today
the modern configuration of a brain-machine interface. About 14 years later, we made eight
paraplegic patients walk again for the first time in a decade. I think the justification
is pretty obvious, very clear. As soon as we started
doing that, we realised that the
brain-machine interfaces could be very useful
for a new generation of prosthetic devices. Are there dangers
around this technology? I am much more concerned
about we mimicking our digital machines. We probably are becoming
the first species that is capable to influence
its own evolution by what it produces:
our technology. Because we are creating
complete new constrains on how humans, socialise,
communicate, mate … So, we are actually creating
a new pathway, without even knowing. What is humanity? An increasingly complex
evolutionary process guided and enabled
by science and technology. What kind of arm do you think
you might have in 10 years time? Unrealistically, I would like to see
a hand almost fully functional, you know, sensory feedback,
hot and cold pressure sensitive. [Music] When we invented the wheel
and engineered spacecraft, we transcended our limitations. In the 21st century, we are now
fast-approaching the age of the cybernetic being (unclear)
and genetically modified. This is trans-humanism. There is definitely a positive.
Every single bad thing or negative thing that happens,
there is something good that comes out of it.
You’ve just got to find it sometimes and run with it, you know? Do you fancy a
proper bionic arm that you can feel everything
just like the other hand it has sensory feedback? I am not sure really because I want
to know how you get it and if you need to do anything
else to your arm and stuff. Well, I suppose you’d need
to have maybe even some implants in your brain
and things like that. I might just stick
with the sensors. Yeah. Fair enough. Stop it. Looking at Angel now,
could you ever have imagined that she’d be sitting here with
all bionic limb with flashing lights? We were told one day she would
have every finger and you know, it would happen. I am very, very proud of her.
Like, I always say when I grow up
I want to be just like her because she was just
like I asked for. She was perfect. How does that make you feel? I say it all the time when
she’s not around, right? I get to talk about of how much
she did for me and I don’t tell her enough
to her face, I guess, that it matters, and it’s important
and I am so happy you are my mum and that I had you
cheering me on and making me feel proud
of being different and not that different was bad. Around my life I have people
that say things: ‘Wow, I like your arm
better than mine,’ or ‘I might get one of those.’ When you start thinking,
if someone’s voluntarily replacing their limbs … Ethics, when it comes to bionics,
robotics, AI, all these things are going to be huge. Can you do everything? You can even text? I can text if I want to, yeah.
– Oh my god! I mean … We need to make sure
that we are prepared for these kind of issues
because we are not going to be ready for it
and then it’s going to happen. and then we go:
‘how do we handle it?’ How long you even had it? Oh, hell yeah!
That’s awesome as hell. There’s going to be
restrictions eventually and they’re going to say:
‘you can’t do that.’ Why not? You know, why can’t I do
the things that I want? People that have the need
to make these modifications to their bodies, they can. But they have the choice.

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