9 February 2016
Guest blogger: Simon J Green
An exoskeleton is a powered suit, a type of robotic skeleton that covers the wearer and enhances their strength. Imagine an arm encased in strong material, with powered joints at the elbow and wrist. When the user grabs a container that weighs 25 kilograms, the strength and support of the exoskeletal arm allows the user to lift it like it weighed only 1 kg. Imagine a pair of hollow robotic legs, strapped around a person who lost use of their own lower body. The user decides they want to walk, and the legs read the brain signals saying “I want to walk” through faint echoes detected in the skin. The exoskeleton engages and the user walks.
Sounds like science fiction, and since the 1960s, scifi novels influenced the scientists and engineers who strived to create functioning exoskeletons for military and medical purposes. Crazy thing is, these exoskeletons are not only real, you can hire them in Japan, and they’re helping people learn to walk. The HAL system is fascinating and, creepily, developed by a company called Cyberdyne.
Like a member of the Resistance pulling away from a platoon of T800s, let me redirect from these incredible technologies. What made me think of exoskeletons and check up on their progress - aside from being a filthy nerd - was a paragraph I’d written for an arts grant. I run my own small business, and have since university in 2007.
“I've built a company around myself as a way to provide both financial support and flexibility. I'm able to take time off as necessary to go to hospital, for check ups, or to take care of the hour and a half of treatments I have to do every day, from physiotherapy to nebulised medication to the litany of pills I take. Everyone is busy juggling their life, and sometimes people prioritise a pressing deadline or production week over their health, knowing they’ll recover later. When I do that, I risk getting run down, which turns into a cold, which can turn into a chest infection that scars my lungs and keeps me in hospital, on antibiotics and intensive physiotherapy for months. Each lung scar is the permanent closing of airways, reducing my lung capacity and shortening my life.”
Running my own business has allowed me to carve up my day in a way that works perfectly for me. The unique needs, shifts and alterations I have to make are barely noticed any more. Certainly my clients never realise if I work late at night or from a hospital bed. So long as the deadline is met and the work is good, it doesn’t matter where or when it was done. As a result, I’m able to get my drugs down in the morning after a good night’s sleep. I take an hour long walk at lunch time and no boss is nagging at me upon my return. If I have pushed hard into the night, I can sleep in the next morning and never feel guilty. I can take a holiday to refresh my mind and body whenever I like.
If you count yourself as a person with a disability, a small business can be your exoskeleton. You place yourself inside it, strap it to your life and use its flexibility, control and support to overcome the rough terrain. Each business exoskeleton is unique to the user, designed and evolved through personal interest, passion and requirement. It changes with the user, pruning outdated features or adding new upgrades. It can be built up as a hulkbusting behemoth, or stripped back to its barest essentials. It takes dedication to build the right small business exoskeleton. You have to understand the user - yourself - in order to create the version that matches. You may cycle through versions like Tony Stark, each iterative mach representing a life milestone or change.
The HAL unit, that Japanese exoskeleton utilised in hospitals, senior care and even at the Fukushima nuclear disaster, has been discovered in cases of mobility, through prolonged use, to take advantage of neural plasticity and rewire the brain, helping users learn to walk unassisted. A small business, I’ve found, took me from a disability support pension into a full time career with a house, car and generally happy life. Seems the more we develop our exoskeletons, the more we gain independence, empowerment, strength.