Who wants to be a superhuman?

Extraordinary advances in technology are making the disabled more able, and the rest of us could benefit too.

Hanna Muhammad

Topics Politics

The human race is extraordinary to say the least. Our brains built machines which could annihilate our whole world. But they also helped us communicate better, with inventions such as mobile phones and tablets. But what I find to be truly awe-inspiring is that we have created a way for disabled people to become more able.

As we can see from the Paralympics, and in the new exhibition Superhuman at the Wellcome Collection in London, the innovative design of prosthetic limbs is becoming increasingly successful. They allow those who have unfortunately lost a limb to regain many of the abilities that they had lost. Might these replacements become even better than their biological equivalents?

Scientists have investigated how to allow disabled people to have the same opportunities as those who more able, and it seems they have found the answer. The i-limb ultra prosthetic hand connects to sensors in the body, allowing the prosthetic hand to move as a biological one would have done. Movement in these prosthetic limbs is now possible by thought alone. This allows the disabled person to begin to have almost the same amount of movement as anyone else.

Due to such innovations, some people with limited mobility in one hand have already decided to have their hands amputated and started to use the i-limb ultra hand instead. Will this happen more in the future? Indeed, will people without disabilities start to get false limbs because they find their real ones are not good enough?

Maybe it will become a fashion trend. The famous and beautiful athlete Aimee Mullins has rocked the fashion world. At the age of one, Mullins lost both of her calves. Instead of grumbling and using her disability as an excuse, she allowed her misfortune to become an advantage and she now has many pairs of fantastic-looking prosthetic legs. In 1998, fashion designer Alexander McQueen even specially designed some boots for her, which she paraded on a catwalk while wearing hand-carved wooden legs.

If we are able to create prosthetic limbs which can adapt to our outfits and particular occasions, what is stopping us from creating robotic arms and legs for those who believe that human limbs are not good enough? Why do we not combine the use of technology with the human body? We would be able to enhance human senses, move with more speed and lift the heaviest of weights. But where would we stop? If we generate more and more robotic limbs, we would effectively put ourselves in competition with the human body. Each creation would be more and more developed and we would end up with a new type of body, if not a new species.

Prosthetic limbs should be developed to adapt to specific occasions. It is a fantastic opportunity for disabled people to feel as if they fit in more with the people around them. Robotic limbs could help scientists with their research and benefit other people, too. However, it is important to be aware that creating extensions to our bodies may become dangerous. We should not allow scientific advances in this field to undermine our humanity.

So, in the future, will different legs will be the norm? Choosing which legs to wear with what outfit, or choosing an arm with abilities that the human body can’t match? Only time will tell.

Hanna Muhammad is a graduate of the Young Journalists’ Academy, which is supported by a Wellcome Trust People Award. The above piece won the prize for best review of the Wellcome Collection’s Superhuman exhibition.

Superhuman is exhibited at the Wellcome Collection until 16 October 2012.

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Topics Politics


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