Category Archives: human enhancement

Bidirectional prosthetic-brain communication with light?

The possibility of not only being able to make a prosthetic that allows a tetraplegic to grab a coffee but to feel that coffee  cup with their ‘hand’ is one step closer to reality according to a Feb. 22, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

Since the early seventies, scientists have been developing brain-machine interfaces; the main application being the use of neural prosthesis in paralyzed patients or amputees. A prosthetic limb directly controlled by brain activity can partially recover the lost motor function. This is achieved by decoding neuronal activity recorded with electrodes and translating it into robotic movements. Such systems however have limited precision due to the absence of sensory feedback from the artificial limb. Neuroscientists at the University of Geneva (UNIGE), Switzerland, asked whether it was possible to transmit this missing sensation back to the brain by stimulating neural activity in the cortex. They discovered that not only was it possible to create an artificial sensation of neuroprosthetic movements, but that the underlying learning process occurs very rapidly. These findings, published in the scientific journal Neuron, were obtained by resorting to modern imaging and optical stimulation tools, offering an innovative alternative to the classical electrode approach.

A Feb. 22, 2017 Université de Genève press release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

Motor function is at the heart of all behavior and allows us to interact with the world. Therefore, replacing a lost limb with a robotic prosthesis is the subject of much research, yet successful outcomes are rare. Why is that? Until this moment, brain-machine interfaces are operated by relying largely on visual perception: the robotic arm is controlled by looking at it. The direct flow of information between the brain and the machine remains thus unidirectional. However, movement perception is not only based on vision but mostly on proprioception, the sensation of where the limb is located in space. “We have therefore asked whether it was possible to establish a bidirectional communication in a brain-machine interface: to simultaneously read out neural activity, translate it into prosthetic movement and reinject sensory feedback of this movement back in the brain”, explains Daniel Huber, professor in the Department of Basic Neurosciences of the Faculty of Medicine at UNIGE.

Providing artificial sensations of prosthetic movements

In contrast to invasive approaches using electrodes, Daniel Huber’s team specializes in optical techniques for imaging and stimulating brain activity. Using a method called two-photon microscopy, they routinely measure the activity of hundreds of neurons with single cell resolution. “We wanted to test whether mice could learn to control a neural prosthesis by relying uniquely on an artificial sensory feedback signal”, explains Mario Prsa, researcher at UNIGE and the first author of the study. “We imaged neural activity in the motor cortex. When the mouse activated a specific neuron, the one chosen for neuroprosthetic control, we simultaneously applied stimulation proportional to this activity to the sensory cortex using blue light”. Indeed, neurons of the sensory cortex were rendered photosensitive to this light, allowing them to be activated by a series of optical flashes and thus integrate the artificial sensory feedback signal. The mouse was rewarded upon every above-threshold activation, and 20 minutes later, once the association learned, the rodent was able to more frequently generate the correct neuronal activity.

This means that the artificial sensation was not only perceived, but that it was successfully integrated as a feedback of the prosthetic movement. In this manner, the brain-machine interface functions bidirectionally. The Geneva researchers think that the reason why this fabricated sensation is so rapidly assimilated is because it most likely taps into very basic brain functions. Feeling the position of our limbs occurs automatically, without much thought and probably reflects fundamental neural circuit mechanisms. This type of bidirectional interface might allow in the future more precisely displacing robotic arms, feeling touched objects or perceiving the necessary force to grasp them.

At present, the neuroscientists at UNIGE are examining how to produce a more efficient sensory feedback. They are currently capable of doing it for a single movement, but is it also possible to provide multiple feedback channels in parallel? This research sets the groundwork for developing a new generation of more precise, bidirectional neural prostheses.

Towards better understanding the neural mechanisms of neuroprosthetic control

By resorting to modern imaging tools, hundreds of neurons in the surrounding area could also be observed as the mouse learned the neuroprosthetic task. “We know that millions of neural connections exist. However, we discovered that the animal activated only the one neuron chosen for controlling the prosthetic action, and did not recruit any of the neighbouring neurons”, adds Daniel Huber. “This is a very interesting finding since it reveals that the brain can home in on and specifically control the activity of just one single neuron”. Researchers can potentially exploit this knowledge to not only develop more stable and precise decoding techniques, but also gain a better understanding of most basic neural circuit functions. It remains to be discovered what mechanisms are involved in routing signals to the uniquely activated neuron.

Caption: A novel optical brain-machine interface allows bidirectional communication with the brain. While a robotic arm is controlled by neuronal activity recorded with optical imaging (red laser), the position of the arm is fed back to the brain via optical microstimulation (blue laser). Credit: © Daniel Huber, UNIGE

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Rapid Integration of Artificial Sensory Feedback during Operant Conditioning of Motor Cortex Neurons by Mario Prsa, Gregorio L. Galiñanes, Daniel Huber. Neuron Volume 93, Issue 4, p929–939.e6, 22 February 2017 DOI: Open access funded by European Research Council

This paper is open access.

Brain and machine as one (machine/flesh)

The essay on brains and machines becoming intertwined is making the rounds. First stop on my tour was its Oct. 4, 2016 appearance on the Mail & Guardian, then there was its Oct. 3, 2016 appearance on The Conversation, and finally (moving forward in time) there was its Oct. 4, 2016 appearance on the World Economic Forum website as part of their Final Frontier series.

The essay was written by Richard Jones of Sheffield University (mentioned here many times before but most recently in a Sept. 4, 2014 posting). His book ‘Soft Machines’ provided me with an important and eminently readable introduction to nanotechnology. He is a professor of physics at the University of Sheffield and here’s more from his essay (Oct. 3, 2016 on The Conversation) about brains and machines (Note: Links have been removed),

Imagine a condition that leaves you fully conscious, but unable to move or communicate, as some victims of severe strokes or other neurological damage experience. This is locked-in syndrome, when the outward connections from the brain to the rest of the world are severed. Technology is beginning to promise ways of remaking these connections, but is it our ingenuity or the brain’s that is making it happen?

Ever since an 18th-century biologist called Luigi Galvani made a dead frog twitch we have known that there is a connection between electricity and the operation of the nervous system. We now know that the signals in neurons in the brain are propagated as pulses of electrical potential, whose effects can be detected by electrodes in close proximity. So in principle, we should be able to build an outward neural interface system – that is to say, a device that turns thought into action.

In fact, we already have the first outward neural interface system to be tested in humans. It is called BrainGate and consists of an array of micro-electrodes, implanted into the part of the brain concerned with controlling arm movements. Signals from the micro-electrodes are decoded and used to control the movement of a cursor on a screen, or the motion of a robotic arm.

A crucial feature of these systems is the need for some kind of feedback. A patient must be able to see the effect of their willed patterns of thought on the movement of the cursor. What’s remarkable is the ability of the brain to adapt to these artificial systems, learning to control them better.

You can find out more about BrainGate in my May 17, 2012 posting which also features a video of a woman controlling a mechanical arm so she can drink from a cup coffee by herself for the first time in 15 years.

Jones goes on to describe the cochlear implants (although there’s no mention of the controversy; not everyone believes they’re a good idea) and retinal implants that are currently available. Jones notes this (Note Links have been removed),

The key message of all this is that brain interfaces now are a reality and that the current versions will undoubtedly be improved. In the near future, for many deaf and blind people, for people with severe disabilities – including, perhaps, locked-in syndrome – there are very real prospects that some of their lost capabilities might be at least partially restored.

Until then, our current neural interface systems are very crude. One problem is size; the micro-electrodes in use now, with diameters of tens of microns, may seem tiny, but they are still coarse compared to the sub-micron dimensions of individual nerve fibres. And there is a problem of scale. The BrainGate system, for example, consists of 100 micro-electrodes in a square array; compare that to the many tens of billions of neurons in the brain. The fact these devices work at all is perhaps more a testament to the adaptability of the human brain than to our technological prowess.

Scale models

So the challenge is to build neural interfaces on scales that better match the structures of biology. Here, we move into the world of nanotechnology. There has been much work in the laboratory to make nano-electronic structures small enough to read out the activity of a single neuron. In the 1990s, Peter Fromherz, at the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry, was a pioneer of using silicon field effect transistors, similar to those used in commercial microprocessors, to interact with cultured neurons. In 2006, Charles Lieber’s group at Harvard succeeded in using transistors made from single carbon nanotubes – whiskers of carbon just one nanometer in diameter – to measure the propagation of single nerve pulses along the nerve fibres.

But these successes have been achieved, not in whole organisms, but in cultured nerve cells which are typically on something like the surface of a silicon wafer. It’s going to be a challenge to extend these methods into three dimensions, to interface with a living brain. Perhaps the most promising direction will be to create a 3D “scaffold” incorporating nano-electronics, and then to persuade growing nerve cells to infiltrate it to create what would in effect be cyborg tissue – living cells and inorganic electronics intimately mixed.

I have featured Charles Lieber and his work here in two recent posts: ‘Bionic’ cardiac patch with nanoelectric scaffolds and living cells on July 11, 2016 and Long-term brain mapping with injectable electronics on Sept. 22, 2016.

For anyone interested in more about the controversy regarding cochlear implants, there’s this page on the Brown University (US) website. You might also want to check out Gregor Wolbring (professor at the University of Calgary) who has written extensively on the concept of ableism (links to his work can be found at the end of this post). I have excerpted from an Aug. 30, 2011 post the portion where Gregor defines ‘ableism’,

From Gregor’s June 17, 2011 posting on the FedCan blog,

The term ableism evolved from the disabled people rights movements in the United States and Britain during the 1960s and 1970s.  It questions and highlights the prejudice and discrimination experienced by persons whose body structure and ability functioning were labelled as ‘impaired’ as sub species-typical. Ableism of this flavor is a set of beliefs, processes and practices, which favors species-typical normative body structure based abilities. It labels ‘sub-normative’ species-typical biological structures as ‘deficient’, as not able to perform as expected.

The disabled people rights discourse and disability studies scholars question the assumption of deficiency intrinsic to ‘below the norm’ labeled body abilities and the favoritism for normative species-typical body abilities. The discourse around deafness and Deaf Culture would be one example where many hearing people expect the ability to hear. This expectation leads them to see deafness as a deficiency to be treated through medical means. In contrast, many Deaf people see hearing as an irrelevant ability and do not perceive themselves as ill and in need of gaining the ability to hear. Within the disabled people rights framework ableism was set up as a term to be used like sexism and racism to highlight unjust and inequitable treatment.

Ableism is, however, much more pervasive.

You can find out more about Gregor and his work here: or here:

Tiny sensors produced by nanoscale 3D printing could lead to new generation of atomic force microscopes

A Sept. 26, 2016 news item on Nanowerk features research into producing smaller sensors for atomic force microscopes (AFMs) to achieve greater sensitivity,

Tiny sensors made through nanoscale 3D printing may be the basis for the next generation of atomic force microscopes. These nanosensors can enhance the microscopes’ sensitivity and detection speed by miniaturizing their detection component up to 100 times. The sensors were used in a real-world application for the first time at EPFL, and the results are published in Nature Communications.

A Sept. 26, 2016 École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL; Switzerland) press release by Laure-Anne Pessina, which originated the news item, expands on the theme (Note: A link has been removed),

Atomic force microscopy is based on powerful technology that works a little like a miniature turntable. A tiny cantilever with a nanometric tip passes over a sample and traces its relief, atom by atom. The tip’s infinitesimal up-and-down movements are picked up by a sensor so that the sample’s topography can be determined. (…)

One way to improve atomic force microscopes is to miniaturize the cantilever, as this will reduce inertia, increase sensitivity, and speed up detection. Researchers at EPFL’s Laboratory for Bio- and Nano-Instrumentation achieved this by equipping the cantilever with a 5-nanometer thick sensor made with a nanoscale 3D-printing technique. “Using our method, the cantilever can be 100 times smaller,” says Georg Fantner, the lab’s director.

Electrons that jump over obstacles

The nanometric tip’s up-and-down movements can be measured through the deformation of the sensor placed at the fixed end of the cantilever. But because the researchers were dealing with minute movements – smaller than an atom – they had to pull a trick out of their hat.

Together with Michael Huth’s lab at Goethe Universität at Frankfurt am Main, they developed a sensor made up of highly conductive platinum nanoparticles surrounded by an insulating carbon matrix. Under normal conditions, the carbon isolates the electrons. But at the nano-scale, a quantum effect comes into play: some electrons jump through the insulating material and travel from one nanoparticle to the next. “It’s sort of like if people walking on a path came up against a wall and only the courageous few managed to climb over it,” said Fantner.

When the shape of the sensor changes, the nanoparticles move further away from each other and the electrons jump between them less frequently. Changes in the current thus reveal the deformation of the sensor and the composition of the sample.

Tailor-made sensors

The researchers’ real feat was in finding a way to produce these sensors in nanoscale dimensions while carefully controlling their structure and, by extension, their properties. “In a vacuum, we distribute a precursor gas containing platinum and carbon atoms over a substrate. Then we apply an electron beam. The platinum atoms gather and form nanoparticles, and the carbon atoms naturally form a matrix around them,” said Maja Dukic, the article’s lead author. “By repeating this process, we can build sensors with any thickness and shape we want. We have proven that we could build these sensors and that they work on existing infrastructures. Our technique can now be used for broader applications, ranging from biosensors, ABS sensors for cars, to touch sensors on flexible membranes in prosthetics and artificial skin.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Direct-write nanoscale printing of nanogranular tunnelling strain sensors for sub-micrometre cantilevers by Maja Dukic, Marcel Winhold, Christian H. Schwalb, Jonathan D. Adams, Vladimir Stavrov, Michael Huth, & Georg E. Fantner. Nature Communications 7, Article number: 12487 doi:10.1038/ncomms12487 Published  26 September 2016

This is an open access paper.

Man with world’s first implanted bionic arm participates in first Cybathlon (olympics for cyborgs)

The world’s first Cybathlon is being held on Oct. 8, 2016 in Zurich, Switzerland. One of the participants is an individual who took part in some groundbreaking research into implants which was featured in my Oct. 10, 2014 posting. There’s more about the Cybathlon and the participant in an Oct. 4, 2016 news item on,

A few years ago, a patient was implanted with a bionic arm for the first time in the world using control technology developed at Chalmers University of Technology. He is now taking part in Cybathlon, a new international competition in which 74 participants with physical disabilities will compete against each other, using the latest robotic prostheses and other assistive technologies – a sort of ‘Cyborg Olympics’.

The Paralympics will now be followed by the Cybathlon, which takes place in Zürich on October 8th [2016]. This is the first major competition to show that the boundaries between human and machine are becoming more and more blurred. The participants will compete in six different disciplines using the machines they are connected to as well as possible.

Cybathlon is intended to drive forward the development of prostheses and other types of assistive aids. Today, such technologies are often highly advanced technically, but provide limited value in everyday life.

An Oct. 4, 2016 Chalmers University of Technology press release by Johanna Wilde, which originated the news item, provides details about the competitor, his prosthetic device, and more,

Magnus, one of the participants, has now had his biomechatronically integrated arm prosthesis for almost four years. He says that his life has totally changed since the implantation, which was performed by Dr Rickard Brånemark, associate professor at Sahlgrenska University Hospital.

“I don’t feel handicapped since I got this arm”, says Magnus. “I can now work full time and can perform all the tasks in both my job and my family life. The prosthesis doesn’t feel like a machine, but more like my own arm.”

Magnus lives in northern Sweden and works as a lorry driver. He regularly visits Gothenburg in southern Sweden and carries out tests with researcher Max Ortiz Catalan, assistant professor at Chalmers University of Technology, who has been in charge of developing the technology and leads the team competing in the Cybathlon.

“This is a completely new research field in which we have managed to directly connect the artificial limb to the skeleton, nerves and muscles,” says Dr Max Ortiz Catalan. “In addition, we are including direct neural sensory feedback in the prosthetic arm so the patient can intuitively feel with it.”

Today Magnus can feel varying levels of pressure in his artificial hand, something which is necessary to instinctively grip an object firmly enough. He is unique in the world in having a permanent sensory connection between the prosthesis and his nervous system, working outside laboratory conditions. Work is now under way to add more types of sensations.

At the Cybathlon he will be competing for the Swedish team, which is formed by Chalmers University of Technology, Sahlgrenska University Hospital and the company Integrum AB.

The competition has a separate discipline for arm prostheses. In this discipline Magnus has to complete a course made up of six different stations at which the prosthesis will be put to the test. For example, he has to open a can with a can opener, load a tray with crockery and open a door with the tray in his hand. The events at the Cybathlon are designed to be spectator-friendly while being based on various operations that the participants have to cope with in their daily lives.

“However, the competition will not really show the unique advantages of our technology, such as the sense of touch and the bone-anchored attachment which makes the prosthesis comfortable enough to wear all day,” says Max Ortiz Catalan.

Magnus is the only participant with an amputation above the elbow. This naturally makes the competition more difficult for him than for the others, who have a natural elbow joint.

“From a competitive perspective Cybathlon is far from ideal to demonstrate clinically viable technology,” says Max Ortiz Catalan. “But it is a major and important event in the human-machine interface field in which we would like to showcase our technology. Unlike several of the other participants, Magnus will compete in the event using the same technology he uses in his everyday life.”

Facts about Cybathlon
•    The very first Cybathlon is being organised by the Swiss university ETH Zürich.
•    The €5 million event will take place in Zürich´s 7600 spectator ice hockey stadium, Swiss Arena.
•    74 participants are competing for 59 different teams from 25 countries around the world. In total, the teams consist of about 300 scientists, engineers, support staff and competitors.
•    The teams range from small ad hoc teams to the world’s largest manufacturers of advanced prostheses.
•    The majority of the teams are groups from research labs and many of the prostheses have come straight out of the lab.
•    Unlike the Olympics and Paralympics, the Cybathlon participants are not athletes but ordinary people with various disabilities. The aims of the competition are to establish a dialogue between academia and industry, to facilitate discussion between technology developers and people with disabilities and to promote the use of robotic assistive aids to the general public.
•    Cybathlon will return in 2020, as a seven-day event in Tokyo, to coincide with the Olympics.

Facts about the Swedish team
The Opra Osseointegration team is a multidisciplinary team comprising technical and medical partners. The team is led by Dr Max Ortiz Catalan, assistant professor at Chalmers University of Technology, who has been in charge of developing the technology in close collaboration with Dr Rickard Brånemark, who is a surgeon at Sahlgrenska University Hospital and an associate professor at Gothenburg University. Dr Brånemark led the team performing the implantation of the device. Integrum AB, a Swedish company, complements the team as the pioneering provider of bone-anchored limb prostheses.

This video gives you an idea of what it’s in store on Oct. 8, 2016,

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided—a video game and an exploration of the social impacts of augmentation

The latest video game in the Deus Ex series was released on Aug. 23, 2016. The preceding title Deus Ex: Human Revolution was featured here in an Aug. 18, 2011 post where I focused on the real life augmentation research, which influenced the game.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, the latest and fourth installation in the series, is focused on the social and ethical implications of augmentation according to an Aug. 30, 2016 posting by Matthew Bulger for,

One recent release has transhumanists and humanists alike captivated. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, the fourth game in the Deus Ex franchise made [published] by the Japanese company Square Enix [the game is developed by Canadian Eidos Montreal], is a visually stunning masterpiece that has gamers considering the impact of their decisions and prejudices just as often as it has them killing some bad guys.

Mankind Divided takes place in the year 2029, in a future in which humanity has begun to augment itself with emerging biotechnology. Those without limbs are able to purchase hyper-responsive and durable augmented arms and legs, as well as other augmentations that prolong life or increase strength and stealth. Many of those who use the augmentations are regular people, from soldiers and police officers who lost limbs in the call of duty to grandparents who simply wish to be strong and energetic enough to keep up with their overactive grandchildren.

Unfortunately, in this world, society is divided about the use of augmentation technology and in the midst of an existential crisis about what it means to be human. This soul-searching is only complicated by an incident that took place several years before the start of the game, in which people with augmentations lost control of their bodies and began to attack others at random as a result of a hardware malfunction caused by an unknown terrorist organization.

In the wake of this attack and because of the revolutionary nature of augmentations, human society starts to repress and isolate those who are augmented. A UN Resolution passes in the wake of the attack requiring the world’s nearly seven million augmented people to preemptively register with police forces in order to ensure that their behavior is monitored, and many augmented people are being sent to isolated desert cities to live separate from the rest of humanity.

This backstory and political developments make Deus Ex: Mankind Divided an important game because it not only shows the amazing potential of human ingenuity and scientific research, but because it deals seriously with several important questions: What limits should society place on technological advancement? What are the defining features of humanity and human existence? How discriminatory and oppressive should national and global governments be in order to prevent potential catastrophes?

Not unexpectedly, the game has sparked some controversies according to its Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

The developers of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided came up with the term “mechanical apartheid” for the repulsion and distrust shown by natural people towards augmented people in the game. However, the use of the term caused controversy; the developers were criticized for using it, especially due to the historical use of the term “apartheid”, referring to discrimination against blacks in South Africa. The game was accused of being racist and racially insensitive by some critics.[27] Eidos Montreal’s Jonathan Jacques-Belletete responded in an interview that he felt the complaints were “ridiculous” and justified the use of the term as appropriate for the game since the Deus Ex franchise is about human nature, which has historically repeated trends of segregation.[28] Mary DeMarle, the executive narrative director of the game, responded to the controversy by saying that they are trying to present the issues of the world without judging anyone for their actions.[29][30] Gilles Matouba, the former director of the game and a black Frenchman, added that the term was coined by him and Andre Vu, an Asian Frenchman who is the brand director of the Deus Ex franchise and they wanted to offer the audience something unique and something that was close and personal to them. He continued, saying that racism was a dark part of human nature and they wanted to treat this subject. He also scorned those who had criticized the developers for using the term, especially those who had suggested they were all white.[29]

The usage of the term “Augs Live Matter” in the game caused controversy; with critics alleging it was trying to appropriate the Black Lives Matter movement including BioWare designer Manveer Heir who claimed the game’s narrative might come across as anti-black even if it was not. Andre Vu however denied the accusations claiming the phrase was coined before the movement started and stated that it was an “unfortunate coincidence”.[31][32][33]

I wonder if the developers/narrators are feeling somewhat satisfied that their games has touched on hot button issues. That’s something a lot of artists, filmmakers, and writers strive for.

Technology, athletics, and the ‘new’ human

There is a tension between Olympic athletes and Paralympic athletes as it is felt by some able-bodied athletes that paralympic athletes may have an advantage due to their prosthetics. Roger Pielke Jr. has written a fascinating account of the tensions as a means of asking what it all means. From Pielke Jr.’s Aug. 3, 2016 post on the Guardian Science blogs (Note: Links have been removed),

Athletes are humans too, and they sometimes look for a performance improvement through technological enhancements. In my forthcoming book, The Edge: The War Against Cheating and Corruption in the Cutthroat World of Elite Sports, I discuss a range of technological augmentations to both people and to sports, and the challenges that they pose for rule making. In humans, such improvements can be the result of surgery to reshape (like laser eye surgery) or strengthen (such as replacing a ligament with a tendon) the body to aid performance, or to add biological or non-biological parts that the individual wasn’t born with.

One well-known case of technological augmentation involved the South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius, who ran in the 2012 Olympic Games on prosthetic “blades” below his knees (during happier days for the athlete who is currently jailed in South Africa for the killing of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp). Years before the London Games Pistorius began to have success on the track running against able-bodied athletes. As a consequence of this success and Pistorius’s interest in competing at the Olympic games, the International Association of Athletics Federations (or IAAF, which oversees elite track and field competitions) introduced a rule in 2007, focused specifically on Pistorius, prohibiting the “use of any technical device that incorporates springs, wheels, or any other element that provides the user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device.” Under this rule, Pistorius was determined by the IAAF to be ineligible to compete against able-bodied athletes.

Pistorius appealed the decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. The appeal hinged on answering a metaphysical question—how fast would Pistorius have run had he been born with functioning legs below the knee? In other words, did the blades give him an advantage over other athletes that the hypothetical, able-bodied Oscar Pistorius would not have had? Because there never was an able-bodied Pistorius, the CAS looked to scientists to answer the question.

CAS concluded that the IAAF was in fact fixing the rules to prevent Pistorius from competing and that “at least some IAAF officials had determined that they did not want Mr. Pistorius to be acknowledged as eligible to compete in international IAAF-sanctioned events, regardless of the results that properly conducted scientific studies might demonstrate.” CAS determined that it was the responsibility of the IAAF to show “on the balance of probabilities” that Pistorius gained an advantage by running on his blades. CAS concluded that the research commissioned by the IAAF did not show conclusively such an advantage.

As a result, CAS ruled that Pistorius was able to compete in the London Games, where he reached the semifinals of the 400 meters. CAS concluded that resolving such disputes “must be viewed as just one of the challenges of 21st Century life.”

The story does not end with Oscar Pistorius as Pielke, Jr. notes. There has been another challenge, this time by Markus Rehm, a German long-jumper who leaps off a prosthetic leg. Interestingly, the rules have changed since Oscar Pistorius won his case (Note: Links have been removed),

In the Pistorius case, under the rules for inclusion in the Olympic games the burden of proof had been on the IAAF, not the athlete, to demonstrate the presence of an advantage provided by technology.

This precedent was overturned in 2015, when the IAAF quietly introduced a new rule that in such cases reverses the burden of proof. The switch placed the burden of proof on the athlete instead of the governing body. The new rule—which we might call the Rehm Rule, given its timing—states that an athlete with a prosthetic limb (specifically, any “mechanical aid”) cannot participate in IAAF events “unless the athlete can establish on the balance of probabilities that the use of an aid would not provide him with an overall competitive advantage over an athlete not using such aid.” This new rule effectively slammed the door to participation by Paralympians with prosthetics from participating in Olympic Games.

Even if an athlete might have the resources to enlist researchers to carefully study his or her performance, the IAAF requires the athlete to do something that is very difficult, and often altogether impossible—to prove a negative.

If you have the time, I encourage you to read Pielke Jr.’s piece in its entirety as he notes the secrecy with which the Rehm rule was implemented and the implications for the future. Here’s one last excerpt (Note: A link has been removed),

We may be seeing only the beginning of debates over technological augmentation and sport. Silvia Camporesi, an ethicist at King’s College London, observed: “It is plausible to think that in 50 years, or maybe less, the ‘natural’ able-bodied athletes will just appear anachronistic.” She continues: “As our concept of what is ‘natural’ depends on what we are used to, and evolves with our society and culture, so does our concept of ‘purity’ of sport.”

I have written many times about human augmentation and the possibility that what is now viewed as a ‘normal’ body may one day be viewed as subpar or inferior is not all that farfetched. David Epstein’s 2014 TED talk “Are athletes really getting faster, better, stronger?” points out that in addition to sports technology innovations athletes’ bodies have changed considerably since the beginning of the 20th century. He doesn’t discuss body augmentation but it seems increasingly likely not just for athletes but for everyone.

As for athletes and augmentation, Epstein has an Aug. 7, 2016 Scientific American piece published on in time for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro,

I knew Eero Mäntyranta had magic blood, but I hadn’t expected to see it in his face. I had tracked him down above the Arctic Circle in Finland where he was — what else? — a reindeer farmer.

He was all red. Not just the crimson sweater with knitted reindeer crossing his belly, but his actual skin. It was cardinal dappled with violet, his nose a bulbous purple plum. In the pictures I’d seen of him in Sports Illustrated in the 1960s — when he’d won three Olympic gold medals in cross-country skiing — he was still white. But now, as an older man, his special blood had turned him red.

Mäntyranta had about 50 percent more red blood cells than a normal man. If Armstrong [Lance Armstrong, cyclist] had as many red blood cells as Mäntyranta, cycling rules would have barred him from even starting a race, unless he could prove it was a natural condition.

During his career, Mäntyranta was accused of doping after his high red blood cell count was discovered. Two decades after he retired, Finnish scientists found his family’s mutation. …

Epstein also covers the Pistorius story, albeit with more detail about the science and controversy of determining whether someone with prosthetics may have an advantage over an able-bodied athlete. Scientists don’t agree about whether or not there is an advantage.

I have many other posts on the topic of augmentation. You can find them under the Human Enhancement category and you can also try the tag, machine/flesh.

Biohackers (also known as bodyhackers or grinders) become more common?

Stephen Melendez’s June 11, 2016 story about biohackers/bodyhackers/grinders for Fast Company sports a striking image in the banner, an x-ray of a pair hands featuring some mysterious additions to the webbing between thumbs and forefingers (Note: Links have been removed),

Tim Shank can guarantee he’ll never leave home without his keys. Why? His house keys are located inside his body.

Shank, the president of the Minneapolis futurist group TwinCities+, has a chip installed in his hand that can communicate electronically with his front door and tell it to unlock itself. His wife has one, too.

In fact, Shank has several chips in his hand, including a near field communication (NFC) chip like the ones used in Apple Pay and similar systems, which stores a virtual business card with contact information for TwinCities+. “[For] people with Android phones, I can just tap their phone with my hand, right over the chip, and it will send that information to their phone,” he says. In the past, he’s also used a chip to store a bitcoin wallet.

Shank is one of a growing number of “biohackers” who implant hardware ranging from microchips to magnets inside their bodies.

Certainly the practice seems considerably more developed since the first time it was mentioned here in a May 27, 2010 posting about a researcher who’d implanted a chip into his body which he then contaminated with a computer virus. In the comments, you’ll find Amal Grafstraa who’s mentioned in the Melendez article at some length, from the Melendez article (Note: Links have been removed),

Some biohackers use their implants in experimental art projects. Others who have disabilities or medical conditions use them to improve their quality of life, while still others use the chips to extend the limits of human perception. …

Experts sometimes caution that the long-term health risks of the practice are still unknown. But many biohackers claim that, if done right, implants can be no more dangerous than getting a piercing or tattoo. In fact, professional body piercers are frequently the ones tasked with installing these implants, given that they possess the training and sterilization equipment necessary to break people’s skin safely.

“When you talk about things like risk, things like putting it in your body, the reality is the risk of having one of these installed is extremely low—it’s even lower than an ear piercing,” claims Amal Graafstra, the founder of Dangerous Things, a biohacking supply company.

Graafstra, who is also the author of the book RFID Toys, says he first had an RFID chip installed in his hand in 2005, which allowed him to unlock doors without a key. When the maker movement took off a few years later, and as more hackers began to explore what they could put inside their bodies, he founded Dangerous Things with the aim of ensuring these procedures were done safely.

“I decided maybe it’s time to wrap a business model around this and make sure that the things people are trying to put in their bodies are safe,” he says. The company works with a network of trained body piercers and offers online manuals and videos for piercers looking to get up to speed on the biohacking movement.

At present, these chips are capable of verifying users’ identities and opening doors. And according to Graafstra, a next-generation chip will have enough on-board cryptographic power to potentially work with credit card terminals securely.

“The technology is there—we can definitely talk to payment terminals with it—but we don’t have the agreements in place with banks [and companies like] MasterCard to make that happen,” he says.

Paying for goods with an implantable chip might sound unusual for consumers and risky for banks, but Graafstra thinks the practice will one day become commonplace. He points to a survey released by Visa last year that found that 25% of Australians are “at least slightly interested” in paying for purchases through a chip implanted in their bodies.

Melendez’s article is fascinating and well worth reading in its entirety. It’s not all keys and commerce as this next and last excerpt shows,

Other implantable technology has more of an aesthetic focus: Pittsburgh biohacking company Grindhouse Wetware offers a below-the-skin, star-shaped array of LED lights called Northstar. While the product was inspired by the on-board lamps of a device called Circadia that Grindhouse founder Tim Cannon implanted to send his body temperature to a smartphone, the commercially available Northstar features only the lights and is designed to resemble natural bioluminescence.

“This particular device is mainly aesthetic,” says Grindhouse spokesman Ryan O’Shea. “It can backlight tattoos or be used in any kind of interpretive dance, or artists can use it in various ways.”

The lights activate in the presence of a magnetic field—one that is often provided by magnets already implanted in the same user’s fingertips. Which brings up another increasingly common piece of bio-hardware: magnetic finger implants. ….

There are other objects that can be implanted in bodies. In one case, an artist, Wafaa Bilal had a camera implanted into the back of his head for a 3rd eye. I mentioned the Iraqi artist in my April 13, 2011 posting titled: Blood, memristors, cyborgs plus brain-controlled computers, prosthetics, and art (scroll down about 75% of the way). Bilal was unable to find a doctor who would perform the procedure so he went to a body-piercing studio. Unfortunately, the posting chronicles his infection and subsequent removal of the camera (h/t Feb. 11, 2011 BBC [British Broadcasting Corporation] news online article).


It’s been a while since I’ve written about bodyhacking and I’d almost forgotten about the practice relegating it to the category of “one of those trendy ideas that get left behind as interest shifts.” My own interest had shifted more firmly to neuroprosthetics (the integration of prostheses into the nervous system).

I had coined a tag for bodyhacking and neuroprostheses: machine/flesh which covers both those topics and more (e.g. cyborgs) as we continue to integrate machines into our bodies.

Final note

I was reminded of Wafaa Bilal recently when checking out a local arts magazine, Preview: the gallery guide, June/July/August 2016 issue. His work (the 168:01show) is being shown in Calgary, Alberta, Canada at the Esker Foundation from May 27 to August 28, 2016,

168:01 is a major solo exhibition of new and recent work by Iraqi-born, New York-based artist Wafaa Bilal, renowned for his online performances and technologically driven encounters that speak to the impact of international politics on individual lives.

In 168:01, Bilal takes the Bayt al-Hikma, or House of Wisdom, as a starting point for a sculptural installation of a library. The Bayt al-Hikma was a major academic center during the Islamic Golden Age where Muslim, Jewish, and Christian scholars studied the humanities and science. By the middle of the Ninth Century, the House of Wisdom had accumulated the largest library in the world. Four centuries later, a Mongol siege laid waste to all the libraries of Baghdad along with the House of Wisdom. According to some accounts, the library was thrown into the Tigris River to create a bridge of books for the Mongol army to cross. The pages bled ink into the river for seven days – or 168 hours, after which the books were drained of knowledge. Today, the Bayt al-Hikma represents one of the most well-known examples of historic cultural loss as a casualty of wartime.

For this exhibition, Bilal has constructed a makeshift library filled with empty white books. The white books symbolize the priceless cultural heritage destroyed at Bayt al-Hikma as well as the libraries, archives, and museums whose systematic decimation by occupying forces continues to ravage his homeland. Throughout the duration of the exhibition, the white books will slowly be replaced with visitor donations from a wishlist compiled by The College of Fine Arts at the University of Baghdad, whose library was looted and destroyed in 2003. At the end of each week a volunteer unpacks the accumulated shipments, catalogues each new book by hand, and places the books on the shelves. At the end of the exhibition, all the donated books will be sent to the University of Baghdad to help rebuild their library. This exchange symbolizes the power of individuals to rectify violence inflicted on cultural spaces that are meant to preserve and store knowledge for future generations.

In conjunction with the library, Bilal presents a powerful suite of photographs titled The Ashes Series that brings the viewer closer to images of violence and war in the Middle East. In an effort to foster empathy and humanize the onslaught of violent images that inundate Western media during wartime, Bilal has reconstructed journalistic images of the destruction caused by the Iraq War. He writes, “Reconstructing the destructed spaces is a way to exist in them, to share them with an audience, and to provide a layer of distance, as the original photographs are too violent and run the risk of alienating the viewer. It represents an attempt to make sense of the destruction and to preserve the moment of serenity after the dust has settled, to give the ephemeral moment extended life in a mix of beauty and violence.” In the photograph Al-Mutanabbi Street from The Ashes Series, the viewer encounters dilapidated historic and modern buildings on a street covered with layers upon layers of rubble and fragments of torn books. Bilal’s images emanate a slowness that deepens engagement between the viewer and the image, thereby inviting them to share the burden of obliterated societies and reimagine a world built on the values of peace and hope.

The House of Wisdom has been mentioned here a few times perhaps most comprehensively and in the context of the then recent opening of the King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST; located in Saudi Arabia) in this Sept. 24, 2009 posting (scroll down about 45% of the way).

Anyone interested in hacking their own body?


I expect you can find out more Amal Grafstraa’s website.

Exploring the science of Iron Man (prior to the opening of Captain America: Civil War, aka, Captain America vs. Iron Man)

Not unexpectedly, there’s a news item about science and Iron Man (it’s getting quite common for the science in movies to be promoted and discussed) just a few weeks before the movie Captain America: Civil War or, as it’s also known, Captain America vs. Iron Man opens in the US. From an April 26, 2016 news item on,

… how much of our favourite superheros’ power lies in science and how much is complete fiction?

As Iron Man’s name suggests, he wears a suit of “iron” which gives him his abilities—superhuman strength, flight and an arsenal of weapons—and protects him from harm.

In scientific parlance, the Iron man suit is an exoskeleton which is worn outside the body to enhance it.

An April 26, 2016 posting by Chris Marr on the ScienceNetwork Western Australia blog, which originated the news item, provides an interesting overview of exoskeletons and some of the scientific obstacles still to be overcome before they become commonplace,

In the 1960s, the first real powered exoskeleton appeared—a machine integrated with the human frame and movements which provided the wearer with 25 times his natural lifting capacity.

The major drawback then was that the unit itself weighed in at 680kg.

UWA [University of Western Australia] Professor Adrian Keating suggests that some of the technology seen in the latest Marvel blockbuster, such as controlling the exoskeleton with simple thoughts, will be available in the near future by leveraging ongoing advances of multi-disciplinary research teams.

“Dust grain-sized micromachines could be programmed to cooperate to form reconfigurable materials such as the retractable face mask, for example,” Prof Keating says.

However, all of these devices are in need of a power unit small enough to be carried yet providing enough capacity for more than a few minutes of superhuman use, he says.

Does anyone have a spare Arc Reactor?

Currently, most exoskeleton development has been for medical applications, with devices designed to give mobility to amputees and paraplegics, and there are a number in commercial production and use.

Dr Lei Cui, who lectures in Mechatronics at Curtin University, has recently developed both a hand and leg exoskeleton, designed for use by patients who have undergone surgery or have nerve dysfunction, spinal injuries or muscular dysfunction.

“Currently we use an internal battery that lasts about two hours in the glove, which can be programmed for only four different movement patterns,” Dr Cui says.

Dr Cui’s exoskeletons are made from plastic, making them light but offering little protection compared to the titanium exterior of Stark’s favourite suit.

It’s clear that we are a long way from being able to produce a working Iron Man suit at all, let alone one that flies, protects the wearer and has the capacity to fight back.

This is not the first time I’ve featured a science and pop culture story here. You can check out my April 28, 2014 posting for a story about how Captain America’s shield could be a supercapacitor (it also has a link to a North Carolina State University blog featuring science and other comic book heroes) and there is my May 6, 2013 post about Iron Man 3 and a real life injectable nano-network.

As for ScienceNetwork Western Australia, here’s more from their About SWNA page,

ScienceNetwork Western Australia (SNWA) is an online science news service devoted to sharing WA’s achievements in science and technology.

SNWA is produced by Scitech, the state’s science and technology centre and supported by the WA Government’s Office of Science via the Department of the Premier and Cabinet.

Our team of freelance writers work with in-house editors based at Scitech to bring you news from all fields of science, and from the research, government and private industry sectors working throughout the state. Our writers also produce profile stories on scientists. We collaborate with leading WA institutions to bring you Perspectives from prominent WA scientists and opinion leaders.

We also share news of science-related events and information about the greater WA science community including WA’s Chief Scientist, the Premier’s Science Awards, Innovator of the Year Awards and information on regional community science engagement.

Since our commencement in 2003 we have grown to share WA’s stories with local, national and global audiences. Our articles are regularly republished in print and online media in the metropolitan and regional areas.

Bravo to the Western Australia government! I wish there  initiatives of this type in Canada, the closest we have is the French language Agence Science-Presse supported by the Province of Québec.

Chip in brain lets quadriplegic (tetraplegic) move hands and fingers

An April 13, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily describes the latest brain implant,

Six years ago, he was paralyzed in a diving accident. Today, he participates in clinical sessions during which he can grasp and swipe a credit card or play a guitar video game with his own fingers and hand. These complex functional movements are driven by his own thoughts and a prototype medical system that are detailed in a study published online today in the journal Nature.

The device, called NeuroLife, was invented at Battelle, which teamed with physicians and neuroscientists from The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center to develop the research approach and perform the clinical study. Ohio State doctors identified the study participant and implanted a tiny computer chip into his brain.

An April 13, 2016 Ohio State University news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, provides more details about the participant and the technology,

That pioneering participant, Ian Burkhart, is a 24-year-old quadriplegic from Dublin, Ohio, and the first person to use this technology. This electronic neural bypass for spinal cord injuries reconnects the brain directly to muscles, allowing voluntary and functional control of a paralyzed limb by using his thoughts. The device interprets thoughts and brain signals then bypasses his injured spinal cord and connects directly to a sleeve that stimulates the muscles that control his arm and hand.

“We’re showing for the first time that a quadriplegic patient is able to improve his level of motor function and hand movements,” said Dr. Ali Rezai, a co-author of the study and a neurosurgeon at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center.

Burkhart first demonstrated the neural bypass technology in June 2014, when he was able to open and close his hand simply by thinking about it. Now, he can perform more sophisticated movements with his hands and fingers such as picking up a spoon or picking up and holding a phone to his ear — things he couldn’t do before and which can significantly improve his quality of life.

“It’s amazing to see what he’s accomplished,” said Nick Annetta, electrical engineering lead for Battelle’s team on the project. “Ian can grasp a bottle, pour the contents of the bottle into a jar and put the bottle back down. Then he takes a stir bar, grips that and then stirs the contents of the jar that he just poured and puts it back down. He’s controlling it every step of the way.”

The neural bypass technology combines algorithms that learn and decode the user’s brain activity and a high-definition muscle stimulation sleeve that translates neural impulses from the brain and transmits new signals to the paralyzed limb.

The Battelle team has been working on this technology for more than a decade. To develop the algorithms, software and stimulation sleeve, Battelle scientists first recorded neural impulses from an electrode array implanted in a paralyzed person’s brain. They used that recorded data to illustrate the device’s effect on the patient and prove the concept.

Four years ago, former Battelle researcher Chad Bouton and his team began collaborating with Ohio State Neurological Institute researchers and clinicians Rezai and Dr. Jerry Mysiw to design the clinical trials and validate the feasibility of using the neural bypass technology in patients.

“In the 30 years I’ve been in this field, this is the first time we’ve been able to offer realistic hope to people who have very challenging lives,” said Mysiw, chair of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Ohio State. “What we’re looking to do is help these people regain more control over their bodies.”

During a three-hour surgery in April 2014, Rezai implanted a computer chip smaller than a pea onto the motor cortex of Burkhart’s brain.

The Ohio State and Battelle teams worked together to figure out the correct sequence of electrodes to stimulate to allow Burkhart to move his fingers and hand functionally. For example, Burkhart uses different brain signals and muscles to rotate his hand, make a fist or pinch his fingers together to grasp an object. As part of the study, Burkhart worked for months using the electrode sleeve to stimulate his forearm to rebuild his atrophied muscles so they would be more responsive to the electric stimulation.

“During the last decade, we’ve learned how to decipher brain signals in patients who are completely paralyzed and now, for the first time, those thoughts are being turned into movement,” said study co-author Bouton, who directed Battelle’s team before he joined the New York-based Feinstein Institute for Medical Research. “Our findings show that signals recorded from within the brain can be re-routed around an injury to the spinal cord, allowing restoration of functional movement and even movement of individual fingers.”

Burkhart said it was an easy decision to participate in the FDA-approved clinical trial at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center because he wanted to try to help others with spinal cord injuries. “I just kind of think that it’s my obligation to society,” Burkhart said. “If someone else had an opportunity to do it in some other part of the world, I would hope that they would commit their time so that everyone can benefit from it in the future.”

Rezai and the team from Battelle agree that this technology holds the promise to help patients affected by various brain and spinal cord injuries such as strokes and traumatic brain injury to be more independent and functional.

“We’re hoping that this technology will evolve into a wireless system connecting brain signals and thoughts to the outside world to improve the function and quality of life for those with disabilities,” Rezai said. “One of our major goals is to make this readily available to be used by patients at home.”

Burkhart is the first of a potential five participants in a clinical study. Mysiw and Rezai have identified a second patient who is scheduled to start the study in the summer.

“Participating in this research has changed me in the sense that I have a lot more hope for the future now,” Burkhart said. “I always did have a certain level of hope, but now I know, first-hand, that there are going to be improvements in science and technology that will make my life better.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Restoring cortical control of functional movement in a human with quadriplegia by Chad E. Bouton, Ammar Shaikhouni, Nicholas V. Annetta, Marcia A. Bockbrader, David A. Friedenberg, Dylan M. Nielson, Gaurav Sharma, Per B. Sederberg, Bradley C. Glenn, W. Jerry Mysiw, Austin G. Morgan, Milind Deogaonkar, & Ali R. Rezai. Nature (2016)  doi:10.1038/nature17435 Published online 13 April 2016

This paper is behind a paywall but there is an in depth April 13, 2016 article by Linda Geddes in Nature providing nuggets of new insight such as this,

Previous studies have suggested that after spinal-cord injuries, the brain undergoes ‘reorganization’ — a rewiring of its connections. But this new work suggests that the degree of reorganization occurring after such injuries may be less than previously assumed. “It gives us a lot of hope that there are perhaps not as many neural changes in the brain as we might have imagined [emphasis mine] after an injury like this, and we can bypass damaged areas of the spinal cord to regain movement,” says Bouton.

The Geddes article is open access.

Finally, there’s an April 13, 2016 article by Will Oremus for, which notes that this story is not a fairy tale as there’s a possibility the chip will be removed in the near future as the US Food and Drug Administration’s approval of the device was conditional due to this,

Burkhart knows the device was never meant to last forever. The brain implant’s efficacy gradually degrades over time due to scarring in the brain tissue, and eventually that hardware degradation will start to undo the progress that Burkhart and the software have made together.

He told me he has accepted that his newfound mobility is temporary, and that the progress he has made is likely to benefit posterity more than it benefits him. “I now know that when I’m connected to the system I can do all these great things. It won’t be too much of a shock to me [when it’s over], because even now I can only use the system for a few hours a week when I’m down in the lab. But it will be something I’ll certainly miss.”