Advanced Prosthetics Redefine the Body

Technology usually changes the way we do things.

We communicate and think differently because of computers. We live differently because planes, trains and automobiles let us travel with ease. We solve hard math problems and physics mysteries because computers let us crunch numbers on a previously impossible scale. The list goes on.

However, every so often -- actually much more often than we, at first, recognize -- technology also upends the way we think about elements of our everyday lives.

As the eloquent, thought-provoking, exceptional leader Aimee Mullins explains in a presentation earlier this year at the Technology, Education and Design (or TED) conference in Long Beach, Calif., scientists designing high-end prosthetics are close to enabling wearers with "super powers."

Advances in prosthetic technology -- and art -- have both expanded the opportunities and enhanced the abilities of those who require them. These dramatic changes are flipping assumptions long-held by the rest of us upside down.

Sometimes, it's difficult to determine whether a change in our collective thinking pushed an optimistic individual or team to test previous technical limits, or whether it worked the other way around.

But in both that brief talk and our follow-up conversation, the actor, athlete and advocate Mullins propelled the conversation on exceptional performance by talking about her own experience with prosthetic legs.

Taking Prosthetics to the Next Level

While the issue is actually much larger, contemplating athletic advantage is a fine place to start.

As we learned playing tag in kindergarten, athletic prowess is not evenly distributed; we saw on day one that some kids could run faster and farther than others. Those lucky ducks were destined to be the first chosen for every team, probably throughout their entire game-playing lives. Most of us have been envious of those athletes at one time or another.

Then there was a second group, those who sat on the sidelines during gym class because of physical differences they were born with or that came about as a result of illness or mishap. We were definitely not envious of those folks.

Now let's throw technology -- in the form of advanced materials science, electrical engineering and the Internet -- at the problem. What emerges are several organizations that take prosthetics to the next level.

Standout organizations include the Reykjavik, Iceland-based Ossur, the Hampshire, U.K.-based Dorset Orthopaedic and Hugh Herr's biomechatronics lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab. To use Ossur's words, they are "in the business of improving people's mobility."

Advanced Research Merges Body and Machine

Each of these teams are researching, designing and, in the case of the companies, bringing to market advanced orthopedic replacements, more commonly known as prosthetics.

For example, Ossur's Proprio foot integrates carbon-fiber limbs with electronic sensor technology to enable users to naturally navigate changes in uneven terrain.

Dorset's teams design individualized solutions, including titanium-based prosthetics and microprocessor-enabled support mechanisms to enable lifelike movement.

Herr's research, on the other hand, integrates biology, mechanics and robotics to "advance technologies that promise to accelerate the merging of body and machine."

Now take those advances, each of which merits a separate column, and add in the cross-pollination effect of the Internet. Many of us were probably introduced to the concept of prosthetics by Captain Hook, with his peg leg and his namesake hand.

Artists and Designers Join Science to Create 'Stunning' Prosthetics

Human nature being what it is, that's where most of us stopped thinking about artificial limbs. Thankfully, whether through serendipity or intent, the Internet has forever changed that and has inspired important new groups to take a second look.

Artists, designers, architects and those who study cosmetics have joined the conversation with the scientists and engineers.

The results are stunning and startling.

Thanks to the combined efforts of these groups, prosthetic arms can be hairy, hands can have lovely manicures and feet can wear designs that match Jimmy Choo's best.

Increasingly, at least with a cursory glance, if you didn't know, you wouldn't guess that there was anything different at all. The wearers of these mechanics no longer appear at a disadvantage.

Why stop there? These wonderful technical advances are only the catalysts in a much more interesting conversation.

Mullins points out that for those who have reached parity, the playing field may not have to stay level for long. Increasingly, some individuals will be offered choices heretofore possible only in fiction.

Combine the march of technology, natural curiosity and the "try-harder, go farther" human spirit and we will soon be redefining both what is possible and what it means to be "different."

But as Mullins says, while we delight in bionic heroes with superpowers on television, we're not always so enthusiastic in real life. We may accept those who hire specialists to enhance their physiques or improve their vision and hearing, but when technology is applied to boost speed, strength or height, we sometimes gripe that those individuals have an "unfair advantage."

We may be accustomed to and comfortable with those who are physically "challenged," but we don't yet know how to interact with those who are "unnaturally gifted" and who, thanks to technology, are stronger, faster or more flexible than the any of the rest of us could ever be.

As further learning enables doctors and scientists to develop even more advanced prosthetics, we're clearly going to have to toss out our old stereotypes and embrace the implications of these new accomplishments.

Who knows? Slowly but surely, we may even be able to dislodge the concept of being "physically disabled." Reality is catching up with fiction.

Lise Buyer, a longtime Silicon Valley investor, is a principal at the Class V Group,