Cyborgs in Our Midst: High Tech Assistive Technology in the Age of Cobotics

January 2, 2019

Images of machines made to look like humans — terminators, replicants and Ex Machina vixens — define the peak of human-robot relations in media. But humans have a deeper connection to robotics technology: some embody it, just like cyborgs. From limb prosthetics to hearing aids and other computerized or mechanical devices, assistive technology is making cobotics personal.

What are Cyborgs?

The word cyborg was coined in the 1960s. It stands for “cybernetic organism” and refers to beings with both organic and biomechatronic body parts. Cyborg bodies incorporate advanced technology for restoration, enhancement or both. Cyborgs have a long history of representation in media, from mid-21st century DC comics to Janelle Monae’s 2013 album Electric Lady.

But cyborgs are among us today, if you ask Jillian Weise. An associate professor of creative writing at Clemson University, Weise claims the word cyborg to describe herself in the interview “Cyborg Laureate Jillian Weise finds freedom in words.” Weise uses a computerized prosthetic leg as a physical aid.

Weise believes that any person who uses mechanical or computerized aids is a cyborg, and she means it with pride. This physical aid is a type of “assistive device.” These devices can be low, mid or high tech. They range in complexity and power source requirements as well as electronic components.

Some low-tech examples include blindness canes and pencil grips. Low-tech devices do not have a battery or power source. Mid-tech devices use batteries and power sources but may not require training to use. This category of tools usually functions in conjunction with other assistive items, such as computers. However, mid-tech devices can also include biomechanical devices that have become standards, such as pacemakers.

High-tech devices are much more expensive, but widely popularized because their use is often easier to identify. High-tech assistive devices are computerized, digital, electronic or software based, such as apps.

Cyborgs in the Workforce: Cobotics

In her interview, Weise says, “We’re already robotic. We’re already using tech on our actual bodies. I think there’s something human missing from the word ‘robot.’ As a person who has a computer for a leg, ‘cyborg’ seems applicable to me.”

Weise’s statement should inspire a better cobotics discussion in manufacturing spaces. Human-centered technology has been in the workforce for a long time on the bodies of disabled individuals via assistive devices. These valuable employees have already navigated many of the issues raised by introducing AI-enhanced robots and PLC automated machines to workspaces.

One of the more popular figures known for high tech assistive technology was Stephen Hawking, the astrophysicist expert. Hawking, who had ALS, relied on his state-of-the-art chair and speech device to accomplish his goals.

Thus, disabled individuals provide a model for utilizing assistive technology with creativity and boldness in industrial spaces.

High-Tech Assistive Devices for Disability Aid

A range of low-to-high tech assistive devices permeate workspaces for disability aid. However, in recent years, the latter category has made huge leaps with the advent of AI, machine learning, VR and even wearable technology.

Microsoft Office and Windows assistive tools have gained some popularity in this category. These include screen-readers, speech-to-text and intuitive note-taking applications for sight impaired individuals. Other companies are known for computerized wheelchairs, driverless cars and electromechanical prosthetic devices, such as Weise’s leg.

Sealevel’s own Wallace Krebs helped test a high-tech assistive prosthesis, the DEKA arm. Also called the “Luke Arm,” it is a bionic prosthetic device that is controlled via the brain’s electrical signals rather than body movements. That same arm is now available to individuals. It was recently updated to be compatible with osseointegretation.

Assistive Devices in Manufacturing

Assistive aids have inspired functional tools for non-disabled individuals for years. Some low-tech consumer goods came out of designs intended for disabled individuals. The infamous Snuggie initially served to make sure wheelchair users could wear blankets securely.

This trend has continued to industrial spaces. In the manufacturing world, high-tech assistive devices serve to speed up processes and reduce risk. For example, Ford’s assembly line exoskeletons enable operators to safely lift heavy loads or exert force without self-injury.

Other assistive advancements function as ears and eyes for manufacturing employees. Sensors and headsets give repair techs an inside look at machines that may be malfunctioning. Solder techs have magnifiers that reduce eye strain when working on small components. The appropriate use of this technology increases quality of life and diminishes the difficulty of work.

Common Cyborg

It is essential that the joys and struggles of disabled persons using technology in their lives or on their bodies not be erased. Adding a cobot to a factory floor is analogous but not identical to a person’s journey through assistive technology. As Weise says in her essay “Common Cyborg,” “depending on machines to breathe, stay alive, talk, walk, hear or hold a magazines” is its own class.

Therefore, it is important to listen to and make space for the stories of people most intimate with technology. Without that experiential knowledge, our attempts to break the barriers between humans and technology will be clumsy at best and harmful at worst.