In the Iraq and Afghanistan wars alone, nearly 1,600 American soldiers have woken up without a limb. Fifteen survivors of the Boston marathon bombings are new amputees. And in Sierra Leone, where MIT graduate student David Sengeh is from, brutal tactics during the country’s 11-year civil war resulted in somewhere between 4,000 and 10,000 amputations in a country of less than 6 million people.
"Someone wakes up and says, 'Oh my God, I don’t have a leg. What does that even mean?" asks Sengeh, creator of the Human Bionic Project, a tool that logs the progress of replacement body parts that give amputees more freedom of movement.
"You go to the Human Bionic website, and we try to provide as many bionic ankles as there are possible. It’s a first information point," he says.
Many amputees go through the costly, lengthy process of transitioning to prosthetics, but it’s difficult even for prosthetic research specialists to gather information about the replacement parts outside their narrow fields. That’s part of the reason why, in December of last year, Sengeh and a research team began developing an interactive Inspector Gadget—a repository of all the FDA-approved replacement parts they could find.
Soon, the conversation began to prod at the edges of very real, or at least very possible, science fiction. "It became cool to think about what it’d mean to have the bionic parts interact with each other," Sengeh said. With the launch of the Human Bionic Project, Sengeh hopes to one day facilitate a "body area network," or a way for the body’s disparate bionic parts to communicate.
If your imagination just leapt to an image of Arnold Schwarzenegger and his glinting Terminator eye, don’t freak out—the "body area network" is still a long way off. Plus, the idea of controlling bionic parts via transmission comes with a number of complications, and ensuring the security of those parts between manufacturer and owner is a major one. But for now, Sengeh, advised by MIT professor (and double amputee) Hugh Herr, plans to amass as much information as he can in the model, and eventually start sourcing ideas from the public. Sengeh says the ultimate goal isn’t to create a new piece of science fiction, but to change the conversation surrounding disability.
"My professor, we like to call him Iron Man, because he’s a double amputee and has bionic ankles," he explained. "You have to define disability or redefine things that [are] based on what we consider human and able-bodied. Most of those [criteria] are discriminating or disenabling. If my professor has bionic ankles and can do everything I can do—he considers his legs as him—when we’re at that point, we’re just human."
So far, the Human Bionic Project has between 40 and 50 points of reference on its corporeal map—everything from artificial hearts to bionic jaws. In addition to photos and descriptions, the team will soon be looking to source videos of prosthetics in action from the public. Sengeh also hopes to integrate a timeline, tracking bionic parts throughout history, from the bionic toes of Ancient Egypt to the 3-D printed fingers of modern times.
"In [Haitian and Sierra Leonian] Creole, the word for disabled, like an amputee, is 'scrap,'" Sengeh said. "I wanted to change that, because I know that we can get full functionality and become able-bodied."