The real Alita: Battle Angel cyborgs

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Science Robotics  20 Feb 2019:
Vol. 4, Issue 27, eaaw8387
DOI: 10.1126/scirobotics.aaw8387


Advances in medical rehabilitation robotics are making Alita-like cyborgs almost a reality, but laws are lagging.

“We can rebuild him. We have the technology. We can make him better than he was. Better...stronger...faster.” This was the introduction to The Six Million Dollar Man TV franchise, where severely injured Steve Austin and Jamie Waggoner became cyborgs who fought terrorism and crime on behalf of the U.S. government. The TV series was adapted from the 1972 book Cyborg by Martin Caidin, a work of “hard” science fiction that posed the question of how advances in bioengineering technology could lead to medical prostheses that could replace, and enhance, missing limbs and impaired senses. The same better, stronger, faster catchphrase could be applied to the newly released Alita: Battle Angel, except in Alita’s world, cyborgs are common. Alita: Battle Angel poses the question of why she is much better, stronger, and faster. For now, robotics is still focused on answering the how, not the existential why, of cyborgs, while the increasing prevalence of medical prostheses, and voluntary body modifications, are challenging the legal system.

From the first reported appearance of a cyborg in Edgar Allan Poe’s 1839 story The Man Who Was Used Up (1), science fiction has assumed, correctly, that work in medical prosthetics would be driven by injuries to soldiers. The story’s protagonist solves the mystery surrounding a famous, but oddly reclusive, general: It turns out that the general had become almost completely mechanical because each of his brilliant campaigns had led to the loss of a limb or an eye, which was replaced with a prosthetic. It is easy to imagine Poe’s ghost following the DARPA 2005 Rehabilitation Robotics challenge, which catalyzed medical rehabilitation advances for disabled soldiers, with benefits for the general injured population.

Possibly the most famous science fiction cyborg is Murphy from the 1987 movie RoboCop. Murphy represents a fusion of three major types of cyborgs commonly encountered in science fiction (1). He was a medical cyborg, where prosthetics replaced lost limbs or diseased portions of the body. He was also a functional cyborg because he was modified for a specific task, for example, the gun stored in his right thigh rather than in an external holster. His armor made him an adaptive cyborg because he was modified to function in a specific environment—the very dangerous streets of Detroit. RoboCop expanded science fiction themes, positing a cyborg as a shortcut for intelligence. Murphy’s competitor, the clunky, unreliable ED-209, highlighted the very real difficulties of building an intelligent robot, especially a weaponized one, from scratch. ED-209’s “Please put down your weapon. You have 20 seconds to comply.” command rivals HAL’s “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.” for things you do not want to hear from a robot.

Creating a real cyborg is not as simple as RoboCop suggested. The Six Million Dollar Man was more technically accurate in that it acknowledged that cyborgs required breakthroughs in biomechanics and tissue interfaces, the two key areas identified by the Science Robotics special issue in 2018 (2). These areas remain open challenges, but the 2016 Cybathlon competition illustrates that surprising, useful, and inspiring ideas do exist and are moving from the laboratory into the bodies of regular people (3). The 2016 Cybathlon was intended to determine whether new technologies were actually effective and practical. Six different races were hosted, testing how well different brain-computer interfaces allowed a person to control an avatar, whether function electrical simulation enabled paraplegics to race a bicycle without becoming overly fatigued, how well powered arm prosthesis could pick up and manipulate small objects, the ability of powered leg prostheses to climb stairs and negotiate slopes, whether a powered exoskeleton reliably allowed the wearer to sit down in a chair, and the ability of a powered wheelchair to move through narrow doorways and over curbs and uneven pavements. Function often won over cosmetic form.

Science fiction did fail to predict a ramification of rehabilitation technology; stories incorrectly assumed that the legal implications, and ultimately the dignity, of a cyborg would be a debate as to whether a cyborg was human. Instead, the legal challenges, and personal humiliations, have been more mundane. Should medical cyborgs, such as “blade runner” Oscar Pistorius, be allowed to compete in athletic events with unmodified humans? What are the rights of a person with augmentation? What if the augmentation does not look like a runner’s leg or like an eye? For example, Neil Harbisson adapted to severe color blindness by surgically attaching an electronic antenna to his skull to “hear” colors but then had to fight the British government, who wanted him to remove the antenna for his passport photo (4). What happens if an amputee chooses a non-anthropomorphic soft robot hand over a less functional but more cosmetic replacement with fingers and a thumb? And what about more clearly optional modifications? Functional cyborgs are beginning to appear, starting with Steve Mann’s work with wearable technologies. Meow Ludo Disco Gamma Meow Meow (yes, that is his legal name) embedded a subway chip in his hand (5), and given Harbisson’s experiences, it should be no surprise that the transport company retaliated by deactivating the chip and suing. Could a person with embedded earbuds, like Rich Lee (6), or a USB drive in a prosthetic finger, like Jerry Jalava (7), be denied employment due to fears of corporate espionage? The legal and regulatory impacts are unclear, but for now, the biggest impact is the FDA’s lengthy and expensive testing process for robotic devices (8).

Science fiction has correctly predicted the why of medical, functional, and adaptive cyborgs, while science is rapidly advancing the how to make those predictions real. It is a safe bet that the next Cybathlon, set for May 2020, will show new, practical breakthroughs in rehabilitation robotics and that many breakthroughs will continue to take a non-anthropomorphic form. Unfortunately, it is less certain that laws and regulations will respect the dignity of real-life cyborgs, regardless of why they are modified and the modification’s appearance. Although the future may not hold cyborgs that combine function in the same cosmetically attractive form as Alita, hopefully, we will soon have a society that serves all citizens equally, be they cyborg or not.


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