Will 'bionic bodies' offer high-tech hope to the disabled?

PBS NewsHour has a new piece by Miles O'Brien on the latest in bionics, and how new technologies are extending physical and sensory capacities for people with serious disabilities— and changing lives.

The segment includes a visit with Segway inventor and bionics designer Dean Kamen (shown with Miles, at left); an exoskeleton test-drive at Berkeley Bionics; a chat with World Wide Mind
author Michael Chorost; and a run through Central Park with double amputee, fashion model, and former Gizmodo guest-editor Aimee Mullins.

Read the transcript here, and watch the video here at PBS.org, or here on YouTube.

(thanks, Kate Tobin!)


  1. Why assume bionic bodies, always offers “hope”? Why not have “bionic bodies” for LGBTQ people too, since they’re bodies aren’t operating in some set norm and thus need “hope”(!)

    Note there’s sarcasm in that last sentence, but it makes a point.

    This is the kind of stuff that’s coming out of the Deaf community these days: http://www.bslbt.co.uk/zoom/films/zoom_focus_2011/the_end/ and much fear exists.

    1. You’re stretching for a troll. I think it’s reasonable to say that for people who, for example, once had the the ability to walk, hear, or see but have lost the ability, and who hope to regain it — it’s fair to say that technology offers those people “hope.” Not everyone who is different desires to be the same, but it is reasonable that many people who have lost significant mobility or sensory capabilities might hope to acquire them once again.

      1. Trolling I am not. I am writing as a Deaf person and from real experience. I don’t think mainstream society is even a little bit aware of the pressure there is; and how skewed this field is.

        The link that I provided, is a valid response to the way some Deaf people feel. (It has received rave reviews within Deaf circles within the past week).

        Change the labelling of what you wrote, and apply it to other minority groups. Tech has good/bad effects, but sometimes tech tries to change the very nature of who people are or disrespect for diversity. And because funding is involved, then does lie scope to impose. The media or general society’s attitudes towards disabled people does not help.

        (I am very well aware of acquired disability, I work full time in this field).

        1. If you are born in a 1m³ dark room, you can be happy since you don’t know that there is an other way to live. If you ever find a window to the outside world… would you dare to look through it?

          You can’t know if it will show that your room is better or worse than the outside until you look through it. Either case, it will change the way you see the world

          If you learn one thing by following scientific publications it’s that it’s world application is never right around the corner. If it is, you’ll see it on the market instead.

        2. Tech has good/bad effects, but sometimes tech tries to change the very nature of who people are or disrespect for diversity. And because funding is involved, then does lie scope to impose.

          I don’t see how developing mechanical legs is disrespecting diversity any more than designing a better wheelchair. Either way you’re developing technology to provide greater mobility to a person who wants it.

          However I do agree that there should never be any effort to “impose” these technologies on people who aren’t interested in them.

          1. thank you for your comment. I”m already part bionic and it has nothing to do with conforming to any norm. My apparatus etc are about improving my health and increasing my independence, just as the article Xeni has pointed to.

            as a paraplegic of six years, I’m not looking for a cure to happen in my lifetime. but like most of the other paralytics I know, we’d settle for slight improvements, anything to make this life a little easier. and even if there was a cure found tomorrow, six years in a chair or more has so many detrimental effects on the body, particularly bone loss, it wouldn’t be the miracle that many assume.

            personally, I love being a bionic woman :)

    2. If you think about it, disability is wanting to be able to do something that others can do, but that you cannot.

      On the one hand, this means that “others”, “norms”, and whatever else should not matter – if one does not desire to engage in certain activities in particular ways, then one’s actual inability to do so is irrelevant, and screw the rest of society.

      On the other hand, it means that the “you’re perfect just the way you are” bullshit is just that – bullshit. People’s desires should be constrained by their biology to the smallest degree technically possible. I see no inherent difference,for instance, between a paraplegic hoping for a high-tech solution to enable full mobility, and a transgender individual hoping for a perfect sex-reassignment procedure. Or, for that matter, between the above two examples and someone wanting to get a nose-job, or someone doing steroids…

      Let every individual choose what traits, characteristics, and capabilities they want to have.

  2. I’m also worried for the disabled, for other reasons than Michael Couris (?) states in the interview.

    He is right about expecting too much in the way of what will become available, but I am also worried about whether the insurance companies are geared to lobby against advanced bionic prostheses as “cosmetic” rather than essential for daily life.

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