At a recent drop-in event at our Superhuman exhibition, robotics experts demonstrated a new robotic walking system that allows wheelchair users – including fully paralysed people – to stand upright and walk around independently. Ed Thornton was there to talk to the experts and a woman who uses the system.
Last week I saw Sophie Morgan, who was paralysed in a car accident almost ten years ago, walking around the Superhuman exhibition. This was not a miracle, and my eyes were not deceiving me; Sophie was testing out Rex, a set of bionic legs that allow wheelchair users to stand up and walk independently. The robotic device is a kind of self-supporting exoskeleton, which a user can ‘wear’ and control with a hand-operated joystick.
During the event visitors could talk to Sophie about the experience and Richard Little, one of the engineers who developed Rex, was on hand to answer questions about the device. In the context of this exhibition, the demonstration made me think about the way we interact with technology and how scientific advances can mediate our relationship with the material world. This new piece of technology not only gave Sophie the ability to walk again, but it also gave her a new perspective on the world. She could stand up and interact with people in a different way, changing her relationship with others as much as with the physical world. This is true of established technologies like spectacles, which allow the visually impaired to improve their vision, but which also hold social and cultural significance for us. More complex technologies like mobile telephony not only allow us to experience new things, but they also change the way we have that experience; it is possible to speak to someone on the other side of the globe in real time, but this conversation feels very different to a conversation held face-to-face.
Watching the demonstration and talking with Sophie reminded me of just how positive and life-affirming this change of perspective can be. It is easy to think of technological developments as an alienating and inhuman force in our lives and to speculate that further innovation will make us feel more and more removed from the ‘real world’, but watching Sophie stand up from her chair I was reminded that machinery can also be emotionally charged. Like all scientific discovery, the development of human enhancements is part of a process that is inherently personal. Watching Sophie walk around the gallery I was witnessing both an example of scientific progress and an important experience in her life. Looking at herself standing in a full-length mirror, Sophie commented, “I had forgotten how tall I am.” Her perspective on the world and the image she had of herself had changed, for the better, as a result of this robotic device.
Ed Thornton is a graduate trainee at the Wellcome Trust. Superhuman runs until 16 October and regular drop-in events are happening until 12 October.