Episode 72 - Luke's Arm
Published May 22, 2014
Inspired by the robotic hand that Luke Skywalker sported in Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi, Dean Kamen and his DEKA Research have unveiled their own "Luke Arm". Now the US FDA has approved this incredible piece of technology. This is no longer sci-fi, this is the real world, people. On this episode, we ponder what this technology means, and how society will cope with our increasingly powerful abilities to restore, and even enhance, ourselves. Recorded on 5/11/2014.
You can download the episode here.
Mike & Matt's Recommended Reading:
The DEKA Arm, the DEKA Research site page for the "Luke Arm"
Luke, a new prosthetic arm for soliders, a TED Talk by Dean Kamen (TED.com, 3/2007)
Dean Kamen's Robotic 'Luke' Arm, a YouTube video by IEEE Spectrum (2/13/2008)
Dean Kamen's incredible robot arm is good to go, by Chris Davies (SlashGear, 5/10/2014)
Linking Human Brains, by Ramez Naam (TEDxRainier, 1/13/2014)
Monkeys Think, Moving Artificial Arm As Own, by Benedict Carey (New York Times, 5/29/2008)
Cochlear Implants: A Cultural Threat, by Michelle Jay (StartASL)
Mike Johnston: Welcome to another episode of Robot Overlordz, episode 72. On the show we take a look at how society is changing, everything from pop culture reviews to political commentary, all in under thirty minutes every Tuesday and Thursday. I'm Mike Johnston.
Matt Bolton: And I'm Matt Bolton.
MJ: So on this episode we wanted to look at- the FDA has just recently approved DEKA Research's quote-unquote 'Luke Arm', which is the robotic arm that Dean Kamen and his team came up with. It's inspired by Star Wars and it's- really, the genesis of it was around all of the veterans who are coming back from the Middle East, since 9/11 really, who have been injured and really have no arms, or they're missing an arm, or in some way just have had really catastrophic upper-body injuries that limit them. In his TED talk about this invention, Dean Kamen basically said that he got a visit from a very senior person at the US Department of Defense who asked him, and this is a quote, 'I want you to give me something that we could put on these kids that could pick up a raisin or a grape off a table. They'll be able to put it in their mouth without destroying either one, and they'll be able to know the difference without looking at it.' And it was kind of a moon-shot. In one of the videos we've got for you, Dean Kamen does talk about how lower-body prosthetics are essentially 21st century and the upper-body prosthetics, until recently, have been the equivalent to what we used to give people in the Civil War, where it's a fake arm and a hook, and he wanted to change that. Anyway, the Luke Arm is now approved by the FDA and will be available for sale.
MB: The one thing I should probably bring up is Dean Kamen has an impressive background. He's the guy who invented the Segway scooter, so he knows what he's doing.
MJ: I don't know that the Segway itself is the most impressive invention, but I think you're right, though. I mean, here's a guy who's got over 440 patents, he invented the first wearable infusion pump. If you look at the things he's interested in solving, it's all huge worldwide-scale problems. Clean drinking water. Power. The ability to pick up a grape off a table, even. He ranges the whole gamut.
MB: Yeah, you know, watching the video, and- these are very impressive prosthetic arms. These are nowhere near- thick, and open and close the hook at the end of my arm. These are actual hands that you could use and I think what's interesting, we've talked about the movie Her and some of these other things, you can see this stuff in, even the movie The Machine, you can see this stuff coming online in- we're not talking about something that's that far away, any more, from having an actual usable robot that thinks and does other things, because we're getting down the mind control stuff, and the robotics part of it has always been the hard part, and watching this thing and looking at it, it's pretty amazing.
MJ: Oh, definitely. They've made huge progress. I mean, the thing has twelve microprocessors. It's got lithium batteries in it. And yet it weights about eight pounds? And they modeled it off a female arm, an average female arm. And within five to ten hours of practice, your average amputee can pick up small objects, they can stack cups and eat grapes and in the video you see all of that. It really is just amazing.
MB: Yeah. One of the most amazing parts is the fact that it literally is about the same weight as a human arm, which is just amazing to me. You think about- I started thinking about- before I had read that I thought, 'Well, it probably weighs a ton, just because you've got the batteries and all these gears and everything else that's going on inside,' but you've basically built a replacement arm that's almost just as good as the original.
MJ: Definitely. I think they are still taking somewhat shortcuts in order to get it close to a real arm. Some of the control schemes they've got are nerve grafts, or muscle tweaks, or even foot pedals, and they use things like vibrating sensors on a different area of the person who's wearing it in order to convey what the arm is actually picking up in terms of pressure and stuff like that. But just the fact that they've come that far, you know, you look at some of the other areas in just science in general where they are making progress on mind control things. In the lab, they do have the chimps that- they plug their brains directly into an arm, and with a couple weeks of training, they're able to use that arm to the point where they don't even need to use their regular arm. All of that is coming, and the Luke Arm, it's approved by the FDA. We don't know how much it'll actually cost yet, so probably, at this point, it's not really going to benefit people that are poor. Your average amputee, maybe, who especially, the example guy, one of the test pilots for the Luke Arm, Chuck Hildreth, who had lost both his arms. You can't imagine that he's doing that well to be able to afford the arm without some kind of help.
MB: I think it'll probably end up being like any other technology on the planet. First few are going to be very expensive and then as they build them, somebody will figure out a cheaper and better way of making certain parts and they'll make them less expensive and the cost'll come down.
MJ: Oh, definitely. Definitely.
MB: With these, too, right now they're being used for returning soldiers so it's my hope that the military is stepping in and paying for these, and I think they are, at least part of them. Most technology starts off with the military anyhow, if we can get them onto some soldiers and get them working- obviously they work now, but get them approved and improved and get the cost lowered, I think they'll benefit a lot of people going forward.
MJ: Yeah, yeah. I would definitely agree with you. It was amazing to see in the video the test pilot moving around through the different grips and the movements that the arm is capable of. It may be a little weird at first, it seems sci-fi, but this really is here.
MB: Yeah. And you have to look at it, too, from- if you lost an arm, what would you rather have? A hook, or something like this? Even if it took some time to go through and figure out how to use it, I know for me, personally, I'd much rather have a robotic hand than no hand or a hook, or whatever.
MJ: Oh, definitely. Definitely. It's funny, I was watching Robot Chicken, I think I was telling you about this, the little skit of the guy being hooked up for his prosthetic arm. He moves his hand up and down and the doctor's like, 'Don't masturbate with it!' When they can joke about that on something in a skit like that, or when it's on Saturday Night Live, these things, they're not science fiction any more, it's part of everyday life, and I think that's the point we're getting to, that this stuff isn't science fiction and- I'm not sure that everybody has really wrapped their brains around that. When we were kids I remember, I don't know about you, but I always liked the Six Million Dollar Man. He was bionic. I would definitely, if I were injured like that, I would definitely get a robotic arm.
MB: Yeah, absolutely. There's a lot of things, like- now that deaf people can hear and they're getting to the point where you can make blind people see, we're basically fixing all these human anomalies where people had something wrong or, through warfare, they've lost a limb, or car accident, or whatever. We're getting to the point where- and now we're able to grow body organs, too, to replace them.
MB: We're getting almost to the god level here, to be able to create life, almost. It's an interesting time for technology.
MJ: Yeah. The thing that interests me about that is you're starting to see bits of backlash. You bring up the cochlear implant that allows deaf people to hear, and I was reading something about- I'll have to try and see if I can hunt it down for the show notes, but I was reading something about, there are actually people in the quote-unquote 'deaf community' that are very upset about the cochlear implant because they view it as an attack on the unique deaf culture, because people are jumping to get them. They're not deaf anymore, so they lose touch with whatever it is that deaf culture is. Obviously, both of us are outsiders to that so I can't really speak to whether that's a bad thing, but I think we'll see more of that especially when you get people who are kind of anti-science. There is somewhat of a trend in the US currently that is kind of anti-science. I think we'll see more of that as people push back on-- It makes me think of some of the people in my Facebook friends list. For people with developmental issues, they're just special, they're God's children or whatever, and if you can get in and fix those things, I don't think that will go over well with some of the people that think that. For myself, honestly, I would rather have that fixed just looking at it. Maybe someone would be upset by me saying that, but I would not want to have those conditions. That's the reality of the world we live in, I think, that currently, you can't get away from that. But if you can, would you really choose that for someone? Say it was your child suffering from that. Would you really choose to keep them that way versus if there was an actual cure? I don't think I would.
MB: And where do you draw the line, too? To me, if you can fix something like that, especially the cochlear implant if you can't hear, I don't understand-- Maybe it's jealousy from people who can't afford the cochlear implant or whatever, but where do you draw the line with 'Okay, my child was born with a lazy eye and you can have it fixed with a simple surgery, or a hair lip or something.' I don't really get the-- Where do you draw that line where you say, 'Oh, well, I'm not gonna do that because God didn't intend them to be normal.' If you had a child that was born mentally retarded and there was a way to make them normal, wouldn't you want to do that? To me, I would want to do that. I wouldn't want to have that handicap. To me, it's stupid to purposely-- At that point you're basically saying, 'I like to have my handicap.' And if you do, that's fine. I think you're selling yourself short and you're not living your life to the fullest at that point.
MJ: I would agree with you, really. It's a really fatalistic attitude. And like you said, where do you draw that line? It used to be that people died from the flu. Should you just, if you get the flu, 'Oh well, I guess that's that. I'll just sit down and die?' The history of humanity is sort of a struggle against fate. To say, 'I'm not gonna let that happen,' that's the thing with some of these technologies. I kind of am worried about the backlash. We mentioned in episode 65 about the Pew research survey, about the possibility of intelligence enhancement. When you get to that for normal people, the primary example being the drug that he used in the movie Limitless, I would say again, I would take that. I don't think there's anything wrong with improving yourself. If it advances all of society, I would say that's a good thing. If you came up with a drug that, say you had a child with Down's syndrome, would make them as good as or better than normal, I would want that for my child.
MB: Yeah, absolutely. Obviously, the world is hard enough when you don't have any limitations. It's even harder when you do. If you have the ability to fix something like that, especially with a child, the fact that you wouldn't because you don't think it's right or whatever, to me it's just limited. It's limited, it's stupid. I'll use the word stupid.
MJ: And you know, I think that's not any different than a bionic arm. If you had the possibility of getting a bionic arm, you're not going to sit there and say, 'Well, I'll just sit here with no arms.' You look at the expression on the guy's face, Chuck Hildreth, who was the test pilot. He's like, 'Wow, this is so liberating.' I saw a video from one of my TED talks. It was actually a TEDx video that Ramez Naam, the science fiction writer, did. He gave a talk about where they had a little snippet of a baby who had never heard before, and they implanted a cochlear implant. They turned it on and the kid's head popped up, and then his mom spoke. And dude, this huge smile broke out on this kid's face. Would you really take that away? I just think that is, like you said, stupid and limited, that people can be that short-sighted.
MB: I think at this point, if you have the ability to fix something like that and you don't, it's - what's the world I'm looking for...
MB: Yeah, it is kind of. You're almost doing it on purpose. You're limiting what your child can do on purpose because, and this is a whole other topic and I don't want to get into it, but it's kind of like people who are anti-vaccination. Well, we can cure all these diseases, but we're not gonna give our child the shot because Jenny McCarthy told us not to. Now we're running this huge risk of our child getting polio or measles or something else. To me, it almost borders on child abuse if you have the ability to fix something for your child and you just don't because you don't think it's right to let your child have a normal childhood.
MJ: Yeah, I think there's a lot there that we'll be looking at going forward, especially if there is a backlash. But in the meantime, I'm excited to see this arm approved. The first time I actually see it out in the wild somewhere, someone with one of those, I'm gonna be like, 'Wow, check that out,' and take a picture with my phone.
MB: Yeah, definitely.
MJ: Thanks everyone for listening.
Image Credit: By Petty Officer 2nd Class Greg Mitchell of the United States Navy (DVIDS Archive) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.