Welcome to Ask a Biogeek, a column where you ask UC Berkeley researcher Terry Johnson any question you want - no matter how weird. There seems to be a strong correlation between my posting an article on a subject, and my RSS feeds filling up with exciting new research, which I then wish I'd been able to include. The usual post-article deluge of goodness, combined with the poster for a Neuromancer movie practically forced me to revisit the burning question: Where are my cybernetic implants?Japan's HAL exoskeleton is joined by the ReWalk system - a partial exoskelton designed to allow users with mobility issues to walk with the help of crutches.
Berkeley's Lower Extremity Exoskeleton (BLEEX) is designed to assist soldiers, firefighters, or rescue personnel by supporting heavy equipment with the exoskeleton instead of the wearer's back. The 100-pound BLEEX rig plus a 70-pound backpack feel like a 5-pound load to the wearer.
Berkeley Bionics demonstrates the latest version, which is easier to move in than without.
Amputees can look forward to advances like the K3 Promoter, a prosthetic foot with tensioned steel cables designed to mimic the action of tendons and ligaments, or Dean Kamen's "Luke" arm. The following video shows the arm in action as its creators discuss its engineering versatility.
When a prothesis cannot be completely controlled via the user's nervous impulses - or a completely robotic arm with human-like control is desired - a biomimetic arm may serve. SENOPAC's robot hand combines a sensory "skin" with a controller inspired by the human cerebellum, capable of a quick snap of its fingers or the delicate handling of a chicken's egg.
SENOPAC's biomimetic arm - 'cause evolution is hard to beat. Intel's working on a robotic hand that can feel objects before it touches them - relying on electrolocation to give the hand a "Pre Touch" sense.
The rest of the body has much to look forward to. Patients experiencing renal failure typically require dialysis - their kidneys are no longer able to filter wastes from the blood, allowing them to build up and throwing off the body's ability to regulate waste, acid, electrolytes - you name it. Dialysis artificially filters dangerous levels of wastes out of the blood, but it is an expensive, time-consuming procedure during which the patient is effectively bedridden. AWAK, the automated, wearable artificial kidney, would replace dialysis with a wearable device that operates continuously. It's not quite implantable, but a kidney that you wear is potentially much better than a kidney that you rent time on three times a week.
AWAK - "dialysis on the go". In an attempt to make mind-machine interfaces work more smoothly, this micro-mechanical electrosensory robot wouldn't rely on the usual surgical technique for implanting electrodes in the brain, which is "stick an electrode into the brain and hope it ends up somewhere useful". This device is designed to make minute adjustments automatically to individual electrodes, nestling them firmly in the signaling "sweet spot" - and, if necessary, keeping them there as the architecture of the brain changes. It'll zero in on neurons using software similar to airplane-tracking software currently in use by the U.S. military.
A better brain-computer interface? Advances such as these could serve to improve devices such as Neuro_Pace, an implant which detects oncoming seizures and short-circuits them, or the brain-controlled robotic arm that even a monkey can use:
Oh, and that artificial retina we mentioned last time? Now there's a wireless version. No word yet on what sort of security the wireless signal has. I rather like the idea of a future where you can wander around searching for public point-of-view feeds, though heaven only knows what the marketing people would do with that data.