“There will be a black market for prosthetics, and they will also kill for them — a very real scenario”
Ilya Chekh, the head of Motorica, speaks about the future of prosthetics
The birthday of bionics as a science was celebrated on 13 September — 60 years ago, the first symposium on this topic was held in the United States. Now one of the most dynamically developing areas of bionics is the creation of prosthetics, and, as the head of the Russian company Motorica, Ilya Chekh, notes, we have every chance to see the day when artificial limbs can surpass real ones by any criterion. About this, about the future with “improved” people and about the situation with Russian cyborgs today — read in the interview with Realnoe Vremya.
What prosthetics can do today
Could you tell us what modern bionic prostheses are and what they can do?
If we talk about the latest ones, then today, in principle, there are prostheses that can mechanically make all hand movements — finger dexterity, movements of individual phalanges, including complex movements. But such prostheses are still made as laboratory ones, experimental samples, and to test the capabilities of modern mechanics and the implementation of such products, there are still no interfaces that would allow us to manage all this diversity.
Mechanical prostheses are quite advanced, but from the point of view of the control system, we do not know how to recognise the commands of the muscles or nervous system and control all the joints. That is, prosthesis reproduces only pre-programmed movements, for which the person gives one or two commands.
Commands? How are they given?
The most common way is when a person, even if they don't have a hand, performs a “phantom” gesture. Special sensors read the electrical potential and try to recognise this movement or gesture. As laboratory experiments and research projects, there is also control from encephalogram, when the motor brain cortex is directly read using a special neurointerface. But there is still a very limited set of commands.
Today, in principle, there are prostheses that can mechanically make all hand movements — finger dexterity, movements of individual phalanges, including complex movements. But such prostheses are still made as laboratory, experimental samples
Should these problems be resolved with the orderly development of technology and such prostheses will definitely appear on the market? Or are there fundamental problems?
Such prostheses will definitely appear. In principle, from the point of view of technologies for recognising brain impulses and from the point of view of invasive technologies for reading smaller motor skills, the basic technologies have already been developed and are being tested, now it is only a question of their gradual development and improvement. Increasing reliability, security, and so on. I think that another 10-15 years, and we will see on the market prostheses that can control individual movements.
Is the recently announced development of Elon Musk, the Neuralink chip (the implant for connecting the brain to a computer — editor's note) also from this area?
Certainly, but this is also not for the consumer yet. They are developing the interface for purely scientific research and laboratories. But yes, they are laying the foundation on which the development for the consumer will be formed.
Is Motorica conduction such research?
We have projects on invasive technologies together with Skoltech. Still at the stage of purely scientific research — studying what is in the world, some experiments here, understanding some future architecture, and so on.
It takes a huge amount of money to do this. So we do it in such mode, look at all research teams that are engaged in it in Russia, and try to stay relevant in order to fit into this story from the point of view of exactly product solutions.
By the way, are there many teams in Russia that are developing solutions related to prosthetics?
If you take it very broadly, all startups at all stages, I think there will be 10-15 teams. As for production — there are several teams, but it never went further than single piece production.
The Neuralink chip is not yet for the consumer. They are developing the interface for purely scientific research and laboratories. But yes, they are laying the foundation on which the development for the consumer will be formed
Prosthetics of the future — as easy as piercings
“In general, I became interested in the topic of prosthetics after playing the Deus Ex series a few years ago. I believe that Motorica follows the world of computer games — I saw you develop a prosthesis with the Dishonored symbol…
“By the way, we are going to partner with Cyberpunk 2077, make prosthetics for them.
“This is huge, by the way. As you know, Deus Ex describes a world with advanced and relatively affordable prosthetics technology. The action there begins in 2027 — in general, the near future. People there can replace, “improve” almost any part of the body and actively use it. There appears a class of technically “improved” people. How far is such a future from us, and is it even possible?
If you take that world fully, it is quite far away, because there are quite deep integrations with human biology, with the nervous system. Almost all organs can be modified there. This is a real prospect of our century, but closer to the end. About 50-70 years ago, it is unlikely that we will be able to implement it so deeply before. Plus, again, there is the option of developing a civilisation so that such technologies will be prohibited — Deus Ex just raises this point from the point of view of ethics.
You mentioned earlier that in the foreseeable future there will be people who will replace organs with prosthetics not because of injury, but to improve themselves. How ethical would it be?
The question of ethics is very extensive. This is the desire and decision of each person. If he wants to, he does it. It's like tattoos, like piercings. At the final stage, such modifications will be brought to the level of tattoos: you come to a shopping centre, change something, upgrade something, and so on. I think this is the way things will develop.
But the difference is that a tattoo does not give any advantages to a person. But such prostheses will — they will make you stronger, smarter. There appears a new class of superhumans who will have access to what is unavailable to ordinary people.
Yes, that's right. There will also be a black market for such modifications, and they will be killed for them — this is a very real scenario of the future.
Again, there is the option of developing a civilisation so that such technologies will be prohibited — Deus Ex just raises this point from the point of view of ethics
In the brain and in the eye
If we take a closer issue — microchip implantation. I'm not talking about a conspiracy theory, but about someone implanting chips in order to, for example, pay via NFC. What else useful can microchip implantation give now and in the near future?
Now the chips have a rather limited functionality, these are the same NFC tags — at maximum, recording some kind of pass, some information about yourself, blood type, diagnoses. Basically, any information can be recorded. But that's all it is, this is a light modification of yourself. My partner has such chip, in fact, a pass. And that's it. It gives no other real functionality.
In the future, such chips are unlikely to become more functional. In principle, they are currently performing a certain number of tasks, and this is what they should do. But there will be other modifications, including active ones. NFC tags, they are passive — you write them down and then read something with an external decoder. But in the future, it will be possible to embed active modules that can, for example, be brought to the phone, connected to it and somehow interact through the chip.
What is the situation with prosthetics of the eyes today? Sometimes there are news about bionic eyes.
Not very good. In fact, this is just an implant on the visual cortex that stimulates the optic nerve with electricity, and a person can have certain images. It is very far from full vision, but nevertheless, everything is slowly developing.
Who then now uses these implants — who has lost sight at all or who has lost one eye?
I know both.
In fact, this is just an implant on the visual cortex that stimulates the optic nerve with electricity, and a person can have certain images. It is very far from full vision, but nevertheless, everything is slowly developing
If it transmits not quite clear images, then for a person with one eye, it will make even worse.
Agree. Nevertheless, experiments are conducted on everyone who wants to, but, as a rule, yes, for the completely blind, including because they can give objective feedback.