Disability Now: Cybernetics Special

Can and should cybernetics obviate the effects of disability?


Another week, another discussion on transhumanism, this time courtesy of Disability Now and their podcast team of Paul Carter, Mik Scarlet and Sophie Partridge. These are outspoken people with a strong sense of identity anchored in part, around their disabilities. For these folks, cybernetics poses both opportunity and threat – it’s impact something not yet tangible but up for debate from both sides. As wearer of a bionic hand, I was the most pro-cybernetics party at the table and spoke my piece on the unexpected improvements it has made to my life.

Here’s my top 5 takeaways from our discussion:

1. Cybernetics and bionics are different things

Kind of. According to Mik, “the dictionary says that bionics is replacing bits that you’ve lost; like any use of physical ability or a loss of a limb etc. with technology. And cybernetics is augmenting ability.”

2. Enthusiastic engineers at the forefront of cybernetics hear a one-sided view of disability

There’s a resounding assumption that everyone with a disability wants to be “fixed” and that’s really not the case. What does the future look like for a disabled person in a world where it’s increasingly uncommon to be so?

3. But we’re all already benefiting in some way from technology that we consider part of us

Sophie conceded that her power-assisted chair is a piece of technology that she wouldn’t want to be without and considers an extension of her body. Most people I know feel this way about their mobile phone.

4. At some point, cybernetic-assisted ability will be greater than that of an unaltered human

Mik referenced his recent feature for Disability Now in which he asks, in a world where the disabled are given super-human enhancements, “Who’s disabled now?“. A topic likely to be discussed further as long jumper Markus Rehm continues his fight to participate in the Rio Olympics.

5. Cybernetics might be a whimsical diversion superseded by genetic enhancement

If developments in genetics mean a baby with one hand could have a new one grown, or that no babies are born with physical disabilities at all, prosthetics like my bionic hand come become as much a relic of technology as minidisc player.

Download the podcast to hear more on these topics and for further insight read Mik’s three-part series for Disability Now.


Motherboard Event

Realising sci-fi: will we become replicants?

I was invited by Motherboard editor Vicki Turk to speak as part of a panel discussion on the future of humanoid robotics and cybernetics, playfully staged before a showing of Blade Runner by The Underground Film Club. We’re now in the futuristic age of 2016 (three years before the movie was set) and I am living proof that although humans and robotics are not indistinguishable, adoption of robotic body parts is now “a thing”.

Also on the panel were Amon Twyman, Leader of the UK Transhumanist Party, and Thrishantha Nanayakkara, Senior Lecturer in Robotics at Kings College University.

Motherboard panel: Victoria Turk, Nicky Ashwell, Thrishantha Nanayakkara, Amon Twyman

From left: Vicki Turk, Nicky Ashwell, Thrishantha Nanayakkara, Amon Twyman

Amon’s argument was that in the future, we will want to technologically upgrade our bodies. He wants to lay the groundwork politically for that to happen. “Who wouldn’t want the freedom to enhance their body?” He asked the crowd.

Thrishantha expressed a more philanthropic ideal of the place of robotics in our future, suggesting that rather than physically enhancing our bodies robots could enhance quality of life by being carers for the disabled and elderly.

I relayed my experience wearing the Bebionic hand. At first, it was exciting but something of a gimmick and I was skeptical about its impact on my life. I was, and continue to be, pleased that I can take it off easily to return to my one-handed “natural” state. However, as the Bebionic has become more familiar to me I’m forming  an attachment to it that I didn’t expect. At a recent dinner party a relative stranger started to feel the fingers and I felt that discomforting sense of violation that comes from unwarranted touch – much to my surprise given I get no physical sensation from the hand. I am, as Amon predicts, embracing the enhancement of my body with robotics, and I am surprised and conflicted by it.

This was the crux of our discussion. Technology will continue to progress at a rapid pace but as humans our ideas of what is an acceptable level of body alteration for ourselves or for others, will be a long way behind.

Adapting to life with two hands

Last week I properly folded a picnic blanket. I found two corners, spread them wide, and brought them neatly together. A few days before that I danced with my sister, flinging both hands in the air and lassoing them around my head carefree. These are trivial things that make my heart skip a beat because I’ve never had two hands to do them with before.

I was born a congenital with no right hand for no discernible reason. For 29 years I’ve found my own way to do things and I’ve rarely wished for a second hand. Then roughly one year ago I was approached on the street by a man who works for Steeper, a British manufacturer of prosthetic limbs. He asked if I’d be interested in trialling a new myoelectric hand. Now, I am the first person in the country to wear the Bebionic small hand – a highly advanced prosthetic with a sci-fi aesthetic and lifelike functional movements.

At first getting a prosthetic hand felt like cheating on who I am. I’ve spent my whole life being unashamed of only having one hand and changing that felt like submitting defeat. I’ve been taken aback by how much I’ve enjoyed being able to do two-handed things. But I am happy for the Bebionic to look like a robot and not like a human. I’m not trying to deceive anyone.

I’ve been explaining to people that the difference the Bebionic has made to my life is really in the details. When you’ve accepted doing things differently to everyone else, to suddenly be able to be the same is overwhelming. I’ve had a few teary moments.

When I left my hand at home last week to go to Glastonbury I felt a little lost without it. I never thought I’d say that. In my line of work (as a Product Manager for website), we talk a lot about user needs. What impresses me about the Bebionic is not how cool it looks, or how it uses incredible technology, it’s that it has been designed well enough to do what I need that I’m changing 29 years of habit.