CYBATHLON 2020, in which people with disabilities complete once-impossible everyday tasks using state-of-the-art technologies, is more than just an international competition. The organizers at ETH Zurich (the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich) conceived it as a platform for the development of assistive technologies that support fuller lives for people with disabilities.
This year’s event took place in mid-November, and Kaspersky was there as a partner of Team Russia.
What is CYBATHLON?
CYBATHLON includes races in six disciplines: Powered Arm Prosthesis (ARM), Powered Leg Prosthesis (LEG), Powered Exoskeleton (EXO), Powered Wheelchair (WHL), Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) bike, and Brain–Computer Interface (BCI).
Participants not only compete for gold, but also demonstrate the capabilities of the latest assistive devices. For example, using state-of-the-art arm prostheses, wearers were able to screw in light bulbs or feel what was inside a box; and in the latest wheelchairs, users can climb stairs. What’s more, the event motivates developers to enhance their products, because it is at once a competition for athletes and a showcase for the teams that create the technologies.
In this post, we will talk about the technologies: past, present, and future.
From a bronze leg to a cyberlimb with a neurointerface
The use of prostheses goes back a long way. The first known reference to an artificial limb is in the Rigveda, an ancient Indian collection of Sanskrit hymns dating back to the second millennium BCE, in which the gods give legendary warrior Vishpala a leg of iron after she loses one in battle. Archaeological prostheses date back about that far: For example, a roughly 3,000-year-old wooden toe was discovered in Egypt, and a bronze leg found in the Italian city of Capua is about 2,300 years old.
Following their ancient origins, artificial limbs remained pretty much unchanged for millennia. Then, in the sixteenth century, scientists created the first mechanical prosthesis, with hinged joints that wearers could control by using another limb or by contracting nearby muscles.
The period after World War II saw the appearance of another type of prosthesis: bioelectric (also called myoelectric or bionic). Bioelectric prostheses convert muscle activity in the residual limb into electrical signals, which in turn cause the device to move.
Now, in the twenty-first century, scientists are poised to take the next big step, developing neurobionic prostheses that enable wearers not only to perform certain movements, but also to recognize objects by touch. The technology is still young and has a long way to go before it fully recreates the sense of touch, but it is on the path toward that accomplishment.
New technologies are not replacing but supplementing existing ones; a variety of prosthetic devices are already in use, including some that exist for purely cosmetic purposes. Each type has its own field of application.
Mechanical prostheses are cheaper, easier to master, and more durable than bionic ones. They are more suitable, for example, for weightlifting and water-based activities — and when there is no power supply. For their part, bionic and neurobionic prosthetics are more comfortable to wear and provide a wider range of movement (for example, cyberlegs help wearers maintain balance, ascend and descend stairs, walk backward, and even run).
Specialization in prosthetics
Highly specialized prostheses also exist now, for use in certain conditions or for a specific job. For example, you can now find commercially available artificial limbs for water activities, basketball, jogging, and other sports.
The availability of 3D printing has also contributed to the development of artificial limbs by making them cheaper and more customizable than ever before. In some cases, people can download a model online and tailor it to their needs before printing it.
Another modern trend combines cybernetic limbs with digital technologies. For example, Russian manufacturer Motorica embedded a Galaxy Watch in a prosthetic arm this year. With it, the user can monitor their activity and control the arm’s settings — for example, the level of hand or finger grip.
Wheelchairs have helped people for more than a millennium, with first mentions dating back to the sixth century CE. Until the mid-seventeenth century, they were literally chairs on wheels, requiring a servant or assistant to maneuver.
The first manual wheelchair appeared in 1655, and the first folding model was developed in the US in the early twentieth century.
In our time, and in addition to the traditional kind, wheelchairs come with electric motors, caterpillar tracks for climbing and descending stairs, and even neurointerfaces for people also unable to move their arms.
Electrostimulation and exoskeletons
Scientists are also developing devices that enable paralyzed people to stand on their feet. (Incidentally, ancient Egyptians practiced electrostimulation as a therapeutic tool! Back then, they harnessed power from electric rays. Later, they replaced the electricity-generating marine creatures with electrostimulating devices.) In the aforementioned Functional Electrical Stimulation bike race, currents applied to competitors’ muscles make them contract and cause a pedaling movement.
The first prototype of another rehabilitative technology — the exoskeleton — appeared in 1890. It still required effort on the part of the wearer, but the suit made walking, running, and jumping much easier with the aid of compressed gas. In 1917, a steam exoskeleton was patented, and we began seeing electric, pneumatic, and hydraulic models in the latter half of the twentieth century.
Modern exoskeletons weigh less than their predecessors, are far easier to use, and offer greater scope for restoring independent movement. Some can connect to the cloud to store and process data about rehab treatment, and some of the latest can be manipulated by brain impulses.
The futuristic technology behind thought-controlled devices is called a brain–computer interface (BCI). Such systems first appeared in the 1970s and are now making great strides.
BCI sensors are implantable directly into the cerebral cortex, or they can be placed inside the skull or attached externally. The first method provides the best signal quality initially, but it can decrease if the body rejects the implant. Today, the most common BCIs are noninvasive and do not require surgery.
Electroencephalography is the most common technology for reading brain activity. However, other “mind-reading” methods exist as well. For example, in the 1980s, researchers experimented with using eye movements to control a robot. Then, in 2016, scientists unveiled a BCI capable of reading pupil size.
The scope of application for neurointerfaces is quite wide. At the dawn of BCI, for example, scientists used brain implants to treat acquired vision loss. And as we mention above, some newer wheelchairs and exoskeletons use neurointerface controls. As for CYBATHLON 2020 competitors, they took part in the Brain–Computer Interface race — a kind of computer game in which the power of thought moves game avatars.
On the horizon
Today, assistive technologies are advancing in leaps and bounds. What miracles lie around the corner, one can only speculate. Those at the cutting edge have some idea already.
For example, employees at neurointerface specialist Neurobotics note that current developments aim primarily to help people with disabilities manage everyday tasks through BCI-controlled wheelchairs and smart homes.
The technology has a long way to go before it’s commercially viable, however. As Neurobotics admits, “mind-reading” is still far less accurate than getting input from keyboard, mouse, or joystick commands. The company suggests 100–200 years is the soonest the general public can expect to use BCI as an effective replacement for the most familiar interfaces.
Elon Musk, who is working on his own BCI implant project called Neuralink, envisages a shorter time to market. That said, it is not clear when that may happen or whether the device will be a success; implantation is a major step, and not one everyone is willing to take.
Musk is not the only bold visionary. If you want some more sci-fi predictions, check out our Earth 2050 project, which lets users share their ideas, from fundamentally new sensory organs to a “body shop” where you can completely renew yourself.
Bringing on the future
Whatever the future holds, it’s important to remember that we are all creating that future, right here and right now. Therefore, we at Kaspersky wholly support the developers of assistive technologies and other ventures that aim to make this world a better place. They, like the organizers of CYBATHLON, are trying to build a brighter future for everyone.