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An innovative exoskeleton could allow improved human function

Imagine being able to run non-stop without getting tired. Well, thanks to researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Biomechatronics Lab, this may soon become a reality. An innovative exoskeleton that could allow people to achieve previously undreamt physical feats is currently being developed. An endoskeleton is a frame consisting of rigid bone or semi-rigid cartilage structures, connected by ligaments and to muscles by tendons all mammals have these internal skeletons. In contrast, exoskeletons, whilst performing an analogous function, support the body from outside.

Powered exoskeletons are mechanical systems that can increase the user’s physical strength. This is done using neuro-embodied design; the human nervous system is extended into the synthetic world allowing it to work in harmony. This is made possible through sensors in prosthetics that are able to translate brain signals through nerves in the residual limbs. Professor Hugh Herr is leading the project which is currently focusing on creating an exoskeleton and has himself robotic legs designed by his team. “When I think about moving my legs, neural signals from my central nervous system pass through my nerves and activate muscles within my residual limbs,” he explained in a TED Talk earlier this year. “Artificial electrodes sense these signals, and small computers in the bionic limb decode my nerve pulses into my intended movement patterns.”

An innovative exoskeleton that could allow people to achieve previously undreamt physical feats is currently being developed

Optogenetic techniques are a method of stimulating peripheral nerves, this is advantageous over electrical stimulation tools since it can target molecularly defined subtypes of nerves as well as have the ability to stimulate motor axons in a fashion that mimics natural recruitment. Alongside these advantages, the use of optogenetics also averts all the drawbacks accompanying implantable devices, such as mechanical failure, device-tissue heating, and a chronic foreign body response. The development of an exoskeleton could be used to alleviate a variety of disorders, including chronic pain, muscle fatigue and glucose-related pathologies.

Tyler Clites, who recently developed arthritis, has said: “I find it very interesting that often as humans we are satisfied with where we are, with some baseline that we have set arbitrarily.” Mr Clites has also expressed that he dreams to be able “to strap on an exoskeleton and run through the wood at 20 miles per hour all day without getting tired”.

The use of optogenetics also averts all the drawbacks accompanying implantable devices, such as mechanical failure, device-tissue heating, and a chronic foreign body response

Things may become possible that we may have never even considered since an exoskeleton isn’t constrained by the same things as our physiology. Being a pianist, Mr Clites used the analogy of the creating new music not possible before since an exoskeleton would allow your fingers to reach over more keys. Though, the main aim of exoskeleton development is to benefit workers that are on their feet for long periods of time, such as nurses.

Undeniably, this sort of research does raise many ethical concerns. Could technology that extends physical capabilities lead to even more laborious work days? Professor Noel Sharkey, Co-Founder of the Foundation for Responsible Robotics, stated: “You could have exoskeletons on building sites that would help people not get so physically tired, but, working longer would make you mentally tired and we don’t have a means of stopping that.”

The main aim of exoskeleton development is to benefit workers that are on their feet for long periods of time, such as nurses

Regardless of these risks, they do not outweigh the benefits that could be bought to society through this advanced development in biomechatronics if used in an ethical manner. Technological advancements should not be halted through the fear that it may be exploited, however, a great deal of care should be taken to ensure that it is used only ethically. Mr Clites made it clear that he doesn’t want to limit technology and made a good point that “we don’t stop building cars because some people will drive drunk.”

It seems that the possibility of allowing humans to function at a higher capability than ever before is closer than previously thought. This would create a wide range of opportunities and advancements for people worldwide, and likely to be revolutionary for many disabled individuals.

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