Samuel M on elective amputations, cybernetically enhanced people and the future of human evolution
In a dark corner of the internet, there’s an Instagram page dedicated to images of bionic human forms, accompanied by feverish musings on the future of humankind: @rebornbionics. The person behind it is just as mysterious: Samuel M Samuel is in the business of bionics, and currently working on making affordable bionic prosthesis that will restore functionality to amputees.
Moving away from current technology, M has spent the last 20 years researching and developing an artificial muscle actuator, with the hope of disrupting the current state of robotics. Exposed to scientific concepts of fine art at an early age through his father, M has long been inspired by the studies of human anatomy and biomechanics pioneered during the Renaissance. Over the years, he’s worked as a self-taught SFX make-up artist, and had experience in the medical field and semiconductor industry respectively. However, most importantly M is a dreamer, which he claims is a characteristic he acquired from his mother who encouraged him to believe that anything was possible.
With plans in the pipeline to develop high strength tentacles and even a lobster claw, the future of living with a disability seems to shine a little brighter when it’s in the hopeful and healing hands of M, who seeks to make his technology accessible to every human being in need of a bionic limb within one or two years, with the proper funding.
Can you tell us a little about yourself and what it is that you do?
Samuel M: I am a garage tinkerer, the guy that comes out of left field, I am a dreamer. I believe mankind has such an incredible, untapped potential. I grew up in a unique time in history that influenced my young mind into believing and expecting bionic people would be the next step in human evolution.
What inspired you to pursue this research into prostheses?
Samuel M: Well, I grew up with an interest in bionics and human augmentation, that was sparked by the cartoons I watched as a child, including The Bionic Six, Silver Hawks, C.O.P.S., which all portray cybernetically enhanced people. As I grew older, that evolved into a real need to make that a reality. In high school, I shadowed a Prosthetics Laboratory for my Senior year Anatomy and Physiology project. As the lead prosthetist showed me around, it became evident just how primitive "modern” prosthetics are. I will never forget, I asked him: "Where are all the robotic limbs?" He took me to a dusty shelf in the back and showed me a transradial, myo-electric prosthesis that had never been used. He told me that they had yet to sell it, simply because no one could afford it. I became very disillusioned and decided to study art. As time went on, I became dissatisfied with art and continued to have a need to create a bionic limb. I started out just wanting to create an artificial muscle. However, when I began to conduct research on how to market my invention and possible applications, I soon realized how relatively weak and fragile modern robots actually are when compared to a human limb. I concluded that the needed "robotic infrastructure" just wasn't there to completely utilise my artificial muscles to their full potential.
You mention on your Instagram page you “studied art from the masters in Florence, Italy and that you have a great love for the human anatomy” - how has that informed your passion for prosthetics?
Samuel M: Since an early age I have appreciated art in all forms, it is one of humanity's greatest gifts and that which separates us from other forms of life on this planet. The greatest achievements in the study of human anatomy and biomechanics occurred during the Renaissance, pioneered by Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo. Leonardo Da Vinci studied anatomy by sneaking into the catacombs and conducting autopsies on cadavers in an era that considered this heresy. With this knowledge, Leonardo Da Vinci constructed some of the most advanced robots of his time.
What are some common misconceptions about artificial limbs?
Samuel M: The major misconception is that they restore functionality and will enable the user to perform practical tasks. In my experience amputees often need several different prostheses, each one suited for a specific task. For example, an amputee may have a general prosthetic leg for walking and then a carbon-fibre blade for running or a general prosthetic arm for grasping and then have to switch to a load bearing prosthetic, specifically for working out at the gym. Most of the 3D printed prosthetics provide minimal grip strength and are more useful for a sound bite on the news, than an actual replacement for a lost limb. For the average amputee, limb replacement consists of a cable controlled hook or a metal pipe with a rubber foot. A high end, myo-electric hand prosthesis can cost between $80,000 to $100,000 US dollars. Not to mention regular maintenance needed and eventual replacement. Most insurance companies will not pay for a high end, robotic prosthesis.
Are people becoming more comfortable with these types of technologies? What is your perception of the stigma around bionics, has it dissolved at all?
Samuel M: Very much so, starting with millennials and proceeding with Generation Z, humanity is poised to usher in a new era of human augmentation. The body modification/tattoo culture has lent itself to preparing humanity for the next step in our evolution. Humanity is more and more accepting the idea of integrating technology into our bodies. My perception is that with the articulation of the cyberpunk culture and biohacker movement, the stigma is no longer present. In fact, my experience has been the opposite, many young amputees prefer a biomechanical prosthesis that illustrates the mechanical mechanisms, as opposed to a natural looking limb.
Can you describe the process of building a bionic limb?
Samuel M: The process begins with conceptualising the form and function of the prosthesis. The starting point is dictated by the patient's needs - where does their residual limb end? Is it transradial, transhumeral, etc. For my prototype Alpha Prosthesis, I chose to construct an entire arm so I can adapt the prosthesis at any length to accommodate the patient's individual needs. My vision for the future is to mass produce the components and have a lead time of three weeks per prosthesis. Some of the technology that I have developed over the years includes a polymer, composite skeletal structure, connected via artificial ligaments. Fully articulated phalanges (finger bones), composite finger tendons that transmit the tension force of the artificial muscles to the fingers in order to provide a strong grip. However, it is the patent pending, NX muscle fibres, that are the heart and soul of the Alpha Prosthesis. The NX muscle fibres are incredibly lightweight and powerful and are electrically powered, so the need for servo motors, compressors and gear boxes has been eliminated.
Where did the idea for Alpha Prosthesis come from? What do you hope to achieve with it?
Samuel M: The Reborn: Alpha Prosthesis is the culmination of one man's dream. I set out to create a universal prosthesis that will enable an individual who has lost their limb, the ability to perform everyday tasks that most of us take for granted. The realization of the Reborn: Alpha Prosthesis was fully articulated when I saw the trailer for, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, distributed by Eidos Montréal in 2011. The cybernetic arm prosthesis depicted in this video game resonated with me in a profound way. I envision a prostheses capable of restoring the function and strength of an average human limb. Once that has been achieved I will work towards super human strength and durability.
What is the difference between bionic and prosthetic? What are you hoping to achieve that other prosthetic companies do not do?
Samuel M: The word "bionic" is used alot in the prosthetics industry. For an artificial limb to truly be bionic it must not only replace normal functionality, but actually surpass the baseline strength and durability of a normal human. In essence, it would grant that person superhuman abilities and be seamlessly integrated into the patient's body. A prosthetic is any device that approximates a human limb in form and function. The main purpose of this endeavour is to provide a functional prosthesis solution for amputees at an attainable price, which most companies are really not able to offer.
Could you talk about some challenges you’ve faced, both with the process of building a limb, but also within the industry itself?
Samuel M: The major challenge through this process has been the necessity to develop completely novel manufacturing processes to mimic human structure and function, with price point in mind. Within the industry, I am currently facing the challenge of funding and finding investors. I have reached the limit of what I can fund out of pocket.
Prosthetic limbs incredibly expensive and completely unattainable to most people. How do you propose to challenge this?
Samuel M: One of the main reasons current prosthetic limbs are so expensive is due to the use of titanium metal in the construction of top of the line current prosthetic limbs/hands. By eliminating titanium in the structural assembly, the price point can be substantially lowered. My proposal and ideology is to eliminate metal from the construction process wherever possible. Ironically, the NX muscle fibres are made of a nickel-titanium metal alloy. However, the metal alloy is in the form of small diameter wires, that can be purchased in bulk for a relatively low cost. Another reason for the high expense is due to the use of servo motors. The use of motors has several drawbacks including complex gear assemblies, inherent nonlinear motion, diminished strength for linear movement, complex control algorithms, rigid constructs and overall structure that is non-compliant. By eliminating motors you immediately reduce the weight and complexity of the prosthesis, which in turn reduces overall cost.
Can someone with a prosthetic actually feel that limb again at times? Do they experience sensations as though the limb were real?
Samuel M: Currently, the technology is not readily available for a bionic limb that provides sensation. Progress in this field is being made by one of my personal heroes, MIT professor, Hugh Herr and British Cyborg Professor Kevin Warwick. Also, haptic feedback technology is being used to approximate "feeling" in current robotic prostheses.
Can you tell us about how your technology can help people who’ve lost a limb not only physically but also psychologically?
Samuel M: I have spent years of my life researching and developing the Alpha Prosthesis to restore full functionality. Functionality that includes carrying groceries, working out, carrying your children, everyday tasks that most people take for granted. My vision has always been to create a Bionic limb that would allow a person to experience a complete transformation - to be Reborn Bionic.
Is your tech different in any way from what’s used to make other prosthetics?
Samuel M: To my knowledge, current prosthetic limbs employ a hollow shell in which servo motors are used to produce mechanical movement. A motor that spins around, housed in a hollow shell shaped like an arm will never be as strong as your own limb. This is due to the fact that human anatomy is based upon completely different principles. The Alpha Prosthesis employs a novel construction, that eliminates screws or bolts and more closely mimics human physiology.
What are your thoughts on bionic limbs for aesthetic purposes?
Samuel M: As an artist I appreciate aesthetics, however my priority has always been function. I am striving to find a balance between the two.
What do you think humans will look like in 30 years?
Samuel M: I don't think the human appearance will radically change in 30 years. I do believe human functions will greatly be enhanced. Cybernetic implants will be the norm, possibly translucent skin/dermis on certain parts of the body for vital signs. Cell phones will be integrated into our nervous system, we will send emotion grams through the neural net.
What’s next for you?
Samuel M: I am working towards launching a crowdfunding campaign to raise the necessary funds to take my project to the next level.
What is the future of bionics?
Samuel M: I strongly believe bionic limbs will surpass human abilities and elective amputations will become a reality.