While we aren’t quite at the point where humans are shooting lasers from our hands, or reading thoughts with in-built chips, biomechanics are certainly making our bodies better, healthier, and more…superhuman than ever before.
Biomedical engineering ensures that there are fewer medical life sentences than ever before. Exoskeletons to help quadriplegics walk, bionic contact lenses, artificial hearts and livers; they’re all revolutionary ways that we’re making our bodies better.
It’s what’s on the outside that counts
When thinking about technology of the future, people might think about hoverboards and self-tying shoelaces, or immunity and hyper-intelligence. While we’re definitely decades off a realistic Iron man-style suit, we’ve definitely made huge strides in the world of biomechanics.
The first big step was Hardiman, which was the first prototype of a powered exoskeleton. That name came from ‘Human Augmentation Research and Development Investigation’, and it was created in the ’60s by General Electrics.
But Hardiman wasn’t used as a revolutionary treatment, or a rehabilitation device. Nah, the first version of a human exoskeleton was a capitalist venture. High five, humanity!
I guess the theory was that if the company turned it’s puny, useless human staff into crazy-strong robotic staff, then they could just shoot stock right out the door. They hoped that the device would drastically increase human strength, and allowed the person using the device to lift and hold up to 680 kg!
But…it also weighed 680kg. It’s biggest selling point was also, unfortunately, it’s biggest downfall.
Bet that guy is picking up heaps of chicks with that hand!
Thankfully, we’ve come SO far since the ’60s. It’s no longer chunky robot suits built for commercial use. Technological advancements have given us slick exoskeletons that are personalised, adjustable, and part of the day-to-day activities of many.
One such advancement is ReWalk, a bionic suit designed by Israeli inventor Dr Amit Goffer, who became a quadriplegic after a car crash.
“We’re all driven by Dr Goffer,” says ReWalk CEO Larry Jasinski. “We’re all driven by his original thought, which was, ‘There’s got to be a better way than spending a lifetime in a wheelchair’.”
ReWalk uses motion sensors attached to leg braces and motorised joints. Responding to changes in upper-body movement, the device is popularly used in rehabilitation. Considering the huge limitations that wheelchairs can impose, responsive exoskeletons like these ones are truly life changing.
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Better than 20/20 vision
“Cover your left eye and read down the chart. What do you see?”
“Ummm, A, T, Y, I… or is that an L?”
Yep, the standard of 20/20 vision isn’t attainable for many. Especially old peeps – they get a really bad deal with eyesight.
But the wizards of biomechanics are two steps ahead, and will soon make glasses and contact lenses redundant. Except for those coloured ones that everyone wears on Halloween. They’ll probably stick around.
Enter the bionic lens. A tiny incision in the eye can insert a lens that focuses at all distances, like a camera. Taking our natural human processes, like focussing sight, and improving them with materials that aren’t suceptible to cataracts or glaucoma is remarkable. And just one step away from legit robot.
Garth Webb, who developed the Ocumetics Bionic Lens, told CBC “At age 45 I had to struggle with reading glasses, which like most people, I found was a great insult. To this day I curse my progressive glasses. I also wear contact lenses, which I also curse just about every day. My heroes were cowboys, and cowboys just did not wear glasses.”
His bionic lens promises vision that is three times better than 20/20. Just read that one back again.
It seems that a constant in biomedical advances is personal experience. Webb designed his bionic lens out of the shame of poor eyesight, and Goffer’s exoskeleton mightn’t have taken shape if not for the car accident that altered his worldview. The development of science is personal, and seeks to solve problems. The Hardiman, although commercial, solved the problem of human limitations.
It just so happens that, in solving humankind’s little problems, sometimes we stumble upon a superhuman improvement.