Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Rise of the Machines

The reviews of the forth film in the Terminator series, Terminator Salvation, were frequently scathing and opened up many questions as to the technology of the machines (who builds the machines and why can’t their weapons be more hardcore?), but what kind of cyborg technology is actually available?

Surely by now we are close to inventing robotic eyes that can see in the dark and mechanical legs that can run super fast? If I wanted to shed this mortal shell and climb into something a bit more, well, futuristic, what could I hope to get for my pains?

A “cyborg” is a cybernetic organism, or any organism that contains technology to replace or enhance part of the natural body. This theoretically entails that wearing contact lenses or wearing a hearing-aid makes one a cyborg, but a more accurate definition would be an animal who has bionics or robotics implanted into their body.

With troops deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan, the need for prosthetic limbs has increased massively in recent years. Prostheses technology is now capable of allowing somebody with no arm or leg to control an artificial limb with their thought alone. The replacement limbs not only look relatively natural but allow them do many of the simple tasks previously unavailable to them as a result of the amputation.

The C-Leg, developed by prostheses pioneers Otto Bock Healthcare, is an example of a neurally-controlled artificial limb. Its multiple sensors receive signals 50 times a second that are processed into a determination of where the amputee wishes to move their limb. A microprocessor then sends the signals to a hydraulic cylinder that can rotate and extend the knee accordingly. The revolutionary technology essentially guesses your next move and adjusts accordingly. It stiffens to support you if you seem like you will trip or stumble and relaxes to a natural gait while walking. It enables the amputee to change speed and tackle hills without any awkward jerks.

The iLimb is a prosthetic hand that reads electronic muscle signals generated in the remaining muscles of the amputee’s arm and moves accordingly. Each finger moves independently and has a high degree of sensitivity. Scottish manufacturer, Touch Bionics, explain: The “built in stall detection tells each individual finger when it has sufficient grip on an object and, therefore, when to stop powering”. The technology is a huge leap from that which proceeded. Never before have amputees had the option of such a visually realistic prosthetic with such a degree of manual dexterity.

Any machine needs power. A mechanical heart is available, but currently only for patients with very particular characteristics: they must be older than 18 and suffer from heart failure so severe that, despite the height of medical care, they are expected to die within 30 days. The AbioCor artificial heart is the first self-contained and implantable artificial heart that can keep people functional. The patient would not need tubes protruding through the skin and would not be bedridden. Only a small battery pack, worn on a belt, is needed to keep the AbioCor pumping. The first one was implanted in July 2001 and the patient lived for an extra 151 days. The second patient was given less than 20% chance of surviving 30 days before the operation, but lived for 512 days after receiving the new heart.

There is technology available, pioneered by a team from the University of Southern California, that restores some vision to those with certain forms of blindness but it is currently reliant on the user wearing large dark glasses that house a small camera. To simplify, the camera sends information to a retinal implant via electrodes. The message is received by the brain allowing the user to make out dots of light and dark equal to the number of electrodes. The Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System has so far been successful in clinical trials using 16 electrodes and it is currently being tested with 60.

The Boston Retinal Implant Project has an even more remarkable mission statement. Their aim is to develop an implantable prosthesis to restore vision to patients with certain forms of blindness. Their website claims that they have already created an “ultra thin (several times thinner than a human hair), flexible, wireless micro-electronic device” which houses a chip that will control delivery of electrical pulses to the retina. They have performed hours long electrical stimulation studies in humans and are waiting for authorisation to fix long-term implants into patients. If successful, sufferers of certain forms of blindness will face having their vision restored with technology that will not be visible on their body.

Most of the body can, amazingly, now be exchanged for an artificial counterpart. Artificial livers, new skin grown from stem cells, pneumatic muscles and bionic lungs and stomachs are already a commercial reality and, as ever, the technology is getting better rapidly. Maybe our kids and grandchildren will save money to buy eyes that can zoom and see in the dark, or lungs that can deal with having water inside them. Watch out John Connor- the machines may be coming!


C Leg:




Testing Times for the Printed Page

It is a question that has been mulled by many; sitting in the office while scrolling down, or riding the underground with a LondonLitelyinteresting, or flipping through that glossy mag, or even curled comfortably, captured by the words on paper pages being turned by calm fingers. It is a question laced with ominous undertones. Is the internet going to destroy print?

Jeff Jarvis, journalist and blogger, certainly thinks so. He wrote on, his controversial blog, that books, “Are frozen in time without the means of being corrected or updated.” He continued his diatribe: “They are expensive. They can’t afford to serve the real mass of niches. They aren’t searchable [or] linkable. They carry no conversation.” A pertinent point: “They try to teach readers but don’t teach authors.”

In Fast Company, a glossy business magazine, Jarvis makes a point that rings loudly at this time when Whos Jack has recently made the move to print: “Is our conversation better for being on this slick paper? No it’s not because only two of us are in it when we know that the collective wisdom of the people holding this page is greater than our own. We should be having this conversation together.”

Although holding weight, I think his arguments miss some points. Apart from economical / ecological issues, I see no problem with print being “frozen in time”. In fact I consider it a benefit. Opinions and ideas change over time and one can gain a deeper understanding of an author by how they evolve. If the articles are deleted from the internet due to vanity or politics, the reader will be denied this.

Saying books “Carry no conversation” is like saying watching sport carries no conversation. Neither offer a chance of audience reciprocation but they do offer something to think about, put faith in and, indeed, have a conversation about. Viewers absorb both sport and text and, if they are interested in what they are watching or reading, they will want to talk to others about the subject. Authors’ opinions offer something to think about and it only shows a lack of maturity in the reader if they accept what is written without question.

But is print currently in decline?

A survey from the National Endowment for the Arts, in the USA, had a shock effect back in 2004 when they published results claiming that, “Literary reading is in dramatic decline with fewer than half of American adults reading literature.” The survey also found that there had been a fall in literature readers of 10 per cent between 1982 and 2002. The then NEA chairman, Dana Gioia, mongered some fear with the stark claim that the findings, “Document a national crisis”.

Could this represent an international trend and does it signify an ailing print industry? Apparently not. A Publishers Weekly article documented that commercial publishers worldwide published 39 per cent more books in 2007 than 2006. Elementary economics suggests this is responding to a higher demand. Furthermore, according to UNESCO, new titles published in the UK had risen by 28 per cent in 2005-06 (although in the ‘States they had indeed dropped by 18 per cent). The UK now leads the world in number of books published per annum.

Electronic book readers and ebooks have proven themselves to be popular, with over 30 000 readers and more than 100 000 ebooks being sold by Waterstones bookstore since the store first stocked the range in September of last year. The Amazon Kindle, an ebook reader sold exclusively on, apparently sold out within five and a half hours when it was released in the USA in November 2007. The device shows pages from books and newspapers, which are purchased and downloaded. Now in its third generation, the gadget has proven to be immensely popular. Sites such as allow users to download from a selection of more than 100 000 ebooks, with over 30 000 of them for no charge.

But these stats don’t imply that a majority will forget about paper books altogether. A spokesman for Waterstones bookstore was vague about whether the company felt the ebook to be a real threat to the traditional book: “Books as we know them have been around for hundreds of years and we expect them to be around for many more to come. Ebooks offer another way to enjoy them and we anticipate that books in both print and electronic form can look forward to a long future.”