Tag Archives: Oscar Pistorius

Turning brain-controlled wireless electronic prostheses into reality plus some ethical points

Researchers at Stanford University (California, US) believe they have a solution for a problem with neuroprosthetics (Note: I have included brief comments about neuroprosthetics and possible ethical issues at the end of this posting) according an August 5, 2020 news item on ScienceDaily,

The current generation of neural implants record enormous amounts of neural activity, then transmit these brain signals through wires to a computer. But, so far, when researchers have tried to create wireless brain-computer interfaces to do this, it took so much power to transmit the data that the implants generated too much heat to be safe for the patient. A new study suggests how to solve his problem — and thus cut the wires.

Caption: Photo of a current neural implant, that uses wires to transmit information and receive power. New research suggests how to one day cut the wires. Credit: Sergey Stavisky

An August 3, 2020 Stanford University news release (also on EurekAlert but published August 4, 2020) by Tom Abate, which originated the news item, details the problem and the proposed solution,

Stanford researchers have been working for years to advance a technology that could one day help people with paralysis regain use of their limbs, and enable amputees to use their thoughts to control prostheses and interact with computers.

The team has been focusing on improving a brain-computer interface, a device implanted beneath the skull on the surface of a patient’s brain. This implant connects the human nervous system to an electronic device that might, for instance, help restore some motor control to a person with a spinal cord injury, or someone with a neurological condition like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also called Lou Gehrig’s disease.

The current generation of these devices record enormous amounts of neural activity, then transmit these brain signals through wires to a computer. But when researchers have tried to create wireless brain-computer interfaces to do this, it took so much power to transmit the data that the devices would generate too much heat to be safe for the patient.

Now, a team led by electrical engineers and neuroscientists Krishna Shenoy, PhD, and Boris Murmann, PhD, and neurosurgeon and neuroscientist Jaimie Henderson, MD, have shown how it would be possible to create a wireless device, capable of gathering and transmitting accurate neural signals, but using a tenth of the power required by current wire-enabled systems. These wireless devices would look more natural than the wired models and give patients freer range of motion.

Graduate student Nir Even-Chen and postdoctoral fellow Dante Muratore, PhD, describe the team’s approach in a Nature Biomedical Engineering paper.

The team’s neuroscientists identified the specific neural signals needed to control a prosthetic device, such as a robotic arm or a computer cursor. The team’s electrical engineers then designed the circuitry that would enable a future, wireless brain-computer interface to process and transmit these these carefully identified and isolated signals, using less power and thus making it safe to implant the device on the surface of the brain.

To test their idea, the researchers collected neuronal data from three nonhuman primates and one human participant in a (BrainGate) clinical trial.

As the subjects performed movement tasks, such as positioning a cursor on a computer screen, the researchers took measurements. The findings validated their hypothesis that a wireless interface could accurately control an individual’s motion by recording a subset of action-specific brain signals, rather than acting like the wired device and collecting brain signals in bulk.

The next step will be to build an implant based on this new approach and proceed through a series of tests toward the ultimate goal.

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

Power-saving design opportunities for wireless intracortical brain–computer interfaces by Nir Even-Chen, Dante G. Muratore, Sergey D. Stavisky, Leigh R. Hochberg, Jaimie M. Henderson, Boris Murmann & Krishna V. Shenoy. Nature Biomedical Engineering (2020) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41551-020-0595-9 Published: 03 August 2020

This paper is behind a paywall.

Comments about ethical issues

As I found out while investigating, ethical issues in this area abound. My first thought was to look at how someone with a focus on ability studies might view the complexities.

My ‘go to’ resource for human enhancement and ethical issues is Gregor Wolbring, an associate professor at the University of Calgary (Alberta, Canada). his profile lists these areas of interest: ability studies, disability studies, governance of emerging and existing sciences and technologies (e.g. neuromorphic engineering, genetics, synthetic biology, robotics, artificial intelligence, automatization, brain machine interfaces, sensors) and more.

I can’t find anything more recent on this particular topic but I did find an August 10, 2017 essay for The Conversation where he comments on technology and human enhancement ethical issues where the technology is gene-editing. Regardless, he makes points that are applicable to brain-computer interfaces (human enhancement), Note: Links have been removed),

Ability expectations have been and still are used to disable, or disempower, many people, not only people seen as impaired. They’ve been used to disable or marginalize women (men making the argument that rationality is an important ability and women don’t have it). They also have been used to disable and disempower certain ethnic groups (one ethnic group argues they’re smarter than another ethnic group) and others.

A recent Pew Research survey on human enhancement revealed that an increase in the ability to be productive at work was seen as a positive. What does such ability expectation mean for the “us” in an era of scientific advancements in gene-editing, human enhancement and robotics?

Which abilities are seen as more important than others?

The ability expectations among “us” will determine how gene-editing and other scientific advances will be used.

And so how we govern ability expectations, and who influences that governance, will shape the future. Therefore, it’s essential that ability governance and ability literacy play a major role in shaping all advancements in science and technology.

One of the reasons I find Gregor’s commentary so valuable is that he writes lucidly about ability and disability as concepts and poses what can be provocative questions about expectations and what it is to be truly abled or disabled. You can find more of his writing here on his eponymous (more or less) blog.

Ethics of clinical trials for testing brain implants

This October 31, 2017 article by Emily Underwood for Science was revelatory,

In 2003, neurologist Helen Mayberg of Emory University in Atlanta began to test a bold, experimental treatment for people with severe depression, which involved implanting metal electrodes deep in the brain in a region called area 25 [emphases mine]. The initial data were promising; eventually, they convinced a device company, St. Jude Medical in Saint Paul, to sponsor a 200-person clinical trial dubbed BROADEN.

This month [October 2017], however, Lancet Psychiatry reported the first published data on the trial’s failure. The study stopped recruiting participants in 2012, after a 6-month study in 90 people failed to show statistically significant improvements between those receiving active stimulation and a control group, in which the device was implanted but switched off.

… a tricky dilemma for companies and research teams involved in deep brain stimulation (DBS) research: If trial participants want to keep their implants [emphases mine], who will take responsibility—and pay—for their ongoing care? And participants in last week’s meeting said it underscores the need for the growing corps of DBS researchers to think long-term about their planned studies.

… participants bear financial responsibility for maintaining the device should they choose to keep it, and for any additional surgeries that might be needed in the future, Mayberg says. “The big issue becomes cost [emphasis mine],” she says. “We transition from having grants and device donations” covering costs, to patients being responsible. And although the participants agreed to those conditions before enrolling in the trial, Mayberg says she considers it a “moral responsibility” to advocate for lower costs for her patients, even it if means “begging for charity payments” from hospitals. And she worries about what will happen to trial participants if she is no longer around to advocate for them. “What happens if I retire, or get hit by a bus?” she asks.

There’s another uncomfortable possibility: that the hypothesis was wrong [emphases mine] to begin with. A large body of evidence from many different labs supports the idea that area 25 is “key to successful antidepressant response,” Mayberg says. But “it may be too simple-minded” to think that zapping a single brain node and its connections can effectively treat a disease as complex as depression, Krakauer [John Krakauer, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland] says. Figuring that out will likely require more preclinical research in people—a daunting prospect that raises additional ethical dilemmas, Krakauer says. “The hardest thing about being a clinical researcher,” he says, “is knowing when to jump.”

Brain-computer interfaces, symbiosis, and ethical issues

This was the most recent and most directly applicable work that I could find. From a July 24, 2019 article by Liam Drew for Nature Outlook: The brain,

“It becomes part of you,” Patient 6 said, describing the technology that enabled her, after 45 years of severe epilepsy, to halt her disabling seizures. Electrodes had been implanted on the surface of her brain that would send a signal to a hand-held device when they detected signs of impending epileptic activity. On hearing a warning from the device, Patient 6 knew to take a dose of medication to halt the coming seizure.

“You grow gradually into it and get used to it, so it then becomes a part of every day,” she told Frederic Gilbert, an ethicist who studies brain–computer interfaces (BCIs) at the University of Tasmania in Hobart, Australia. “It became me,” she said. [emphasis mine]

Gilbert was interviewing six people who had participated in the first clinical trial of a predictive BCI to help understand how living with a computer that monitors brain activity directly affects individuals psychologically1. Patient 6’s experience was extreme: Gilbert describes her relationship with her BCI as a “radical symbiosis”.

Symbiosis is a term, borrowed from ecology, that means an intimate co-existence of two species for mutual advantage. As technologists work towards directly connecting the human brain to computers, it is increasingly being used to describe humans’ potential relationship with artificial intelligence.

Interface technologies are divided into those that ‘read’ the brain to record brain activity and decode its meaning, and those that ‘write’ to the brain to manipulate activity in specific regions and affect their function.

Commercial research is opaque, but scientists at social-media platform Facebook are known to be pursuing brain-reading techniques for use in headsets that would convert users’ brain activity into text. And neurotechnology companies such as Kernel in Los Angeles, California, and Neuralink, founded by Elon Musk in San Francisco, California, predict bidirectional coupling in which computers respond to people’s brain activity and insert information into their neural circuitry. [emphasis mine]

Already, it is clear that melding digital technologies with human brains can have provocative effects, not least on people’s agency — their ability to act freely and according to their own choices. Although neuroethicists’ priority is to optimize medical practice, their observations also shape the debate about the development of commercial neurotechnologies.

Neuroethicists began to note the complex nature of the therapy’s side effects. “Some effects that might be described as personality changes are more problematic than others,” says Maslen [Hannah Maslen, a neuroethicist at the University of Oxford, UK]. A crucial question is whether the person who is undergoing stimulation can reflect on how they have changed. Gilbert, for instance, describes a DBS patient who started to gamble compulsively, blowing his family’s savings and seeming not to care. He could only understand how problematic his behaviour was when the stimulation was turned off.

Such cases present serious questions about how the technology might affect a person’s ability to give consent to be treated, or for treatment to continue. [emphases mine] If the person who is undergoing DBS is happy to continue, should a concerned family member or doctor be able to overrule them? If someone other than the patient can terminate treatment against the patient’s wishes, it implies that the technology degrades people’s ability to make decisions for themselves. It suggests that if a person thinks in a certain way only when an electrical current alters their brain activity, then those thoughts do not reflect an authentic self.

To observe a person with tetraplegia bringing a drink to their mouth using a BCI-controlled robotic arm is spectacular. [emphasis mine] This rapidly advancing technology works by implanting an array of electrodes either on or in a person’s motor cortex — a brain region involved in planning and executing movements. The activity of the brain is recorded while the individual engages in cognitive tasks, such as imagining that they are moving their hand, and these recordings are used to command the robotic limb.

If neuroscientists could unambiguously discern a person’s intentions from the chattering electrical activity that they record in the brain, and then see that it matched the robotic arm’s actions, ethical concerns would be minimized. But this is not the case. The neural correlates of psychological phenomena are inexact and poorly understood, which means that signals from the brain are increasingly being processed by artificial intelligence (AI) software before reaching prostheses.[emphasis mine]

But, he [Philipp Kellmeyer, a neurologist and neuroethicist at the University of Freiburg, Germany] says, using AI tools also introduces ethical issues of which regulators have little experience. [emphasis mine] Machine-learning software learns to analyse data by generating algorithms that cannot be predicted and that are difficult, or impossible, to comprehend. This introduces an unknown and perhaps unaccountable process between a person’s thoughts and the technology that is acting on their behalf.

Maslen is already helping to shape BCI-device regulation. She is in discussion with the European Commission about regulations it will implement in 2020 that cover non-invasive brain-modulating devices that are sold straight to consumers. [emphases mine; Note: There is a Canadian company selling this type of product, MUSE] Maslen became interested in the safety of these devices, which were covered by only cursory safety regulations. Although such devices are simple, they pass electrical currents through people’s scalps to modulate brain activity. Maslen found reports of them causing burns, headaches and visual disturbances. She also says clinical studies have shown that, although non-invasive electrical stimulation of the brain can enhance certain cognitive abilities, this can come at the cost of deficits in other aspects of cognition.

Regarding my note about MUSE, the company is InteraXon and its product is MUSE.They advertise the product as “Brain Sensing Headbands That Improve Your Meditation Practice.” The company website and the product seem to be one entity, Choose Muse. The company’s product has been used in some serious research papers they can be found here. I did not see any research papers concerning safety issues.

Getting back to Drew’s July 24, 2019 article and Patient 6,

… He [Gilbert] is now preparing a follow-up report on Patient 6. The company that implanted the device in her brain to help free her from seizures went bankrupt. The device had to be removed.

… Patient 6 cried as she told Gilbert about losing the device. … “I lost myself,” she said.

“It was more than a device,” Gilbert says. “The company owned the existence of this new person.”

I strongly recommend reading Drew’s July 24, 2019 article in its entirety.


It’s easy to forget that in all the excitement over technologies ‘making our lives better’ that there can be a dark side or two. Some of the points brought forth in the articles by Wolbring, Underwood, and Drew confirmed my uneasiness as reasonable and gave me some specific examples of how these technologies raise new issues or old issues in new ways.

What I find interesting is that no one is using the term ‘cyborg’, which would seem quite applicable.There is an April 20, 2012 posting here titled ‘My mother is a cyborg‘ where I noted that by at lease one definition people with joint replacements, pacemakers, etc. are considered cyborgs. In short, cyborgs or technology integrated into bodies have been amongst us for quite some time.

Interestingly, no one seems to care much when insects are turned into cyborgs (can’t remember who pointed this out) but it is a popular area of research especially for military applications and search and rescue applications.

I’ve sometimes used the term ‘machine/flesh’ and or ‘augmentation’ as a description of technologies integrated with bodies, human or otherwise. You can find lots on the topic here however I’ve tagged or categorized it.

Amongst other pieces you can find here, there’s the August 8, 2016 posting, ‘Technology, athletics, and the ‘new’ human‘ featuring Oscar Pistorius when he was still best known as the ‘blade runner’ and a remarkably successful paralympic athlete. It’s about his efforts to compete against able-bodied athletes at the London Olympic Games in 2012. It is fascinating to read about technology and elite athletes of any kind as they are often the first to try out ‘enhancements’.

Gregor Wolbring has a number of essays on The Conversation looking at Paralympic athletes and their pursuit of enhancements and how all of this is affecting our notions of abilities and disabilities. By extension, one has to assume that ‘abled’ athletes are also affected with the trickle-down effect on the rest of us.

Regardless of where we start the investigation, there is a sameness to the participants in neuroethics discussions with a few experts and commercial interests deciding on how the rest of us (however you define ‘us’ as per Gregor Wolbring’s essay) will live.

This paucity of perspectives is something I was getting at in my COVID-19 editorial for the Canadian Science Policy Centre. My thesis being that we need a range of ideas and insights that cannot be culled from small groups of people who’ve trained and read the same materials or entrepreneurs who too often seem to put profit over thoughtful implementations of new technologies. (See the PDF May 2020 edition [you’ll find me under Policy Development]) or see my May 15, 2020 posting here (with all the sources listed.)

As for this new research at Stanford, it’s exciting news, which raises questions, as it offers the hope of independent movement for people diagnosed as tetraplegic (sometimes known as quadriplegic.)

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 Salon.com 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.

A tooth and art installation in Vancouver (Canada) and bodyhacking and DIY (do-it-yourself) culture in the US

After a chat with artist David Khang, about various mergings of flesh and nonliving entities, I saw his installation, Amelogenesis Imperfecta (How Deep is the Skin of Teeth)  at Vancouver’s grunt gallery with  an enhanced appreciation for the shadowy demarcation between living entities (human and nonhuman) and between living and nonliving entities (this was à propos the work being done at the SymbioticA Centre in Australia, which is mentioned in the following excerpt) and some of the social and ethical questions that arise. Robin Laurence in her Sept. 13, 2012 article for the Georgia Straight newspaper/website describes both the installation and its influences,

With Khang’s newly launched works, Amelogenesis Imperfecta (How Deep Is the Skin of Teeth), on view at the grunt gallery until September 22, and Beautox Me, at CSA Space [#5–2414 Main Street] through October 7, he has again found formally and intellectually complex ways to meld his seemingly disparate professions. The grunt gallery installation includes microscopic laser drawings on epithelial cells and an animated short of a human tooth evolving into a fearsome, all-devouring shark. This work developed out of experiments Khang conducted during his 2010 residency at SymbioticA Centre for Biological Arts in Perth, Australia. “It began as a goal-oriented project to manufacture enamel,” he says, “but ended up being a meditation on ethical interspecies relations.” Fetal calf serum, he explains, is used “to fuel” all stem-cell research.

In our far ranging discussion, Khang (whose show at the Grunt [350 E. 2nd Avenue, Vancouver, ends on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2012) and I discussed not only interspecies relations but also the integration of flesh with machine/technology,which is being explored and discussed at SymbioticA and elsewhere.

Coincidentally, one day after my chat with Khang I found this Sept. 19, 2012 article (Biohackers And DIY Cyborgs Clone Silicon Valley Innovation) by Neal Ungerleider for Fast Company (Note: I have removed links),

The grinders (DIY cybernetics enthusiasts) and their comrades in arms–biohackers working on improving human source code, quantified self enthusiasts who arm themselves with constant bodily data feeds, and independent DIY biotechnology enthusiasts–are moonlighting for now in basements, shared spaces, and makeshift labs. But they’re ultimately aiming to change the world. Think of how bionic [sic] legs like those belonging to Oscar Pistorius and cochlear implants that let the deaf hear have changed everyday life for so many people. Then multiply that by a million. A million people. And millions of dollars.

Not only has the new wave of do-it-yourself (DIY) cybernetics moved well beyond science fiction, it’s going to cause a business boom in the not-too-distant future.

I have two comments. (1) Pistorius does not have bionic legs but he does use some very high tech racing prosthetics, which I describe briefly in my July 27, 2009 posting in part 4 of a series on human enhancement. On the basis of this error, you may want to apply a little caution when reading the rest of Ungerleider’s  article. (2) Prior to this article, I hadn’t considered machine/flesh integration as a business opportunity but clearly I’ve been shortsighted.

I was particularly interested in this following passage where Ungerleider mentions the fusion of the living and of the electronic.

In Brooklyn, a small “community biolab” called Genspace is home to approximately a dozen DIY biology experimenters whose work often involves the fusion of the living and the electronic. Classes are offered to the public in synthetic biology, which engineers living organisms as if they were biological machines.

A workshop recently held at Genspace, Crude Control, showed how in-vitro meat and leather could be created via tissue engineering, and it explored the possibility of creating semi-living “products” from them. Although the Genspace workshop was for educational purposes, similar technologies are already being monetized elsewhere–Peter Thiel recently sank six figures into a startup that will make 3-D printed in vitro meat commercially available.

The teacher at the Crude Control workshop, Oron Catts, [emphasis mine] walked participants through “basic tissue culture and tissue engineering protocols, including developing some DIY tools and isolating cells from a bone we got from a local butcher.” Some of Catts’ previous projects include bioengineering a steak from pre-natal sheep cells (in his words, “steak grown from an animal that was not yet born“) and victimless leather grown from cell lines. [emphases mine]

I emphasized Oron Catts because he is SymbioticA Centre’s director.From his biographical page on the SynbioticA Centre website,

Oron Catts is an artist, researcher and curator whose work with the Tissue Culture and Art Project (which he founded in 1996 with Ionat Zurr) is part of the NY MoMA design collection and has been exhibited and presented internationally. In 2000 he co-founded SymbioticA, an artistic research laboratory housed within the School of Anatomy and Human Biology, The University of Western Australia. Under Oron’s leadership, SymbioticA has gone on to win the Prix Ars Electronica Golden Nica in Hybrid Art (2007) and became a Centre for Excellence in 2008.

Oron has been a researcher at The University of Western Australia since 1996 and was a Research Fellow at the Tissue Engineering and Organ Fabrication Laboratory, Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston from 2000-2001. He worked with numerous other bio-medical laboratories around the world. In 2007 he was a visiting Scholar at the Department of Art and Art History, Stanford University. He is currently undertaking a “Synthetic Atheistic” residency which is jointly funded by the National Science Foundation (USA) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (UK) to exploring the impactions of synthetic Biology; and is a Visiting Professor of Design Interaction, Royal College of Arts, London.

You can find out more about the SymbioticA Centre here.

As for the “steak grown from an animal that was not yet born” and “victimless leather,” the terminology hints   while the description of the work demonstrates how close we are to a new reality in our relationships with nonhumans. Some readers may find the rest of Ungerleider’s article even more eyebrow-raising/disturbing/exciting.

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.

Swimsuit glory; more Oscar Pistorius; Canadian Science Policy Conference

A bunch of swimming records were toppled at the recent World Aquatic Championships (and according to some observers) all due to swimsuit technology. From an article by Jonathan Liew on the Telegraph.co.uk website,

Full-body polyurethane suits will be banned from 2010, but will remain legal for the forthcoming [no longer] World Championships [2009], where Britain’s performance director Michael Scott has predicted 99 per cent of world records will be broken.

Locally, a University of British Columbia (Vancouver, Canada) student Annamay Pierse broke a world record for the women’s 200-metre breaststroke in her semifinal heat at the championships. (details here on the Vancouver Sun website) She later went on to win the silver medal. (details here on the Toronto Star website) Not a word about the swimsuit controversy was mentioned in the local coverage.  I did finally track this down in a CBC report,

A spokesman for Swimming Canada said Canadian swimmers have the choice to wear what suit they wish, with many wearing the Jaked suits.

The swimsuits are said to give an unfair advantage. They’re not constructed with textiles, they are bonded together by ultrasonic welding so there are no seams, and there are panels which compress the torso apparently giving the wearer added bouyancy. Swimmers need to roll these suits on and it requires a significant amount of time (figure 30 to 45 minutes). The best technical description of the swimsuit that I found was in the June 14, 2008 (US) edition of The Economist. (It’s behind a paywall so I can’t offer a link.)

Nanotechnology was not mentioned in anything I found about the swimsuits but I wonder. If anyone knows one way or the other, please do comment.

There is some more news about Oscar Pistorius (the South African paralympic who successfully petitioned the Court of Arbitration for Sports for the right to compete against able-bodied athletes) mentioned in my July 27, 2009 posting. The experts in biomechanics and physiology who studied Pistorius in action and whose work formed the basis for his appeal have published their findings. From the Science Daily report,

The IAAF [International Association of Athletics Federations] had claimed that the Cheetah Flex-Foot prostheses (J-shaped, high-performance prostheses used for running) worn by Pistorius give him an advantage over able-bodied runners.

The [research] team concluded that:

  • Pistorius’ energy cost of running is similar to that of accomplished male distance runners, but 17% lower than that of performance-matched male sprinters.
  • Pistorius’ ability to hold his speed over longer sprint races is identical to that of intact-limb athletes.
  • Pistorius sprinting mechanics are markedly dissimilar to intact-limb track athletes.

There are more details here at Science Daily.

At Don’t Leave Canada Behind, Rob Annan has published some more details about the Canadian Science Policy Conference which is being held Oct. 28-30, 2009 in Toronto, Ontario.  For Rob’s comments, go here and for the conference website, go here. Early bird registration by August 15, 2009.

Nanotechnology enables robots and human enhancement: part 4

In Tracy Picha’s Future of Your Body Flare magazine article (August 2009) , she finishes her anecdote about the paralympian, Aimee Mullins (mentioned in my posting of July24, 2009), with a discussion of her racing prosthetics which were designed to resemble a cheetah’s hind legs.

And they not only propelled sprinters like Mullins to smoke the competition but they began to make their wearers look like threats to other “able”-bodied athletes.

Picha goes on to mention the controversy over Oscar Pistorius another paralympian  who has recently been allowed to compete in the Olympics despite the debate over whether or not his carbon fibre cheetah-shaped racing prosthetics give him an advantage over athletes using their own human legs. If you’re interested in the controversy, you can check it out in this Wired article. Picha’s article is only available in the print version of Flare magazine’s August 2009 issue.

I think the distinctions in the  study I mentioned on Friday (July 24, 2009) between restorative/preventive but non-enhancing interventions, therapeutic enhancements, and non-therapeutic enhancements are very useful for understanding the issues. (Note: I mistakenly identified it as a UK study, in fact, it is a European Parliament study titled, Human Enhancement.) The study also makes distinctions between visions for the future and current scientific development, which given the hype surrounding human enhancement is important. The study also takes into account the political and social impacts of these developments. If you’re interested in the 200 page report, it can be downloaded from here. There’s a summary of the study by Michael Berger on Nanowerk Spotlight here.

So, are robots going to become more like people or are people going to fuse themselves with equipment and/or enhance themselves with chemicals (augmenting intelligence mentioned in my June 19, 2009 posting here) or ???  Actually, people have already started fusing themselves with equipment and enhancing their intelligence with chemicals. I guess the real question is: how far are we prepared to go not only with ourselves but with other species too?

You may want to check out Andy Miah’s (professor Andy Miah that is) website for some more thinking on this topic. He specializes in the topic of human enhancement and he follows the Olympics movement closely. His site is here and he has some slide presentations available at Slideshare and most relevant one to this series is: Bioethics and the Olympic Games: Human Enhancement here.

As for nanotechnology’s role in all of this. It is, as Victor Jones noted, an enabling technology. If those cheetah legs aren’t being made with carbon nanostructures of one type or another, they will be. There’s nanotechnology work being done on making the covering for an android more skinlike.

One last thing, I’ve concentrated on people but animals are also being augmented. There was an opinion piece by Geoff Olson (July 24, 2009) in the Vancouver Courier, a community paper, about robotic insects. According to Olson’s research (and I don’t doubt it), scientists are fusing insects with machines so they can be used to sniff out drugs, find survivors after disasters,  and perform surveillance.

That’s as much as I care to explore the topic for now. For tomorrow, I swing back to my usual beat.