Tag Archives: Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Better motor control for prosthetic hands (the illusion of feeling) and a discussion of superprostheses and reality

I have two bits about prosthetics, one which focuses on how most of us think of them and another about science fiction fantasies.

Better motor control

This new technology comes via a collaboration between the University of Alberta, the University of New Brunswick (UNB) and Ohio’s Cleveland Clinic, from a March 18, 2018 article by Nicole Ireland for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) news online,

Rob Anderson was fighting wildfires in Alberta when the helicopter he was in crashed into the side of a mountain. He survived, but lost his left arm and left leg.

More than 10 years after that accident, Anderson, now 39, says prosthetic limb technology has come a long way, and he feels fortunate to be using “top of the line stuff” to help him function as normally as possible. In fact, he continues to work for the Alberta government’s wildfire fighting service.

His powered prosthetic hand can do basic functions like opening and closing, but he doesn’t feel connected to it — and has limited ability to perform more intricate movements with it, such as shaking hands or holding a glass.

Anderson, who lives in Grande Prairie, Alta., compares its function to “doing things with a long pair of pliers.”

“There’s a disconnect between what you’re physically touching and what your body is doing,” he told CBC News.

Anderson is one of four Canadian participants in a study that suggests there’s a way to change that. …

Six people, all of whom had arm amputations from below the elbow or higher, took part in the research. It found that strategically placed vibrating “robots” made them “feel” the movements of their prosthetic hands, allowing them to grasp and grip objects with much more control and accuracy.

All of the participants had all previously undergone a specialized surgical procedure called “targeted re-innervation.” The nerves that had connected to their hands before they were amputated were rewired to link instead to muscles (including the biceps and triceps) in their remaining upper arms and in their chests.

For the study, researchers placed the robotic devices on the skin over those re-innervated muscles and vibrated them as the participants opened, closed, grasped or pinched with their prosthetic hands.

While the vibration was turned on, the participants “felt” their artificial hands moving and could adjust their grip based on the sensation. …

I have an April 24, 2017 posting about a tetraplegic patient who had a number of electrodes implanted in his arms and hands linked to a brain-machine interface and which allowed him to move his hands and arms; the implants were later removed. It is a different problem with a correspondingly different technological solution but there does seem to be increased interest in implanting sensors and electrodes into the human body to increase mobility and/or sensation.

Anderson describes how it ‘feels,

“It was kind of surreal,” Anderson said. “I could visually see the hand go out, I would touch something, I would squeeze it and my phantom hand felt like it was being closed and squeezing on something and it was sending the message back to my brain.

“It was a very strange sensation to actually be able to feel that feedback because I hadn’t in 10 years.”

The feeling of movement in the prosthetic hand is an illusion, the researchers say, since the vibration is actually happening to a muscle elsewhere in the body. But the sensation appeared to have a real effect on the participants.

“They were able to control their grasp function and how much they were opening the hand, to the same degree that someone with an intact hand would,” said study co-author Dr. Jacqueline Hebert, an associate professor in the Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine at the University of Alberta.

Although the researchers are encouraged by the study findings, they acknowledge that there was a small number of participants, who all had access to the specialized re-innervation surgery to redirect the nerves from their amputated hands to other parts of their body.

The next step, they say, is to see if they can also simulate the feeling of movement in a broader range of people who have had other types of amputations, including legs, and have not had the re-innervation surgery.

Here’s a March 15, 2018  CBC New Brunswick radio interview about the work,

This is a bit longer than most of the embedded audio pieces that I have here but it’s worth it. Sadly, I can’t identify the interviewer who did a very good job with Jon Sensinger, associate director of UNB’s Institute of Biomedical Engineering. One more thing, I noticed that the interviewer made no mention of the University of Alberta in her introduction or in the subsequent interview. I gather regionalism reigns supreme everywhere in Canada. Or, maybe she and Sensinger just forgot. It happens when you’re excited. Also, there were US institutions in Ohio and Virginia that participated in this work.

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

Illusory movement perception improves motor control for prosthetic hands by Paul D. Marasco, Jacqueline S. Hebert, Jon W. Sensinger, Courtney E. Shell, Jonathon S. Schofield, Zachary C. Thumser, Raviraj Nataraj, Dylan T. Beckler, Michael R. Dawson, Dan H. Blustein, Satinder Gill, Brett D. Mensh, Rafael Granja-Vazquez, Madeline D. Newcomb, Jason P. Carey, and Beth M. Orzell. Science Translational Medicine 14 Mar 2018: Vol. 10, Issue 432, eaao6990 DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.aao6990

This paper is open access.

Superprostheses and our science fiction future

A March 20, 2018 news item on phys.org features an essay on about superprostheses and/or assistive devices,

Assistive devices may soon allow people to perform virtually superhuman feats. According to Robert Riener, however, there are more pressing goals than developing superhumans.

What had until recently been described as a futuristic vision has become a reality: the first self-declared “cyborgs” have had chips implanted in their bodies so that they can open doors and make cashless payments. The latest robotic hand prostheses succeed in performing all kinds of grips and tasks requiring dexterity. Parathletes fitted with running and spring prostheses compete – and win – against the best, non-impaired athletes. Then there are robotic pets and talking humanoid robots adding a bit of excitement to nursing homes.

Some media are even predicting that these high-tech creations will bring about forms of physiological augmentation overshadowing humans’ physical capabilities in ways never seen before. For instance, hearing aids are eventually expected to offer the ultimate in hearing; retinal implants will enable vision with a sharpness rivalling that of any eagle; motorised exoskeletons will transform soldiers into tireless fighting machines.

Visions of the future: the video game Deus Ex: Human Revolution highlights the emergence of physiological augmentation. (Visualisations: Square Enix) Courtesy: ETH Zurich

Professor Robert Riener uses the image above to illustrate the notion of superprosthese in his March 20, 2018 essay on the ETH Zurich website,

All of these prophecies notwithstanding, our robotic transformation into superheroes will not be happening in the immediate future and can still be filed under Hollywood hero myths. Compared to the technology available today, our bodies are a true marvel whose complexity and performance allows us to perform an extremely wide spectrum of tasks. Hundreds of efficient muscles, thousands of independently operating motor units along with millions of sensory receptors and billions of nerve cells allow us to perform delicate and detailed tasks with tweezers or lift heavy loads. Added to this, our musculoskeletal system is highly adaptable, can partly repair itself and requires only minimal amounts of energy in the form of relatively small amounts of food consumed.

Machines will not be able to match this any time soon. Today’s assistive devices are still laboratory experiments or niche products designed for very specific tasks. Markus Rehm, an athlete with a disability, does not use his innovative spring prosthesis to go for walks or drive a car. Nor can today’s conventional arm prostheses help a person tie their shoes or button up their shirt. Lifting devices used for nursing care are not suitable for helping with personal hygiene tasks or in psychotherapy. And robotic pets quickly lose their charm the moment their batteries die.

Solving real problems

There is no denying that advances continue to be made. Since the scientific and industrial revolutions, we have become dependent on relentless progress and growth, and we can no longer separate today’s world from this development. There are, however, more pressing issues to be solved than creating superhumans.

On the one hand, engineers need to dedicate their efforts to solving the real problems of patients, the elderly and people with disabilities. Better technical solutions are needed to help them lead normal lives and assist them in their work. We need motorised prostheses that also work in the rain and wheelchairs that can manoeuvre even with snow on the ground. Talking robotic nurses also need to be understood by hard-of-hearing pensioners as well as offer simple and dependable interactivity. Their batteries need to last at least one full day to be recharged overnight.

In addition, financial resources need to be available so that all people have access to the latest technologies, such as a high-quality household prosthesis for the family man, an extra prosthesis for the avid athlete or a prosthesis for the pensioner. [emphasis mine]

Breaking down barriers

What is just as important as the ongoing development of prostheses and assistive devices is the ability to minimise or eliminate physical barriers. Where there are no stairs, there is no need for elaborate special solutions like stair lifts or stairclimbing wheelchairs – or, presumably, fully motorised exoskeletons.

Efforts also need to be made to transform the way society thinks about people with disabilities. More acknowledgement of the day-to-day challenges facing patients with disabilities is needed, which requires that people be confronted with the topic of disability when they are still children. Such projects must be promoted at home and in schools so that living with impairments can also attain a state of normality and all people can partake in society. It is therefore also necessary to break down mental barriers.

The road to a virtually superhuman existence is still far and long. Anyone reading this text will not live to see it. In the meantime, the task at hand is to tackle the mundane challenges in order to simplify people’s daily lives in ways that do not require technology, that allow people to be active participants and improve their quality of life – instead of wasting our time getting caught up in cyborg euphoria and digital mania.

I’m struck by Riener’s reference to financial resources and access. Sensinger mentions financial resources in his CBC radio interview although his concern is with convincing funders that prostheses that mimic ‘feeling’ are needed.

I’m also struck by Riener’s discussion about nontechnological solutions for including people with all kinds of abilities and disabilities.

There was no grand plan for combining these two news bits; I just thought they were interesting together.

Cox and McDonnell effects?

What would a Cox or a McDonnell effect be? Well, Brian Cox (the physicist not the actor) and Charlie McDonnell are each in their own way popularizing science in the UK and also, in McDonnell’s case, internationally. Recently there was an article in the Telegram about the Cox effect, i.e. the impact he’s had on public awareness of science in the UK, which aroused commentary from Pasco Phronesis (David Bruggeman) about the US situation and commentary from Andrew Maynard at 2020 Science about Charlie McDonnell and his impact via Youtube on science awareness in teens.

Brian Cox is probably better known to the general public than McDonnell (from the Wikipedia essay about him),

Brian Edward Cox, OBE (born 3 March 1968), is a British particle physicist, a Royal Society University Research Fellow and a professor at the University of Manchester. He is a member of the High Energy Physics group at the University of Manchester, and works on the ATLAS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, near Geneva, Switzerland. …

He is best known to the public as the presenter of a number of science programmes for the BBC. He also had some fame in the 1990s as the keyboard player for the pop band D:Ream.

From David’s Sept. 11, 2011 posting on the Pasco Phronesis blog,

So, is there an American Cox?

Neil Tyson and Bill Nye are, like Cox, genial communicators and good on television.  Could they draw people to a tent at the next Caravan, H.O.R.D.E. Festival, Lilith Fair or other massive outdoor gathering of the young?  I don’t know.  Arguably it’s Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer, who bears the closest comparison to Cox in this respect, though he’s not been as widely disseminated on American television like Cox has in the U.K.  I blame the lack of a BBC.

Science and technology guests have made the rounds at various U.S. conventions for a while now (Plait has been to both the San Diego Comic Con and Dragon*Con.  But these are of a different kind than the music festivals Highfield [author of the Telegram article about the Cox effect] writes about.

David also points out that in the past, both in Britain and the US, science and art were housed in the same museums.

They certainly seem to have integrated science into their music festivals and other events in the UK in a dynamic, fun way as I noted in my July 12,2011 posting on the Glastonbury fair. There are signs (my Sept. 9, 2011 posting about the Micro Zoo at the 2010 Burning Man festival) that this may be happening in the US too.

Meanwhile, Andrew Maynard’s response to the Telegram article was to discuss Charlie McDonnell, from his Sept. 11, 2011 posting on the 2020 Science blog,

… I haven’t heard anyone talking about the “Charlie McDonnell Effect”.

Maybe it’s because Charlie appeals more to a growing movement of teens who just want to immerse themselves in awesomeness, rather than science advocates on the lookout for the next Carl Sagan.  Maybe it’s because Charlie doesn’t fit the mold as science communicator extraordinaire – he didn’t even go to University for goodness sake!  But like it or not, 20 year old Charlie McDonnell is reaching out to millions of teens when it comes to science, and engaging with them in ways few others are even getting close to!

Charlie McDonnell may not fit middle class expectations of an educated yet hip science advocate.  But believe me, he’s the one your kids are more likely to be listening to.  Which means I expect that the “Charlie McDonnell Effect” is alive and kicking – albeit hidden down in the grass roots of a science-hungry on-line community.

I do like to imagine a “science-hungry on-line community.” I often find that if it’s not couched as ‘science’ people are interested in all kinds of science. Take for example, Deus Ex: Human Revolution. If you billed that as a discussion about prosthetics or human enhancement, very few people would be interested.

Eye, arm, & leg prostheses, cyborgs, eyeborgs, Deus Ex, and ableism

Companies are finding more ways to publicize and promote themselves and their products. For example there’s Intel, which seems to have been especially active lately with its Tomorrow Project (my August 22, 2011 posting) and its sponsorship (being one of only four companies to do so) of the Discovery Channel’s Curiosity television programme (my July 15, 2011 posting). What I find interesting in these efforts is their range and the use of old and new techniques.

Today I found (August 30, 2011 article by Nancy Owano) a documentary made by Robert Spence, Canadian filmmaker and eyeborg, for the recently released Deus Ex: Human Revolution game (both the game and Spence are mentioned in my August 18, 2011 posting) from the company, Eidos Montréal. If you’re squeamish (medical operation is featured), you might want to miss the first few minutes,

I found it quite informative but curiously US-centric. How could they discuss prostheses for the legs and not mention Oscar Pistorius, the history-making South African double amputee runner who successfully petitioned the Court for Arbitration for Sport for the right to compete with able-bodied athletes? (In July this year, Pistorius qualified for the 2012 Olympics.) By the way, they do mention the Icelandic company, Össur, which created Pistorius’ “cheetah” legs. (There’s more about Pistorius and human enhancement in my Feb. 2, 2010 posting. [scroll down about 1/3 of the way])

There’s some very interesting material about augmented reality masks for firefighters in this documentary. Once functional and commercially available, the masks would give firefighters information about toxic gases, temperature, etc. as they move through a burning building. There’s a lot of interest in making augmented reality commercially available via smartphones as Kit Eaton notes in an August 29, 2011 article for Fast Company,

Junaio’s 3.0 release is a big transformation for the software–it included limited object recognition powers for about a year, but the new system is far more sophisticated. As well as relying on the usual AR sensor suite of GPS (to tell the software where the smartphone is on the planet), compass, and gyros to work out what angle the phone’s camera is looking, it also uses feature tracking to give it a better idea of the objects in its field of view. As long as one of Junaio’s channels or databases or the platforms of its developer partners has information on the object, it’ll pop up on screen.

When it recognizes a barcode, for example, the software “combines and displays data sources from various partner platforms to provide useful consumer information on a given product,” which can be a “website, a shopping micro-site or other related information” such as finding recipes based on the ingredients. It’s sophisticated enough so you can scan numerous barcoded items from your fridge and add in extras like “onions” and then get it to find a recipe that uses them.

Eaton notes that people might have an objection to holding up their smartphones for long periods of time. That’s a problem that could be solved of course if we added a prosthetic to the eye or replaced an organic eye with a bionic eye as they do in the game and as they suggest in the documentary.

Not everyone is quite so sanguine about this bright new future. I featured a documentary, Fixed, about some of the discussion regarding disability, ability, and human enhancement in my August 3, 2010 posting. One of the featured academics is Gregor Wolbring, assistant professor, Dept of Community Health Sciences, Program in Community Rehabilitation and Disability Studies, University of Calgary; and president of the Canadian Disability Studies Association.  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.

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.

Here’s an excerpt from my Feb. 2, 2010 posting which reinforces what Gregor is saying,

This influx of R&D cash, combined with breakthroughs in materials science and processor speed, has had a striking visual and social result: an emblem of hurt and loss has become a paradigm of the sleek, modern, and powerful. Which is why Michael Bailey, a 24-year-old student in Duluth, Georgia, is looking forward to the day when he can amputate the last two fingers on his left hand.

“I don’t think I would have said this if it had never happened,” says Bailey, referring to the accident that tore off his pinkie, ring, and middle fingers. “But I told Touch Bionics I’d cut the rest of my hand off if I could make all five of my fingers robotic.” [originally excerpted from Paul Hochman’s Feb. 1, 2010 article, Bionic Legs, i-Limbs, and Other Super Human Prostheses You’ll Envy for Fast Company]

I don’t really know how to take the fact that the documentary is in fact product placement for the game, Deus Ex: Human Revolution. On the up side, it opens up a philosophical discussion in a very engaging way. On the down side, it closes down the discussion because drawbacks are not seriously mentioned.

God from the machine: Deus ex machina and augmentation

Wherever you go, there it is: ancient Greece. Deus Ex, a game series from Eidos Montréal, is likely referencing ‘deus ex machina’, a term applied to a theatrical device (in both senses of the word) attributed to  playwrights of ancient Greece. (For anyone who’s unfamiliar with the term, at the end of a play, all of the conflicts would be resolved by a god descending from the heavens. The term refers both to the plot device itself and to the mechanical device used to lower the ‘god’.)

The latest game in the series, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a role-playing shooter, will be released August 23, 2011. From the August 16, 2011 article by Susan Karlin for Fast Company,

The result—Deus Ex: Human Revolution, a role-playing shooter that comes out August 23–extrapolates MicroTransponder, prosthetics, robotics, and other current augmentation technology into a vision of how technologically enhanced people might gain superhuman abilities and at what cost.

… “We built a timeline that traces the history of augmentation, creating new things, and predicting how would it get out into society. We wanted to ground it in today, and make something where everyone could say, ‘I can see the world going that way.'” [Mary DeMarle, Human Revolution’s lead writer]

Human Revolution, although the third in the series, is a prequel to the original Deus Ex which took place 25 years after Human Revolution.

I’m glad to see games that bring up interesting philosophical questions and possible social impacts of emerging technologies along with the action. In a February 3, 2011 interview with Mary DeMarle, Quintin Smith of Rock, Paper, Shotgun posed these questions,

RPS: Finally, with anti-augmentation groups featuring in Human Revolution, I was just wondering what your own opinions are on human augmentation and human bioengineering are.

MD: Oh, gosh. Well I have to tell you that the joke on the team is that for the duration of this story I’d be supporting the anti-technology view, because most people on the team wouldn’t be anti-technology, and it’d help me make the game more human, you know? And now that the project’s over I bought my first iPad, and I have to admit I’m suddenly like “You know, if I could get one of those InfoLinks in my head, it’d be really useful.”

But you know, all of this stuff is already out there. We already have people putting cameras in their eyes to improve their vision. [emphasis mine] The technology’s there, we’re just not aware of it. As far as our team’s technology expert is concerned, human augmentation’s been going on for decades. If you look at all the sports controversy regarding drugs, that is augmentation. It’s already happening.

RPS: But you have no qualms with our using technology to make ourselves more than we can be?

MD: From my perspective, I think mankind will always try to be more than he is. That’s part of being human. But I do admit we have to be careful about how we do it.

In my February 2, 2010 posting (scroll down about 1/2 way), I featured a quote that resonates with DeMarle’s comments about humans trying to be more,

“I don’t think I would have said this if it had never happened,” says Bailey, referring to the accident that tore off his pinkie, ring, and middle fingers. “But I told Touch Bionics I’d cut the rest of my hand off if I could make all five of my fingers robotic.”

Bailey went on to say that having machinery incorporated into his body made him feel “above human”.

As for cameras being implanted in eyes to improve vision, I would be delighted to hear from anyone who has information about this. The only project I could find in my search was EyeBorg, a project with a one-eyed Canadian filmmaker who was planning to have a video camera implanted into his eye socket to record images. From the About the Project page,

Take a one eyed film maker, an unemployed engineer, and a vision for something that’s never been done before and you have yourself the EyeBorg Project. Rob Spence and Kosta Grammatis are trying to make history by embedding a video camera and a transmitter in a prosthetic eye. That eye is going in Robs eye socket, and will record the world from a perspective that’s never been seen before.

There are more details about the EyeBorg project in a June 11, 2010 posting by Tim Hornyak for the Automaton blog (on the IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website),

When Canadian filmmaker Rob Spence was a kid, he would peer through the bionic eye of his Six Million Dollar action figure. After a shooting accident left him partially blind, he decided to create his own electronic eye. Now he calls himself Eyeborg.

Spence’s bionic eye contains a battery-powered, wireless video camera. Not only can he record everything he sees just by looking around, but soon people will be able to log on to his video feed and view the world through his right eye.

I don’t know how the Eyeborg project is proceeding as there haven’t been any updates on the site since August 25, 2010.

While I wish Quintin Smith had asked for more details about the science information DeMarle was passing on in the February 3, 2011 interview, I think it’s interesting to note that information about science and technology comes to us in many ways: advertisements, popular television programmes, comic books, interviews, and games, as well as, formal public science outreach programmes through museums and educational institutions.

ETA August 19, 2011: I found some information about visual prosthetics at the European Commission’s Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) website, We can rebuild you page featuring a TEDxVienna November 2010 talk by electrical engineer, Grégoire Cosendai, from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. He doesn’t mention the prosthetics until approximately 13 minutes, 25 seconds into the talk. The work is being done to help people with retinitis pigmentosa, a condition that is incurable at this time but it may have implications for others. There are 30 people worldwide in a clinical trial testing a retinal implant that requires the person wear special glasses containing a camera and an antenna. For Star Trek fans, this seems similar to Geordi LaForge‘s special glasses.

ETA Sept. 13, 2011: Better late than never, here’s an excerpt from Dexter Johnson’s Sept. 2, 2011 posting (on his Nanoclast blog at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers [IEEE] website) about a nano retina project,

The Israel-based company [Nano Retina] is a joint venture between Rainbow Medical and Zyvex Labs, the latter being well known for its work in nanotechnology and its founder Jim Von Ehr, who has been a strong proponent of molecular mechanosynthesis.

It’s well worth contrasting the information in the company video that Dexter provides and the information in the FET video mentioned in the Aug. 19, 2011 update preceding this one. The company presents a vastly more optimistic claim for the vision these implants will provide than one would expect after viewing the information in the FET video about clinical trials, for another similar (to me) system, currently taking place.