Tag Archives: ableism

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: http://www.crds.org/research/faculty/Gregor_Wolbring2.shtml or here:
https://www.facebook.com/GregorWolbring.

The ultimate DIY: ‘How to build a robotic man’ on BBC 4

British Broadcasting Corporation’s Channel 4 (BBC 4) will be telecasting the ultimate do-it-yourself (DIY) project, How to build a bionic man on Feb. 7, 2013, 9 pm GMT. Corinne Burns in a Jan. 30, 2013 posting for the Guardian science blogs describes the documentary (Note: Links have been removed),

Created by Darlow Smithson Productions (DSP, the TV company behind Touching The Void and Richard Hammond’s Engineering Connections), with the help of robotics experts Shadow Robot Company, the bionic man was conceived as a literal response to the question: how close is bionic technology is to catching up with – and even exceeding – the capabilities of the human body?

DSP got in touch with Dr Bertolt Meyer, a charismatic young researcher from Zurich University and himself a lifelong user of prosthetic technology, and invited him to, essentially, rebuild himself in bionic form. The result can be seen in How to Build a Bionic Man, to be broadcast on Channel 4 on 7 February. The Bionic Man himself will then reside in the Science Museum’s Who Am I? gallery from 7 February until 11 March.

Richard Walker (left), chief roboticist, and Dr Bertolt Meyer (right) at the Body Lab. On the table is an iWalk BiOM ankle. Photograph: Channel 4  [downloaded from http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/blog/2013/jan/30/build-bionic-man]

Richard Walker (left), chief roboticist, and Dr Bertolt Meyer (right) at the Body Lab. On the table is an iWalk BiOM ankle. Photograph: Channel 4 [downloaded from http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/blog/2013/jan/30/build-bionic-man]

Burns goes on to discuss some of the issues raised by the increasing sophistication of prosthetics (Note: Links have been removed),

The engineering behind modern prosthetics is certainly awe-inspiring. The iLimb Ultra, of which Bertolt is a user, is part of the new class of myoelectric prosthetics. These custom-made devices function by placing electrical sensors directly in contact with the skin. These sensors pick up the signals generated by muscular movements in the residual limb – signals that are then translated by software into natural, intuitive movement in the prosthetic limb.

We all know about prosthetic limbs, even if many of us are not aware of just how sophisticated they now are. Less familiar, though, is the idea of bionic organs. Far removed from the iron lung of yore, these new fully integrated artificial body parts are designed to plug directly into our own metabolism – in effect, they are not within us, they become us. They’re the ultimate in biomimicry.

It’s one thing to use a bionic organ to replace lost function. But in a future world where we could, feasibly, replace virtually all of our body, will we blur the boundaries of artificial and natural to an extent that we have to recalibrate our definition of self and non-self? That’s especially pertinent when we consider the reality of neural prosthetics, like the “memory chips” developed by Dr Theodore Berger. Instinctively, many of us are uncomfortable with brain implants – but should we be? And will this discomfort be reduced if we broaden our definition of self?

Bertolt himself is pleased with the increasing normalisation, and even “coolness”, of prosthetics. But he expresses caution about the potential for elective use of such technology – would we ever choose to remove a healthy body part, in order to replace it with a stronger, better prosthetic?

Burns’ posting isn’t the only place where these discussion points and others related to human enhancement and robotic technologies are being raised, in a Jan. 18, 2013 posting I mentioned *a television advertisement for a new smartphone that ‘upgrades your brain’ that ‘normalises’ the idea of brain implants and other enhancements for everybody. As well, The Economist recently featured an article, You, robot? in its September 1st – 7th, 2012 issue about the European Union’s RoboLaw Project,

SPEAKING at a conference organised by The Economist earlier this year [2012], Hugh Herr, a roboticist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, described disabilities as conditions that persist “because of poor technology” and made the bold claim that during the 21st century disability would be largely eliminated. What gave his words added force was that half way through his speech, after ten minutes of strolling around the stage, he unexpectedly pulled up his trouser legs to reveal his bionic legs, and then danced a little jig. In future, he suggested, people might choose to replace an arthritic, painful limb with a fully functional robotic one. “Why wouldn’t you replace it?” he asked. “We’re going to see a lot of unusual situations like that.”

It is precisely to consider these sorts of situations, and the legal and ethical conundrums they will pose, that a new research project was launched in March. Is a prosthetic legally part of your body? When is it appropriate to amputate a limb and replace it with a robotic one? What are the legal rights of a person with “locked in” syndrome who communicates via a brain-computer interface? Do brain implants and body-enhancement devices require changes to the definition of disability? The RoboLaw project is an effort to anticipate such quandaries and work out where and how legal frameworks might need to be changed as the technology of bionics and neural interfaces improves. Funded to the tune of €1.9m ($2.3m), of which €1.4m comes from the European Commission, it brings together experts from engineering, law, regulation, philosophy and human enhancement.

There have been some recent legal challenges as to what constitutes one’s body (from The Economist article, You, robot?),

If you are dependent on a robotic wheelchair for mobility, for example, does the wheelchair count as part of your body? Linda MacDonald Glenn, an American lawyer and bioethicist, thinks it does. Ms Glenn (who is not involved in the RoboLaw project) persuaded an initially sceptical insurance firm that a “mobility assistance device” damaged by airline staff was more than her client’s personal property, it was an extension of his physical body. The airline settled out of court.

RoboLaw is a European Union Framework Programme 7-funded two year project, which started in 2012. There is a conference to be held in the Netherlands, April 23 – 24, 2013, from the RoboLaw home page,

RoboLaw Authors Workshop and Volume on ‘Opportunities and risks of robotics in relation to human values’

23-24 April 2013, Tilburg University, Tilburg (The Netherlands)

Call for paper and participation. Robotic technologies, taken to encompass anything from ‘traditional’ robots to emerging technologies in the field of biomedical research, such as nanotechnologies, bionics, and neural interfaces, as well as innovative biomedical applications, such as biomechatronic prostheses, hybrid bionic systems and bio- mechatronic components for sensory and motor augmentation, will have a profound impact on our lives. They may also affect human values, such as privacy, autonomy, bodily integrity, health, etc. In this workshop, we will focus on the impact of new technologies, and particularly robotics, on fundamental rights and human values. …

Important dates
Before 1 January 2013: Send an email to Ronald Leenes confirming your attendance, expressing your intention to either submit a paper or act as a commentator/reviewer.
Before 1 February: Send a 300 word abstract of the intended paper to Ronald Leenes
Before 8 February: Notification of acceptance.
Before 1 March: If your abstract has been accepted, send a draft of your full paper in PDF format to Ronald Leenes
Before 5 March: Circulation of papers
23-24 April 2013: Workshop
10 May: Selected final papers to be handed in.

According to the schedule, it’s a bit late to start the process for submitting an abstract but it never hurts to try.

Canadian academic, Gregor Wolbring, assistant professor, Dept of Community Health Sciences, Program in Community Rehabilitation and Disability Studies at the University of Calgary and past president of the Canadian Disability Studies Association, offers a nuanced perspective on human enhancement issues and the term, ableism. From my Aug. 30, 2011 posting on cyborgs, eyeborgs and others,

… 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.

Ableism based on biological structure is not limited to the species-typical/ sub species-typical dichotomy. With recent science and technology advances, and envisioned advances to come, we will see the dichotomy of people exhibiting species-typical and the so-called sub species-typical abilities labeled as impaired, and in ill health. On the other side we will see people exhibiting beyond species-typical abilities as the new expectation norm. An ableism that favours beyond species-typical abilities over species-typical and sub species-typical abilities will enable a change in meaning and scope of concepts such as health, illness, rehabilitation, disability adjusted life years, medicine, health care, and health insurance. For example, one will only be labeled as healthy if one has received the newest upgrade to one’s body – meaning one would by default be ill until one receives the upgrade.

You can find more about Gregor’s work on his University of Calgary webpage or his blog.

Finally, for anyone who wants a look at BBC 4’s ‘biionic man’,

A television company asked Dr Bertolt Meyer – who has a prosthetic arm – to rebuild himself in bionic form. Photograph: Channel 4 [downloaded from http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/blog/2013/jan/30/build-bionic-man]

A television company asked Dr Bertolt Meyer – who has a prosthetic arm – to rebuild himself in bionic form. Photograph: Channel 4 [downloaded from http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/blog/2013/jan/30/build-bionic-man]

* The articles ‘an’ was corrected to ‘a’ on July 16, 2013.

Monkeys, mind control, robots, prosthetics, and the 2014 World Cup (soccer/football)

The idea that a monkey in the US could control a robot’s movements in Japan is stunning. Even more stunning is the fact that the research is four years old. It was discussed publicly in a Jan. 15, 2008 article by Sharon Gaudin for Computer World,

Scientists in the U.S. and Japan have successfully used a monkey’s brain activity to control a humanoid robot — over the Internet.

This research may only be a few years away from helping paralyzed people walk again by enabling them to use their thoughts to control exoskeletons attached to their bodies, according to Miguel Nicolelis, a professor of neurobiology at Duke University and lead researcher on the project.

“This is an attempt to restore mobility to people,” said Nicolelis. “We had the animal trained to walk on a treadmill. As it walked, we recorded its brain activity that generated its locomotion pattern. As the animal was walking and slowing down and changing his pattern, his brain activity was driving a robot in Japan in real time.”

This video clip features an animated monkey simulating control of  a real robot in Japan (the Computational Brain Project of the Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST) in Kyoto partnered with Duke University for this project),

I wonder if the Duke researchers or communications staff thought that the sight of real rhesus monkeys on treadmills might be too disturbing. While we’re on the topic of simulation, I wonder where the robot in the clip actually resides. Quibbles about the video clip aside, I have no doubt that the research took place.

There’s a more recent (Oct. 5, 2011) article, about the work being done in Nicolelis’ laboratory at Duke University, by Ed Yong for Discover Magazine (mentioned previously described in my Oct. 6, 2011 posting),

This is where we are now: at Duke University, a monkey controls a virtual arm using only its thoughts. Miguel Nicolelis had fitted the animal with a headset of electrodes that translates its brain activity into movements. It can grab virtual objects without using its arms. It can also feel the objects without its hands, because the headset stimulates its brain to create the sense of different textures. Monkey think, monkey do, monkey feel – all without moving a muscle.
And this is where  Nicolelis wants to be in three years: a young quadriplegic Brazilian man strolls confidently into a massive stadium. He controls his four prosthetic limbs with his thoughts, and they in turn send tactile information straight to his brain. The technology melds so fluidly with his mind that he confidently runs up and delivers the opening kick of the 2014 World Cup.

This sounds like a far-fetched dream, but Nicolelis – a big soccer fan – is talking to the Brazilian government to make it a reality.

According to Yong, Nicolelis has created an international consortium to support the Walk Again Project. From the project home page,

The Walk Again Project, an international consortium of leading research centers around the world represents a new paradigm for scientific collaboration among the world’s academic institutions, bringing together a global network of scientific and technological experts, distributed among all the continents, to achieve a key humanitarian goal.

The project’s central goal is to develop and implement the first BMI [brain-machine interface] capable of restoring full mobility to patients suffering from a severe degree of paralysis. This lofty goal will be achieved by building a neuroprosthetic device that uses a BMI as its core, allowing the patients to capture and use their own voluntary brain activity to control the movements of a full-body prosthetic device. This “wearable robot,” also known as an “exoskeleton,” will be designed to sustain and carry the patient’s body according to his or her mental will.

In addition to proposing to develop new technologies that aim at improving the quality of life of millions of people worldwide, the Walk Again Project also innovates by creating a complete new paradigm for global scientific collaboration among leading academic institutions worldwide. According to this model, a worldwide network of leading scientific and technological experts, distributed among all the continents, come together to participate in a major, non-profit effort to make a fellow human being walk again, based on their collective expertise. These world renowned scholars will contribute key intellectual assets as well as provide a base for continued fundraising capitalization of the project, setting clear goals to establish fundamental advances toward restoring full mobility for patients in need.

It’s the exoskeleton described on the Walk Again Project home page that Nicolelis is hoping will enable a young Brazilian quadriplegic to deliver the opening kick for the 2014 World Cup (soccer/football) in Brazil.

Carbon and neural implants

I’ve been meaning to do more about brains and implantable devices for a while so this Mar. 2, 2012 news item on Nanowerk comes at a timely moment,

The blind see, the lame walk, and the deaf hear: in the future, neural implants could replace destroyed sensory cells in the eye or ear – a dream come true for humanity. One of the greatest challenges yet to be addressed is designing the interface between medical technology and human tissue. In order to overcome the limitations of existing models, scientists from Forschungszentrum Jülich and eleven other institutions involved in the NeuroCare project, which kicked off on 1 March 2012, will develop novel biointerfaces made of carbon.

After reading some of Dr. Gregor Wolbring’s materials (last mentioned in my Aug. 30, 2011 posting on ‘ableism’) I’m not so sure about this business of making the ‘blind see’, etc. For example, there’s been  a lot of discussion in the deaf community about cochlear implants and whether or not there should be an automatic assumption that to be ‘normal’, one must hear. Wolbring’s latest writing on these topics is here in a Feb. 23, 2012 posting on the Nordic Network on Disability Research blog. Excerpted from the posting,

I coined a couple of years ago the term Ability Studies (Wolbring, 2008) which I defined, among others, to investigate: (a) the social, cultural, legal, political, ethical and other considerations by which any given ability may be judged, and which may lead to favouring one ability over another; (b) the impact and consequence of favouring certain abilities and rejecting others; (c) the consequences of ableism in its different forms, and its relationship with and impact on other isms [racism, ageism, sexism, etc.].

I think Wolbring asks some very provocative questions in light of the enthusiasm so often expressed in descriptions of greater therapeutic interventions. From the news item,

For several years, biomedical researchers have been working on implants to compensate for damage to the nervous system caused by an accident or illness. They focus on tools that correct problems with basic cognitive abilities, such as a loss or impairment of eyesight or the ability to hear. In addition, they may also be used to treat traumatic injuries to the spine, drug-resistant epilepsies, psychiatric disorders, and chronic neurodegenerative diseases.

However, the technology is still in its infancy. What makes it so difficult to implement is primarily connecting living tissue and electric circuits, with flexible cell structures containing water on one side and rigid solid electrodes on the other side. NeuroCare therefore uses materials based on carbon as they are better suited to medical purposes than the metals or silicon conventionally used.

In order to optimize the contact to biological tissue, the researchers are planning to experiment with flexible materials and test different surface structures on the nanometre scale. Within the next three years, the project coordinated by the French Commissariat à l’Energie Atomique et aux Energies Alternatives (CEA) will produce prototypes of retinal, cortical and cochlear implants, which will then be refined until they can be brought to the market in the following ten years.

The NeuroCare (Neuronal NanoCarbon Interfacing Structures) project is described in a more technical fashion on the Cordis website where contact information for various partners in the project is also offered.