Future Talk: Limbs


I can’t imagine what it must be like to lose a limb, something that is so connected with my sense of self and so essential to my everyday life, it must be a terrible thing to face. Replacement limbs are provided by today’s hospitals but they can offer little close to the full functionality we once had. There is a light on the horizon though in the form of research carried out by Professor Kevin Warwick in what was called ‘Project Cyborg’. In 2002 Professor Warwick and his colleagues successfully wired a robotic arm into the arm of Warwick and established a connection between his nervous system and the robotic arm. This essentially created a fork in the path that messages take from the brain down to his real hand telling it to move, meaning that the messages also got sent to the robotic arm and created mimicked movement in there also. This was a major breakthrough as the Professor was controlling the robotic arm through nothing other than his brain. Now this is early days but the technology will only get better and it’s not difficult to imagine an improved version of this that equates to a replacement limb attached to the patient and with a big advancements in skin graft research an amputee could walk out of our future hospitals in near perfect shape.

Once on the path of progress though, we rarely say "that’ll do". Our thirst for progress is unquenchable and once the tipping point is reached we’ll start to ask questions. Is bone the strongest substance on Earth that could be used to give a limb structure? Are human muscles the strongest source to power those limbs? Of course we will know, as we know now, that improvements could be made. Already today we can create robotic arms that are superior to human arms in both durability and strength, so why not make synthetic arms that are more durable than bone and less likely to break? Perhaps carbon nanotubes or some other future metamaterial will form the structure of these limbs and make them near indestructible? And why not make these arms stronger than a human arm with no need for constant gym sessions to keep them in shape?

The fact is that human progress never stops; it is an unrelenting force that forever marches on and means that when we reach the tipping point for synthetic limbs won't be the end. Everywhere you look in human endeavours you see progress, we as a species don't stand still, instead we ever improve, ever move forward to make things better and the same will be said about bionics. It will happen slowly, but gradually these replacements will become more and more superior to their natural counterparts until one day we face a very strange reality; if you lose your arm in an accident, your synthetic replacement will be superior in every way.

How the world will deal with this is obviously a hard thing to predict but I think history has shown that capitalism will most likely be the driving force. Private companies will be established to specialise in the supply of limbs to meet the demand of healthy people who want to replace their natural limbs with superior synthetic ones, maybe purely for vanity reasons. With skin grafted over the top this will give the client a real looking and feeling arm that has the strength and durability that could never be achieved by even the most committed milk drinking gym obsessive. It'll come at a price though, a price that could polarise society in a way that has never been seen before. The rich for the first time will not merely differentiate themselves from the poor through their possessions but also through the makeup of their bodies.

Where things go from here is hard to say, but an imagined future of two strands of human, one pure and one bionically enhanced, becoming ever more distant from each other is easy to envisage. Many see our biggest future threat coming from robots or aliens, but man's greatest enemy has always been our desire to better others. In 2012 losing a limb is a tragedy; in 2112 it’ll be Christmas lists.