They won’t give you superhuman strength, and they definitely don’t cost six million dollars, but the artificial limbs from Ossur can think to help you walk better. The Rheo Knee, Power Knee, and Proprio Foot prosthetics all carry onboard artificial intelligences that help amputees use their bionic limbs with security and accuracy. Not only do the limbs move in a natural way and provide the strength to climb stairs foot over foot, they learn the user’s gait. Overtime, the bionic limbs will know how you walk better than you do.
Based in Reykjavik, Iceland Ossur is a global leader in prosthetics, braces, and orthopedic education. The founder developed some of the first artificial limbs by testing them on his daughter. The new wave of bionic limbs may be drastically better than older models, but this isn’t enough for current CEO Jon Sigurdsson. His goal is to create limbs that are as good or better than the real thing. Certainly the knees and feet with artificial intelligence go a long way to helping amputees walk and run as well as their peers.
Both the Rheo knee and Proprio foot contain onboard computers that perform minute changes to the prosthetic to help it respond to variations in movement. The Proprio flexes to match terrain, and adjusts the ankle to fit different slopes. The Rheo adjusts actuators to control leg swing. Together, this provides the user with increased security. The embedded AIs can learn an amputees gait in just 15 steps, but continues to adjust as the user grows accustomed to the devices.
It’s the Power Knee, however, that really makes me worry about amputee world domination. This thing is so cool. It provides enough strength for users to climb stairs easily (as seen in the video below) and will actually prepare itself for the next step. The AI is also smart enough to match the powered movement with the user’s natural gait. On level ground the knee uses its strength to help propel you forward, letting you walk further without getting tired.
If you’re not terribly excited by watching some guy climb steps, you’re missing the promise of cybernetic enhancement shown in the video. Not only is Ossur pioneering bionic limbs, they are actively developing prosthetics that provide additional strength. All while making them smart and safe enough for use by amputees. Once the technology really gets going, we could see limbs with power and agility far greater than ordinary human function.
I’m not sure if Ossur is seeking to create cyborgs, but they’ve definitely set up the process that could get us there. Under Sigurdsson guidance, the company is seeking to develop, or partner with groups developing, powered motion, neuro-sensing, and osseointegration (bone grafting the prosthetic). They’ve also started Ossur Academy, a seminar system that helps to educate professionals, amputees, and their families in the finer points of artificial limbs and advanced orthopedic supports. Combining technology and teaching is a key ingredient in developing a field quickly.
Whether or not they are ultimately successful, Ossur’s devices show that artificial limbs have as much promise to augment humanity as the exoskeletons we’ve seen from Cyberdyne and Sarcos. The artificial intelligence alone may make bionic limbs the easiest to use. Hopefully, Ossur’s approach will allow them to create a next generation of powered limbs that are better than before. Better, stronger, faster…smarter?