Category Archives: bionics

Bionic upgrades bring up security questions

Did Steve Austin come with Norton Anti-Virus?

Hardly a week goes by without news of some new bionic enhancement being developed, whether it’s legs, eye, arm or even butt. Heck, the editors at PopSci even put together a nice compendium of all the advancements last year. Like it or not, we’re inexorably marching toward a bionic future; most such technology is being developed to aid people who have lost such limbs and body parts, but there will doubtlessly be people who want the upgrades voluntarily.

Leave it to presenters at DefCon, the annual hacker convention in Las Vegas, to discuss the potential downside of such bio-technological modification and integration: security. As in, what happens when your spiffy new bionic arm gets hacked? Could it be used by some hacker to remotely flip people the bird?

Christian “Quaddi” Dameff and Jeff “R3plicant” Tully, third-year medical students, gave just such a presentation at this year’s event, and told Network World that regulators and the medical world are just not prepared for what is going to be a quick bionicification.

“The FDA is overloaded and influenced by legislation. Yet the attack surfaces are exploding and will continue to explode,” Quaddi said. “There will be people walking around with a zero-day in a terminal application which means a person could die due to poor security.”

Think it’s unlikely? Well, given that hackers have had no trouble interfering with pace makers… it’s more than likely, it’s probable.

So if you’re thinking about getting that new bionic eye that you had your… er… eye on, better make sure it’s got a firewall and some good anti-virus software included.


Posted by on August 3, 2012 in bionics


2021: Mysteries of the brain are tackled

Forget space, the final frontier is the brain. Scientists, who tell us that very little is known about this all-important organ, have understood this for some time. Neuroscience has been progressing for decades now, although at a pretty glacial pace.

What looks to change over the next decade is that non-scientists are now starting to consider the possibilities that may come from understanding the brain, which is important because they - as in governments, businesses and the general public - are the ones that really drive technological advancement. If governments, supported by their constituencies, get behind certain lines of research with big-time funding, there’s little that can’t be accomplished, and quickly.

There are many examples. In four years during the Second World War, the Manhattan Project managed to crack the secrets of the atom and pump out scores of beneficial technologies - not the least of which was nuclear power - while the race to moon in the 1960s achieved similar results in under a decade. In more recent times, scientists from around the world - with resources from both government and business - went from knowing very little about the human genome to having the whole thing mapped out in 10 years. All of this proves that when humanity puts its considerable brain and wallet power to a task, we can achieve amazing things. (Cheap plug time: much of this stuff is covered in detail in Sex, Bombs and Burgers.)

All that is needed is a spark. Some smaller companies, such as Toronto-based InteraXon, believe that all that is needed to kick this field into high gear is something to capture the public’s imagination. The company has already lit up the CN Tower with mere thoughts and created a brain-controlled iPad game to show the sorts of things that are possible.

We may be seeing that quintessential kick-starter with the DARPA arm I blogged about a little while ago. The robot arm, controlled by a neural implant and intended for war amputees, is now being fast-tracked through clinical tests by the U.S. Federal Drug Administration, indicating that government is beginning to see that such technologies are not beneficial, but possible. If things go well with the arm, it will likely spin off into wide-spread interest in neural technologies, leading to advanced brain research and the funding that follows.

Things will get really interesting once we understand more about the brain, which will happen in lockstep with the advancement of computers I talked about yesterday. In the next 10 years, we’re going to start hooking our brains directly up to computers and the internet, leading to a whole host of possibilities in the decade after that. Doing internet searches by just thinking about them, sending messages to each other in a method akin to telepathy and, yes, even watching porn in our minds… just a few of the things we’ll be inching toward.

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Posted by on March 1, 2011 in bionics, neuroscience


Arms 2.0 are almost here

Over the past few weeks I’ve been working on some revisions to Sex, Bombs and Burgers in advance of its U.S. publication, coming up in December. One of the upcoming technologies I mentioned in one of the later chapters is a robotic arm that has been designed by scientists working for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

The arm is notable for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s the most advanced prosthetic arm yet in that it can bend, twist and rotate in 27 different ways, fully simulating the real thing. Here it is in action - and you’ll have to forgive me for marking out as a fanboy, because just watching this thing is amazing:

What’s even more remarkable about the arm, as mentioned briefly in the video, is that it can be controlled via a neural implant in the brain. In other words, it’s a thought-controlled robotic arm.

It’s even more notable now because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has just announced it will be fast-tracking testing of the arm and its neural implant, with an eye to getting this thing out there within the next four or five years (I had to update that information in my book).

I’m not sure it’s possible to overstate just how huge this is. We are on the cusp of introducing a bionic limb that appears to not only be equal to its biological equivalent, but potentially superior. We can expect that the arm will continue to improve over the next four years, to the point where the final product will be even better - and quite likely stronger. While the arm is intended for war amputees, how long will it be before someone voluntarily replaces their regular limb with a robo-arm?

There’s one other reason the DARPA arm is notable. It’s indicative that our understanding of how the brain works - or at least how it controls our bodies - is improving very quickly. This arm will open up a huge potential field of thought-controlled electronics.


Posted by on February 14, 2011 in bionics, DARPA, war


Robots with that human touch

I’ve been meaning to write today’s post for some time now, but just kept getting bogged down with other stuff. Last month, a group of researchers at the University of California Berkeley announced a rather amazing breakthrough: something they’re calling “e-skin.”

It’s essentially robotic skin composed of microscopic semiconductor nanowires that can effectively replicate the ability to feel. As one of the researchers puts it: “The idea is to have a material that functions like the human skin, which means incorporating the ability to feel and touch objects.”

As the picture suggests, one of the main problems with robots right now is that they don’t have the fine sense of touch that humans do. A robot can pick up an egg, but it might end up crushing it because it lacks that exacting ability to “feel.”

The e-skin looks to fix that by giving the robot electrical stimuli that simulates the sense of touch. The material, made up of crystalline silicon, is a big breakthrough because it can conduct electricity at a very low power, as opposed to previous attempts which required a considerable amount of charge. Attempts to simulate the sense of touch by using organic materials also didn’t work out because they couldn’t convey the electrical impulses properly.

The research is being funded by the National Science Foundation and DARPA, the Pentagon’s advanced science division. Both the military and mainstream uses are quite obvious - bomb disposal robots are becoming ubiquitous in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan, so giving them an even finer sense of touch would help immensely.

In the consumer space, the article on the Berkeley site mentions that the e-skin could help restore the sense of touch to people with artificial limbs. Interestingly, DARPA’s bionic arm - which the user works through a neural implant - is going into clinical tests on humans. Combine these two technologies and you’ve got an artificial arm that could be almost as good as the real thing. Add in a few years of further development and it stands to reason that bionic arms will soon be superior to the real thing. Where do I preorder?

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Posted by on October 6, 2010 in bionics, DARPA, robots, war


Real-life Iron Man suit gets a sequel

I’ve been neglecting the military side of technology lately, so let’s see if I can’t make this a special theme week - ahead of some major news next week.

A good to place to start is with an update on the Raytheon Iron Man suit I’ve mentioned a few times before. Just as the movie sequel hit theaters this past summer, so too has the defense contractor come up with its own second version. The XOS2 suit uses half the power the original did and is scheduled to be in the field within the next five years.

As Raytheon representatives and actor Clark Gregg (who’s been in a few Iron Man movies) explain in the video below, there will be two versions of the suit - a waist-down version will be used in combat, allowing troops to carry heavy backpacks. A full version will be used in support roles to load and unload supplies and the like (video is here).

It’s pretty safe to assume that once these things prove themselves in the field, they’ll start to get weapon attachments. The suits lend themselves very well to carrying very heavy weapons such as chain guns or rocket launchers.

The non-military uses are of course obvious - Sigourney Weaver used a big version of one of these suits as a power loader in Aliens (as well as a battle suit to fight the alien queen), so it’ll obviously come in very handy for the shipping industry.

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Posted by on October 4, 2010 in bionics, raytheon, war, weapons


Thought-controlled bionics coming soon

Lost an arm recently? Or are you just looking to upgrade? In either case, military scientists will soon have you covered.

Scientists working for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon’s mad-science department, are getting ready to start human testing on a bionic arm that is controlled by thoughts, Wired‘s Danger Room reports. The arm - which has 22 degrees of motion, has haptic feedback that replicates the sense of touch and weighs about the same as the real thing - will be controlled by a neural interface implanted directly into the user’s brain. Scientists at John Hopkins plan to test it with five patients over the next two years.

Does this sound too science-fiction-y? Oh no. Check out this two-year old video where similar experiments were done with monkeys. You can clearly see the arms are working as they’re supposed to:

Here’s what the arm actually looks like. Amazing stuff, huh? It’s probably one of the best examples there is of positive military spending. The bionic arms and other prosthetics are of obvious value to soldiers who lose limbs, and the spin-offs for the non-military world are obvious.

There’s a whole chapter in Sex, Bombs and Burgers about how military research often results in toys - the Mindflex is a great example. This simple game from Mattel reads brainwaves through a headband worn by the user. The goal of the game is to guide a small ball, kept aloft by a series of fans, through obstacles on a board. The harder the user concentrates, the harder the fans blow and the higher the ball floats. Less concentration lowers the ball, and so on.

Mindflex uses a simple variation of electroencephalography (EEG) technology, which is not even close to the neural implants we’re talking about with the arm. Neural implants open up a whole new world of possibilities, from thought-controlled fighter planes all the way to an internet connection directly in your brain.

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Posted by on July 16, 2010 in bionics, DARPA, war


A real-world Iron Man

In the course of checking out some new photos from next summer’s Iron Man 2 movie, I was reminded of the fact that military contractors are working on real-life exoskeletons. While these things are a far cry from Tony Stark’s flying, repulsor-shooting armour, they are pretty damn impressive.

I’ve mentioned Lockheed Martin’s Human Universal Load Carrier - which is of course known as “HULC” - before, as well as the efforts of Japanese car makers’ to create robotic legs that can be worn by people.

It was Raytheon, however, that got attention when the first Iron Man movie came out in 2008 for working on the real thing. A number of media outlets had stories on it while Wired did a nifty video. Check it out - a real-world Iron Man in action:

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Posted by on December 10, 2009 in bionics, war, weapons


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