A New RoboCop-Like Exoskeleton is Helping Paralyzed People Walk Again

About 30 years ago the first version of a Robocop would hit the silver screen. Actor Peter Weller would be cast in the starring role, encased by a robotic suit that would protect him from the evildoers.

Now, in 2019, the emergence of an actual Robocop exoskeleton is being tested at a number of hospitals in the United States. The current version is limited to bionically giving people the ability to walk and is not the complete Robosuit. For those interested in making themselves available to be part of the ongoing test program, you will need to have about $25,000 for the exoskeleton and the required training. No medical insurance coverage will help pay for the technology. Also expect there will be a period of adjustment after the training is complete to be able to use them in a real world environment.

But this is no ordinary exoskeleton. Previous attempts at creating bionic limbs were designed to let the wearer dictate the motion of the limbs through shifting their weight from one side to the other, activating the motion sensors that in turn would move the limb. This latest model, developed by Cyberdyne, actually detects muscle movement at the back of the leg which then puts the limb in motion. It is being used at Brooks Rehabilitation in Florida, and is planned to be offered at another five hospitals in the coming year.

If the name Cyberdyne sounds familiar, you don’t need to look any further than the movie Terminator 2 which was the company responsible for the initial design of the T-800 series Terminator robot.

Back to the real world, Cyberdyne is not to be confused with Boston Scientific which has gained a certain amount of notoriety for its own type of robotics.

The Cyberdyne exoskeleton has been given the name HAL, which stands for Hybrid Assistive Limb. In yet another movie reference, HAL happens to be the name of the first computer that was unintentionally cast in the starring role of the 1960’s movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Where HAL differs from other technologies is that it analyzes nerve signals from the brain that signal to HAL that the person is trying to walk. Instead of being restricted to a predetermined step length HAL has been designed to respond to the desired gait of the wearer, allowing a more fluid motion.

A somewhat difficult concept to accept is that the person’s brain will actually learn the extent and limitations of wearing HAL. The reason, and the most significant difference, is that rather than the exoskeleton determining its function and operation HAL will learn how it needs to function based on the training it was given. This not only makes the motion fluid but it makes every HAL unit customized, making it virtually useless to any other person.

The question is where is this type of technology taking the human race in the future. HAL is the start of the complete exoskeleton, giving mobility to people who otherwise have zero chance of ever becoming mobile again. All that is required is for HAL to link to the brain, and the unit does the rest after a brief period of training. (It should be noted that HAL gets its instructions from the brain via a connection to one of the muscles in the legs, so it isn’t completely a body-free piece of technology.)

Should this technology evolve to the point where all that is required for humans to live for centuries is their brain, the future consequences are quite staggering. One potential scenario is where someone, somewhere decides which of the brain-exoskeleton units should be allowed to continue and let all the others self-terminate. Another is that the temptation for Cyberdyne to create a very Terminator-like entity is too great to pass on, resulting in the real world scenario of the Terminator movies.

One good thing is the name John Connor is a pretty common and generic one, so there is still hope for humanity. (Can you name all his lieutenants?) But from a more serious perspective, these advances in technology require us to ask who actually is controlling the development of these technologies, if anyone. The Internet that you are reading this page on has demonstrated that the complexities of AI and its application to physical machines exceed the ability of governments or scientists to completely control.


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