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Media News Science Technology

Martina Caironi, Paralympians and prosthetics

martinacaironi

Last weekend I had the pleasure of talking to the Italian paralympian Martina Caironi. For those of you who might not know her, she won a Gold Medal in London in the 100 mtr T42 category in a new World Record time, Gold in the World Championships in the long jump and again in the 100 mtrs, and just last month took the World Record over 200 mtrs. This is her in the photo above, she is the fastest para-athletic woman on Earth.

I have long had an interest in prosthetics and the borderline between human and machine. Readers might remember the review of the film Fixed that I wrote last year, and some may even remember my first post here about elective amputation in favour of prosthetics.

So as you might imagine I had a lot to ask. Regarding where the human body ends and the prosthetic begins, Martina told me that the question is very much down to your own point of view. She said that she knows where her prosthesis is without looking, so it seems very much an extension of her body. She can stand on one leg. You would not even realize she was wearing it if you saw her walk across the street.

I wonder whether it actually becomes part of your body though, but I am not sure that this is the case. She explained that you have to learn how to use it, how much you can push without causing injury, and a great deal is down to the quality of the prosthesis. It definitely seems to be an instrument for her.

We also talked about parity between para and non para athletes. She said that in the UK there is parity, and the races have prizes. This is not however the case in all countries, and she gave me some examples where the race organizers “don’t even pay your hotel bill”. This was a debate that really took off in the UK after the London Olympics and Paraolympics. It was noted that gold medal winners in the Olympics go on to make a lot of money through sponsorship, but that paralympians do not always have the same opportunities.

If you search the Internet you find many examples of countries that offer the same prizes to both sets of athletes, but you also find articles that explain that paralympians are paid less because the governing bodies find it difficult to raise the same amount of sponsorship. I am pleased to say that Martina makes a living from her athletics today, and rightly so given her dedication.

If you would like to watch Martina winning her gold medal here it is.

I should tell you that I have known Martina for some years, she was one of my students when I was an English teacher in Italy. She lost the bottom half of one leg in a scooter accident, and for a while was on crutches as the wound healed and the prosthetic was prepared. The fitting process took some time, and was uncomfortable when it was not quite right, so we are dealing with a precise instrument that has to be well fitted. While running she uses a blade, if you are interested in learning how they work take a look here.

Most of Martina’s interviews that we find on the web are in Italian, which doesn’t say much for her charlatan English teacher, but one of the things that she maintains is that sport gives people who have lost some mobility the chance to push their limits. Instead of accepting limitations, it pushes the athlete into going ever further, acting as a positive force for well-being. It has given her the possibility of experiencing things that many of us might dream of, with the fortune of having access to such technology through a fine center of excellence here in Italy.

Readers might also want to take a look at the Robohand website. They use 3D printers to make prosthetics, and recently unveiled a project that aims to commercialize a prosthetic leg. I think this type of technology could bring vast improvements to the prosthetics world.

I also urge you to read this article by Erin Strait that is a free download. It describes the development of artificial legs in developing countries, the materials used and the costs. Some solutions are ingenious and not costly. See below for an artificial leg made from used bike parts, they cost less than a dollar each to make.

bike foot

Categories
Media Reviews Science

Fixed, a Film Review

A couple of weeks ago I went to a science conference called S.NET here in Boston. On the first day a film called Fixed was shown, followed by a discussion with the Director. The film was about commonly held beliefs about ‘disability’, and technological ‘fixes’ seen through the eyes of a series of people who use these fixes or work in the field. See the film website here.

My first post on Technology Bloggers was about elective amputation, and in that post I wanted to raise the idea that people may choose to replace parts of their body for better functioning prosthetic devices. This may seem far fetched, but today the US military are a leader in pioneering eye surgery. They operate on pilots with perfect vision in order to make it even better, see this article for a brief overview.

So this leads to questioning the entire idea of able bodied or not. And this is reflected in the title of the film. We are no longer able, now we can take drugs that enhance our learning, have the blemishes in our eyes touched up so that we see better than anyone else, and use body suits that give us super human strength.

It looks to me as if able just got better, but of course how far are we prepared to go? OK, once in a while I might think about helping my brain out a bit with a prescription drug, but of course not every day. Maybe just before my university exams though, and what when the other people in the office start using them every day? I will get left behind so I will have to join them, or should I stand by my ethical convictions and remain disabled?

But back to the film. The protagonists are an interesting lot. One makes bionic limbs, and uses a couple himself after a climbing accident. And he wouldn’t take our second rate skin and bone legs back for a moment! He can climb better, run up the stairs, doesn’t get cramp, can screw on a new foot when he needs different shaped toes, his legs are great.

Another follows one of my great interests, the implications of newly emerging technologies for prenatal screening. One is a test pilot, working for a company that is developing an exoskeleton that allows people with no leg use to walk, another at MIT working on human/machine collaborations, there is a biochemist and somebody who has had sensors fitted to his brain that allow him to use a robot arm through thought.

Not to mention the diving wheelchair.

Fixed
Fixed

The film speaks about ‘abelism’, an idea that leads to the possibility of using the dis prefix to describe somebody. The concept is obviously prejudicial and distinctly flawed, particularly today when our able state may not be as natural as we once thought.

There is a field called tranhumanism, more of a movement than a field, that celebrates the dynamic interplay between humanity and the acceleration of technology. There are many websites if you want to search the term. Practitioners see these developments as positive, a brave new future for an old model (the human).

There is a fine line here. Obviously helping someone who cannot walk is a great thing, but we might be moving towards improvement as a model, and no longer at fixing.

I would recommend the film to all. The website linked above has a trailer and list of upcoming screenings, and although it is not yet on general release, I think the film-makers would be pleased to receive contacts. Check out the Trailer here.

Categories
Media News

The Third Industrial Revolution

Recently there has been a lot of talk about a third industrial revolution in the making. It is of course that involving 3D printing. Take a look at the other articles on the website for an overview.

The thing about these machines is that they can produce individual tailor made objects at low cost, something that was not really possible in the days of mass production, when multiples were cheap but individual one off projects very expensive.

It is a contentious technology though for several reason, the first being its versatility. A few months ago we had the first fully printed gun, the plans were put online for free before being removed but only after more than 100 000 people downloaded them.100 000 more unlicensed guns in the world possibly. Check out this article.

Another reason is that these machines will completely change manufacturing. The old days of heavy machinery in production lines might be numbered, and this means that the power and financial strength that the organizations that have control of these systems currently posess is about to be lost.

So where should somewhere like MIT here in Cambridge MA stand? They have to support new technology, it is their job, but in doing so they might be undermining their own foundations, rooted as they are in large scale US industry.

3D Printed Prosthetic Hand
3D Printed Prosthetic Hand

As well as the printable gun though there are obviously a million good uses for this technology. Two weeks ago I mentioned an engineering company that is testing an aeroplane engine that uses printed parts, and in case of dire need you can now print a prosthetic hand for about $150 through an open source website. Read the article here.

Last week the Bassetti Foundation sponsored a series of events in San Francisco based around these problems. One of the main speakers was Chris Anderson, ex editor of Wired magazine and author of the book Makers, he is a leader in thinking on these matters. There is plenty of information on the website for interested readers, including videos of the symposium about the political and social implications of a move towards 3D printed manufacture.

3D Printed Motorbike
3D Printed Motorbike

Check out the photos too, here is a printed motorbike. They can produce far more than you imagine.

Categories
Festive Media Science Updates

Year End Update

As the year ends I would like to look at some of my post over the last year or so to give an update about what has unfolded since I wrote them.

2012 Ending
The End is Near

I will start with Citizen Science. In 2011 I wrote an article about online gamers as scientists, and this year a couple of posts touched upon the issue of citizen science.

Recently the UK press has carried a story about a WW2 carrier pigeon whose remains were found in a chimney. The bird had a capsule on its leg that contained a message in code. Experts were unable to understand the message so they released the data into the public domain in the hope that somebody would be able to decode it. A perfect example of citizen science, the use of the Internet to access millions of brains.

A gentleman in Ontario responded with what he believes is the meaning of the note, although debate is rife around the issue of verification. He claims that the code is from WW1 and nothing more than a series of acronyms. Read this BBC article for more.

Still way back in 2011 I wrote a post about prosthetic limb technology and the fact that someone had opted to amputate a hand in order to have a robotic replacement fitted. Recently doctors have reported great improvements in prosthetic control, including controlling the artificial limbs through thought.

This experimental science has been going on for some time now, with implants in the brain interpreting neuron activity in order to make the limb move. As sensors get better movement improves and so control is greater. This week researchers in the US have released video of a woman operating a robot hand through thought. Watch it here on the Independent newspaper site.

One thing that isn’t addressed in the press coverage that I feel is important is that the person does not have to be attached to the arm, they can operate it remotely. This must have implications for how research and the handling of dangerous materials may be treated in the future.

If you want to see where this technology might take us just have a look at this video reportedly of someone controlling a remote control quadcopter using only thought waves. Incredible stuff!

More recently I wrote a piece about the compulsory tagging of students in a Texas school district. The project has run into problems as one of the students was withdrawn and moved to another school for refusing to wear the tag on religious grounds. Read the report here.

Andrea Hernandez refused to wear the tag saying that the bar code it contained could be the mark of the beast, an interpretation she takes from the book of Revelation. When they removed the mark from the tag she continued to refuse to wear it however so was effectively expelled. She is taking the school to court over the matter presenting problems to all those involved in the project.

I also wrote about the MOSE project to protect Venice from the rising seawater that floods the city ever more frequently. Recent news (in Italian) states that the project will no longer be ready in 2014 (2012 was the original date set for completion) but will possibly be finished in 2016.

The major problem seems to be lack of money. The project budget has increased massively, and the economic crisis has meant that money is found piecemeal so that the work can continue.

I do not want to be too critical of the land that bore my wife and children, but unfinished engineering projects are not uncommon in Italy, let’s hope this one does not end like many others.

Next week I will be taking a self enforced holiday, so no post on Thursday. Happy winter solstice to all, enjoy the festivities, thanks to everyone who has read and/or commented over the last year and I will be back in the new year (presuming that the Mayans were mistaken).

Categories
Science Technology

Prosthetic limb technology and elective amputation

Recently on the BBC World Service I followed a news article about a young man who decided to have his hand amputated in order to have a prosthetic version fitted. His hand had been damaged in a motorbike accident and was not fully functioning, but was however still attached to his arm.

His decision rather took me aback, here was a person choosing to improve the performance of a hand with a replacement. This is fundamentally different to fitting a prosthetic hand to a person that has either lost one or was born without one. The problem seems to be in the quality of prosthetic limbs.

A prosthetic hand
An example of a high technology prosthetic hand

Prosthetic limbs can be operated through the existing muscle system, for example they can be attached to existing muscles in the arm or by using electrical impulses. In this case the muscle use generates an electrical impulse that makes the hand move.

Scientists are currently testing a system that works directly from the brain. Implants register the brain’s impulses and send them directly to the hand. You think about the movement and the hand moves.

There is another advantage too, sensors in the fingers can send signals back to the brain so the user can actually feel the object they are touching.

All of this raises some questions, soon technology will provide us with a fully functioning prosthetic hand that the user controls directly with their brain. It will be hard wearing, reliable and you can touch hot things without burning yourself, it will in fact be better that a human hand.

People might then have elective amputation in order to get one. Who can make legal and ethical decisions about such an intervention? This argument also has implications for sport. South African athlete Oscar Pistorius has recently qualified for the Olympic Games in London and will be competing with 2 prosthetic legs.

Oscar Pistorius - the fastest man on no legs
Nicknamed 'the fastest man on no legs' this is Oscar Pistorius in Greenwich London before next years Olympics

Here we are moving into a discussion about the confines of the human body, but also about enhancement. Maybe he even has an advantage over human legged athletes.

Have a look at Transcendent Man for a futurist view of how robotics and medicine in general might change humanity in the future.

Further discussion of the ethical and responsibility issues raised by scientific advancement and innovation can be found on the Bassetti Foundation website, including all the links relating to the stories above. I collaborate with the foundation and publish through their site.