Bertolt Meyer was born without a lower left arm.
He started wearing his first prosthesis, or artificial arm, when he was 3 months old. Now at age 37, Meyer wears the futuristic i-limb — a high-tech bionic arm that looks like something out of a sci-fi movie.
Aesthetics aside, the i-imb is highly functional. It’s a myoelectric prosthesis, which uses electrical signals from the muscles inside the residual limb to control the prosthesis.
Two electrodes lay on the bare skin of the residual limb of his lower left arm. “If you flex muscles in your arm, that will change the electrical pattern on the surface of the arm and these patterns are picked up by the electrodes that lie in the prosthesis,” Meyer told Business Insider.
A microcontroller then amplifies the signal and the i-limb responds. If he flexes his upper arm muscles one way, the i-limb opens; another way, it closes.
In his professional life, Meyer is a professor of psychology at the Chemnitz University of Technology in Germany, where his research focuses on diversity.
In 2013, he was featured in the Smithsonian Channel documentary “The Incredible Bionic Man,” which brought together leading researchers and roboticists to create the first “Bionic Man,” assembled from the latest technology in prosthetics and artificial organs. Meyer’s face was even used as the model for the man.
Meyer spoke with Business Insider about how his personal experience has motivated his research, how technology is changing perceptions of disability and the ethical questions surrounding the future of prosthetics.
The below interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Business Insider: What motivated you to study social psychology?
Bertolt Meyer: Well, I guess research is also always a little bit of “me” search. So I’d say one of the factors that influenced me is the experience of being different.
If you are born with a very visible physical disability, you learn very quickly what it’s like to be treated differently and how it is to have people stare at you — children can be very cruel sometimes. I wondered where these things come from and how they affected us.
BI: Was there a moment in your childhood when you understood that you were “different”?
BM: One early moment I can remember was in primary school, probably in second or third grade.
I was in a discussion with a classmate of mine and he asked me, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
I said, “I want to become a firefighter.”
He said, “You can’t do that, you only have one arm.”
And I had never thought about that. I was devastated at that moment and that was something that really stuck.
BI: In 2009 you started wearing the i-limb. Can you speak from your own experience how technology like the i-limb can change perceptions of disability?
BM: From personal experience, when you only have one arm, people usually meet you with a sense of pity. And people also kind of give you the feeling that they don’t want to talk about it and they avoid gazing at you and so forth. It’s uncomfortable at best — it’s like an elephant in the room.
Now with the i-limb, that has completely changed. People have started to treat me in a different way.
It has changed to “oh wow, what a cool hand, can I have a look?” Especially kids, they’re like “Wow a robot hand. Do you have super powers?”
Aside from the functional improvement that you get with such a prosthesis, what I also got was a psychological benefit. It drastically increased my self-esteem.
BI: And what about from an academic perspective?
BM: I think these devices have the potential to change commonly held stereotypes towards people with a disability. One important dimension of stereotypes is how we associate people from stereotyped groups with competence.
For example, when we talk about disabled people, we usually see disabled people as incompetent people — meaning that these people are unable to act out their intentions. Whereas people who we perceive to be “like us” or people who we perceive as idols, we usually see as very, very competent.
Technology — high-tech and bionics — inherently evokes a feeling of competence. And what you get when you blend a person with a piece of high-tech is something that stereotypically is very competent.
To illustrate, I would like to use the example of Oscar Pistorius — before he shot his girlfriend.
When Pistorius tried to compete in the able-bodied Olympics, some people were wondering whether he had an unfair advantage. And some journalists talked about “techno-doping.”
I can’t judge whether he had an unfair advantage or not. But it was interesting because the one thing that all the talk about him did not convey was stereotypes of incompetence. It was is he “too competent” — is he almost a threat to the able-bodied athletes. And that is a drastic shift. Seeing someone with a disability as a threat, because a disability suddenly gives a person a potential: an interface to a piece of superior technology.
BI: Do you find that you use your right hand and the i-limb interchangeably?
BM: No. For that the i-limb isn’t good enough.
The problem with the i-limb, and any other fully dexterous prosthesis, is not the way it’s engineered. We now have hands where at least theoretically every joint could move and could do so independently of every other joint in the hand.
The biggest challenge that we face today with the hand prosthesis is the interface between the prosthesis and the body. If you have dozens of little motors in an artificial hand that can mimic any movement that your natural hand can do, where should the delicate control signals for all of these motors come from? How do you connect that to the nerve system? And that is a problem that is still not solved.
So, no, I can’t play the piano with my left hand. But one thing I can tell you is before I got the i-limb, I almost exclusively relied on my right sound hand for doing almost everything. This caused my right shoulder to really start to hurt because I overstrained my right arm and shoulder. Since I started wearing the i-limb, that issue is completely gone.
BI: In the past, you’ve discussed how the i-limb has a Bluetooth, meaning there’s a wireless connection to your iPhone. Have you been worried about someone being able to hack into your i-limb?
BM: The very first version of the app that connects the iPhone to the i-limb didn’t have a passcode, so anyone could establish the connection. Now they have changed that. In order to pair the app with the hand you need a passcode and you need to type in the serial number of the hand (which is printed on the hand) in order to establish the connection.
I haven’t really personally worried about someone hacking into my i-limb. Also there is a hardware off switch on the side of my socket. Even if something would go weird, I could switch it off.
It’s more a conceptual worry that I have. That is if we continue to upgrade human bodies with technology and this technology is connected to the internet that does give the word hacking a new meaning. There are more stark examples than the potential of making another person’s hand move.
The most extreme example I’ve come across was mentioned by an acquaintance of mine, Marc Goodman, who does cyber security strategy. [Some diabetics use electronic insulin pumps to manage their blood glucose levels.] And these pumps are continuously connected to the patients bloodstream and give off insulin at certain doses and in certain intervals. Now these things also have Bluetooth built in. And somebody has actually built a device that sends out a Bluetooth signal that causes these insulin pumps to give off lethal doses of insulin. So suddenly with a hack you can kill someone.
So don’t just think of prosthesis, think of these insulin pumps, pacemakers, artificial organs that we might see in the future. Things like that we need to start worrying about security. Because again in a connected world these developments really give the word hacking a new meaning.
BI: One of the issues raised with the Bionic Man documentary was this idea of how much of a human could be replaced and still be considered human. Did your thoughts change after making the documentary?
BM: The question of whether someone or something is human or not does not depend on how many parts of the body we replace. In the end, it comes down to whether someone has a self-aware conscious.
The one thing that I’m really less worried about is the artificial intelligence. I do remember in the early ’90s there were people who predicted that we’ll have natural language interaction with computers by the year 2000. I learned from the Bionic Man project that we’re still very far away from that. So actually my fears that some kind of machines will take over the world have lessened.
What I started to really think about is a question of enhancement. If you lose a limb, an artificial limb will not restore your functionality back to 100 per cent. But I really wonder what will happen if — and it’s a big if, it’s not a given — we managed to invent an artificial limb or organ that’s actually better than the natural counterpart.
At the moment, an artificial hand like the i-limb, doesn’t cater to people with two hands because it can’t offer them anything they can’t do. It only caters to a very small niche market — the very few thousand people who lost a hand.
But if you had an artificial limb that would be better than a healthy limb, then you’d suddenly have a product that emerges form a niche market to a mass market because suddenly it appeals to everyone.
I’m not going to say that everyone is going to chop off their hands, but already we see body modification people who experiment with implanting little magnets into their hands to give them a sixth sense for magnetic fields. So if we already have extreme people willing to do that today, I’m pretty sure we’ll have people who are willing to replace healthy limbs with artificial ones if these offer more functionality.
Think of plastic surgery. In certain parts of society, it’s already accepted to alter a healthy body in order to increase its aesthetic appearance, why not the same concept for functionality?
It will make products more appealing to a larger market. There’s a lot of money to be made. And I’m just a little worried that with such projects some corporations might leave the ethical issues to the side.
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