Technology to Augment the Body: Gimmick or Godsend?

Things haven’t always been easy for some of the athletes who are yet to take center stage in Tokyo.

Competitors in the Paralympic Games, which start Aug. 24, have trained to become among the best in their sport while dealing with physical, vision, and/or intellectual impairments. Many of these athletes compete wearing prosthetics, like the now-iconic Flex-Foot Cheetah used by many track and field competitors.

These prosthetics are so effective that South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius, a double-amputee who wears two of the blade-shaped prosthetics, was initially banned from competing against able-bodied athletes because of the perceived benefit of his prosthetics. Similarly, German long-jumper Markus Rehm didn’t compete in the Rio de Janeiro Olympics because a study was inconclusive on whether his bladed leg gave him an unfair advantage.

But the biotechnology behind these and other prosthetics is being applied far and wide, and merits serious study to determine how it can help all kinds of people, whether or not they are elite athletes.

For instance, the host nation of this year’s Olympics and Paralympics has the world’s oldest population, as measured by the share of the country who is 65 or older. Researchers are exploring ways to give those older Japanese better mobility through everything from exoskeletons to replace lost strength to robotic tails to improve balance. These sorts of augmentations have real potential to make a difference in the lives of millions, if the technology and companies behind them pan out.

On the other hand, innovations in augmented reality technology have been splashy, but have mostly been consumer failures thus far. The Google Glass headset made headlines in 2013 with over-the-top marketing events, but was panned by reviewers and made taboo by people who feared secretive video recording. It still exists, but only as an enterprise-level product. It will take some serious analysis and time before it’s clear whether Google Glass can survive in that market, and similar deep dives are the key to finding the promising needle in the haystack of other innovations.

A video showing a robotic “third thumb” in use recently set social media abuzz, racking up nearly 5 million views on TikTok in a matter of days. But how useful would a sixth finger be? Would you use it? Would your life be improved with a sixth digit? A study of this very device, published this May in the journal Science Robotics, found it was relatively easy to use, but came at the cost of participants’ brains having more trouble distinguishing between their individual (biological) fingers. Emerging technologies like this, and others, will be more prevalent in the next few years, and as investors, we need to think about whether that same technology is a gimmick or godsend and if investment is merited.



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