Earlier this month, I sat listening to the Dr. Hugh Herr of the MIT Media Lab as he delivered his Sensors Expo keynote, "The New Era of Human 2.0: New Minds, New Bodies, New Identities," talking about the ways in which we are merging bodies and machines. I found his talk amazing and inspiring and fascinating; science fiction made flesh. And although I enjoyed it, and was educated by it, I then went home and threw myself back into work as usual. Until this past weekend, when I was out visiting my husband's grandparents who were celebrating many decades of wedded bliss together.
Why did I think of it? Because the night before the anniversary, grandma fell and broke her hip. She was found and treated quickly, she acquired a brand spanking new hip, and when I saw her, she was doing pretty darn well for an octogenarian who'd just undergone major surgery. She's still got a long recovery path in front of her, and I couldn't help thinking, 'wouldn't it have been great if some of the body-assistive technologies that were discussed in the keynote were actually available to her?'
I'm not sure grandma would go for wearing some kind of robotic exoskeleton, although such exoskeletons do exist and could be used to keep a frail and unsteady person up and safely walking under their own power. Instead, she now joins the many, many other elderly people who've experienced a bad fall and who have suffered a severe injury as a result. Put simply, falls among the elderly are a huge problem. If you want some good solid numbers as to just how big a problem, I'd suggest you visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's overview that not only gives you the statistics—which are jaw-dropping—but also links to information on the current efforts to prevent them. Many of these methods involve passive measures: helping the elderly to become more steady on their feet; trying to keep their environments free of things that they can trip over; providing visual cues for changes in elevation on stairs or changes in floor surface; and providing grab bars and handles to name a few methods, and otherwise trying to give the elderly person as much help as possible to safely navigate their environment.
Many fall detection technologies have focused on identifying falls when they happen and notifying care givers or medical personnel to make sure that help arrives as quickly as possible. More interesting to me are those projects that seek to prevent falls by evaluating how the person moves. For instance, the Technology Research for Independent Living (TRIL) Centre in Ireland has developed a Gait Analysis Platform that assesses a person's gait as he or she walks on a sensor-instrumented mat while wearing kinematic sensors on their shanks and while Web cameras capture the video. The resulting data is used to figure out whether their walking gait has changed and whether they have become less steady on their pins.
I hope that one day I, too, will be a feisty octogenarian of grandma's ilk and I hope that by then the alluring future that Hugh Herr described where machines make up the deficits that our original-issue bodies experience—through illness, mishap, or increasing age—will be a reality rather than a series of exciting research projects.