Man climbs 103-story skyscraper with “neural-controlled bionic leg”
If you thought that bionic limbs were a mere showcase technology, still decades away from fruition or practical application, the folks at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC) have some news for you.
On November 4, 2012, Zac Vawter, a single-leg amputee and research subject for RIC, performed a stunning practical demonstration of the capabilities of RIC’s neural-controlled bionic leg. As part of the charity event, SkyRise Chicago, Vawter climbed 2,109 steps to Willis (formerly Sears) Tower’s observation deck.
The bionic leg is the latest step in the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago’s work with neural-controlled prosthetics, and represents a large leap in the safety and reliability of such technology. While researchers and engineers have succeeded in producing neural-controlled fingers and arms in the past, legs were considered a challenge due to the increased safety risks associated with them: If a bionic arm fails during use, you aren’t likely to do much more than drop what you’re carrying, but if your bionic leg fails, you could quite easily be injured from a fall. In this case, a fall down a 103-story skyscraper.
This technology was made possible largely due to another one of RIC’s innovations, called Targeted Muscle Reinnervation (TMR). The procedure involves surgically repositioning nerves from an amputated limb in order to make them more accessible along the surface of the skin. With that done, electrodes can be placed on the skin in order to feed data directly from the nervous system into the prosthesis. In Vawter’s case, he was able to walk with the assistance of only 11 such electrodes.
Given that this project is the result of only $8 million in research, it is incredibly encouraging to consider what this means for the future. As biomedical engineering industry continues to expand and increasing amounts of funding are allotted to such projects, it is no stretch of the imagination to assume that similar prostheses will be widely-available in the not-too-distant future. Remarkable as they may be, RIC and Vawter’s accomplishments are not history-making in themselves; rather, they are benchmarks along the way to our transhuman future.