A step forward

At the DesignTalks, a one-day conference that opened DesignMarch festival in Reykjavik, Icelandic company Össur stole the show presenting a first mind-controlled bionic prosthetic lower limb for amputees, and redefining of what design notion does mean today and what it will mean tomorrow.

Movement in able-bodied individuals generally begins subconsciously, which triggers electrical impulses inside the body that catalyse the appropriate muscles into action. The new technology from Össur – a Reykjavik-based global leader in prosthetics and orthopaedics – replicates that process in an amputee.

The first official presentation of Össur’s invention, preceded by one year of testing, took place in May 2015 in Copenhagen. On 10th of March 2016, this technology was shown to the design-focused audience gathered in Harpa building in Reykjavik where DesignMarch festival officially started. Guðmundur Ólafsson, a below-the-knee amputee and a special guest at the stage of DesignTalks conference, joyfully and proudly proved that he can control his bionic prosthetic leg with his thoughts.

Gudmundur Olafsson DesignTalks credits TrendNomad
Guðmundur Ólafsson at DesignTalks conference in Reykjavik. Photography by TrendNomad.com

Guðmundur Ólafsson was hit by an oil truck when he was nine years old. For 28 years he had his right foot, but because of pain in 2004 he decided to get it amputated. For years after the operation, he wore Proprio Foot, a motorised, battery-powered ankle from Össur. Until 2014, his wearable robot controlled by algorithms and sensors that adjust the angle of the foot during different points of a stride moved on autopilot. Since Össur upgraded his hardware, Ólafsson can move his right ankle just by thinking about it.

Gudmundur Olafsson and Thorvaldur Ingvarsson DesignTalks credits TrendNomad
Guðmundur Ólafsson and Dr Thorvaldur Ingvarsson, EVP of Research & Development at Össur, making the presentation at DesignTalks conference. Photography by TrendNomad.com

As Dr Thorvaldur Ingvarsson has explained at DesignTalks, Guðmundur Ólafsson can control his bionic prosthetic leg with his thoughts thanks to tiny implanted myoelectric sensors (IMES) that have been surgically placed in his residual muscle tissue. Sensors don’t have to be attached to specific nerves. The operation took about twenty minutes, and it took around ten days to heal.

As soon as I put my foot on, it took me about ten minutes to get control of it. I could stand up and just walk away. Come back, sit down, use my muscles to move my foot in the position I wanted to use it. I was moving it with my muscles. The foot was not doing it, I was doing it. I started to cry – Guðmundur reminisced.

The result is the instantaneous physical movement of the prosthesis however the amputee intended. Guðmundur no longer needs to think about a movement because his unconscious reflexes are automatically converted into myoelectric impulses that control his bionic prosthesis. The IMES subconsciously, continuously and in real-time triggers the desired movement, via a receiver located inside the prosthesis.

The day after the DesignMarch festival has finished, I visited Össur’s headquarters located on the outskirts of Reykjavik to interview Mr Kristleifur Kristjánsson, Medical Officer R&D Global. Below you can find the transcription of our talk. This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

Kristleifur Kristjansson credits TrendNomad
Kristleifur Kristjánsson, Medical Officer R&D Global at Össur. Photography by TrendNomad.com

TrendNomad.com: How long have you been working on the first mind-controlled bionic prosthetic lower limb for amputees?
Kristleifur Kristjánsson: We have been woking on this for 2,5 years, but it is not only our project. We collaborated with Alfred Mann Foundation where necessary implants for picking up the muscular activity signals and transferring them to the outside were developed and tested. Össur’s prosthesis accommodates to those signals.

Is it difficult for a new user to start using the brain interface?
K.K.: In a place where an amputated leg was cut off, an amputee still has a part of his or her muscles. They are still connected to nerves and a patient can voluntarily contact them. Implants are put into those muscles to pick-up electric signals that are being sent from user’s brain. We are using the same muscles that patient would use to move an ankle or a knee. It means that a patient does not have to learn anything new.

It is not given that patients who have been amputated for many years or decades can effectively use these muscle as they used to do and thereby to use them to control a bionic prosthesis.

Gudmundur Olafsson and Thorvaldur Ingvarsson DesignTalks2 credits TrendNomad
An illustration explaining how the prosthesis does work. Photography by TrendNomad.com

How implants are charged?
K.K.: There are copper wires in the socket that create a magnetic field inside the shell. Implants are charged through induction of that electromagnetic field. Once sensors are implanted, there is no need to perform another surgery.

And how the mind-controlled prosthesis is charged? Is it charging itself during a walk?
K.K.: Not yet. We have not come to a final solution. Our goal is an overnight charging process that is sufficient for the entire day of walking. Now it can work for three or four hours. Then a user has to recharge the prosthesis or use a spare battery.

Is Guðmundur Ólafsson the only person who uses a mind-controlled bionic prosthetic lower limb?
K.K.: There are two of them, but Guðmundur is the one who we call transtibial or a below-knee amputee. The second tester has a mind-controlled bionic prosthesis that includes also artificial knee.

Both prostheses are custom made?
K.K.: No stump is alike, so every socket must be custom made. Copper wires around a socket need to be placed in a proper relation to sensors implanted into the muscles.

Does Össur plan to make mind-controlled bionic prosthetic lower limb commercially available on the market?
K.K.: The decision has not been made. Both mentioned mind-controlled prosthetics limbs are prototypes. At this point, they are not ready to be released on the market. We have to develop them further.

How many years will it take?
K.K.: It’s difficult to say. Probably the very earliest would be five years. As many advanced new technologies, its price may be high at the beginning. It might take another few years to get cheaper.

Why do technologically advanced prostheses still look like machines? Will they ever look and feel like a real human body?
K.K.: Not at this point in time, but maybe someday it will change. Users have different ideas of what their prostheses should look like. Once you have lost your leg and start using a prosthesis, it becomes a part of you and of your character. There are amputees who want their prosthesis look harmonized with the Harley Davidson they ride on weekends. Those who are proud of having prosthesis with a titanium plate or brushed steel, probably would not be very willing to wear a perfectly human-looking hairy prosthesis. But aesthetics change, just as fashion does. It is a very personal issue and we have to be open to all possibilities.

Is it possible to apply the brain-interface also for a prosthetic arm?
K.K.: Of course it is possible. It was done earlier with the same implants. But we do not specialize in upper limbs. Össur’s product range only spans lower limb prosthetics.

Ossur map credits TrendNomad
Össur’s headquarters are located in Reykjavik. Operations in Iceland encompass manufacturing, research and development, corporate finance and sales and marketing for the domestic market. Össur has offices and extensive operations in the Americas, Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia. Photography by TrendNomad.com

In February I visited CCCB art centre in Barcelona, where until 10th of April an exhibition „HUMAN+ The Future of Our Species” is being shown. The plus in its title implies a positive direction of the future of our species. Do you also believe that the future of humankind is positive?
K.K.: This question could be considered in many contexts, but, generally speaking, I can agree with that assumption. If we focus on future relations between human and machines that will be integrated with our bodies, we need to define few fields.

Firstly, there is medical robotics. Next month there will be a conference in Washington devoted to this subject. I have been asked to direct the ethics discussions. I’m very curious how the discussions will go.

Besides medical robotics, people can, for example, use robots to increase their productivity. We are in discussions with some companies that are thinking of making robots to help the ageing workforce and decrease physical wearing and illnesses resulting from too big loads on their body. The goal is to develop specific devices or braces for taking on repetitive or heavy movements.

The military is another field, but we are not involved on this. Where I do participate in discussions is a neural enhancement. There is a strong distinction between a neural enhancement for people with neurologic deficits providing robotic or bionic solutions that are enhancing patients abilities, and a neural enhancement that is about creating a superhuman. These are different issues.

Do you see any differences between a superhuman and a cyborg?
K.K.: A cyborg is kind of a bridge between a machine and a man. Superhuman is not the best word when speaking about exclusively electronic or bionic solutions. When thinking of superhuman, we are also talking about genetically or biologically modified humans.

Do you think that someday even young people who have no amputation will be eager to enhance or augment their bodily functions?
K.K.: I am sure that some people, especially those interested in sport, will be eager for neural enhancement. Besides games, neural enhancement could also create new jobs opportunities. It is already happening in the military. We can see some solutions, but I bet there is more that we do not know about.

What will it feel like to be a human a ten, fifty and hundred years from now?
K.K.: It will not feel much different from what it feels today. Being a human is not about your physical capabilities. It is about your mentality, mind, consciousness and what you can think. Technology will not change that.

Will high-end technology create a new race of humans?
K.K.: Our genome can adapt to the environment, so, theoretically, the answer is „Yes”. But it would take a very long time, even few thousands of years to happen.

If you would like to ask Mr Kristleifur Kristjánsson any other questions regarding Össur’s activities, please send them via email at kkristjansson@ossur.com.


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