Author(s): Katie Taylor
The development of bionics has led to the first Cybathlon competitions: an arena to demonstrate advancements in powered assistive devices. The premise is similar to that of the Paralympic Games, where athletes with a range of impairments come together to compete in sporting events. But the Cybathlon event sees technologies including robotics used in carrying out tasks like slicing bread and navigating doorways.
The six categories of unique activities showcase a range of apparatus, including smart exoskeletons and prostheses, and the employment of brain–computer interfaces in a virtual race for paralysed participants. Competitors can deploy commercially available or prototype technologies and medals are awarded to the development company as well as the user. The 2016 games included specialist robotics firms alongside the likes of Team Imperial (comprised of students and staff from Imperial College London), which worked on devices such as a powered wheelchair that could tackle stairs.
The events are hosted by the Swiss National Competence Center of Research, aiming to draw attention to such robotics. However, the organisation also hopes to manage public expectations, as development is often constrained by advancements in other fields, like the limitations of battery performance on an exoskeleton suit, for example.
The current technologies generally intend to restore functionality to the bodies of athletes, and to commonplace tasks that appear in many of the races demonstrate the capability of the products to perform in users' day-to-day lives. However, the inclusion of features such as a 360-degree joint introduces some amount of augmentation and hints at a future of robotics that surpasses normal human capabilities.
It's hoped that research into cognitive computing — like that being carried out by IBM in its Watson project — will supplement robotics development, enabling advanced assistive devices that can problem-solve to optimise their design to users. Advancements in smart artificial skin could support finer motor movement by providing sensory feedback to wearers, and the use of 3D printing is enabling specialised hardware to be quickly and inexpensively prototyped and built (see The Six-Million-Dollar, Self-Printed Man). The next generation of technologies is already off the starting blocks.