The Future

Days like this, it’s hard not to agree with William Gibson’s assertion that “The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed.” Living in Silicon Valley and working at Google, you’d think I’d be kind of jaded by now. And I am, I really am.

But I just had a conversation with Sarah, a bionic woman. Right after I shot rubber bands at a bystander using an articulated telesurgery robot and tried on an off-the-shelf brain-computer-interface device. I’ll admit, though, that I decided to pass on a demo of the implantable “doctor on a chip” – my commitment to seeing the future of medical technology only goes so far.

I grew up reading science fiction, and watching it on TV. I knew, deep in my heart, that we’d have all those things some day. Bionic people, doctors who were really just artificial intelligences, waldos, moon bases. Okay, I’ll be honest: the moon bases were the only things I was really sure of. Scratch me as a prognosticator.

[Hang on a moment – I’m not kidding: a robot has just wheeled itself up behind me and may be reading over my shoulder]

Anyhow. Except for the moon bases, it’s all here. I’ve spent the afternoon wandering around FutureMed, a one-day conference and show-and-tell on – you guessed it – the future of medicine. Workshops on redefining pain management, oncology. Pitch sessions – five minutes each from a dozen candidates for the Next Big Thing – each flaunting bulletproof IP and promising 30x return; all they need is an angel round to get them past their prototype. And the demo floor, an acre or two of booths and tables offering the opportunity to try out artifacts from The Future. That’s where the fun was.

As I mentioned, I tried out the waldos. The folks at da Vinci Surgical don’t call them “waldos”, but that’s what they are. You put your hands in the micromanipulator grips, look into binocular camera visor, and remotely control these itty-bitty grippers on a machine halfway across the room. It takes about 30 seconds for it to feel natural, but with the instantaneous response and force feedback, it just clicks: the sensation is that your hands are inside those little metal duckbill grippers you’re watching, and it feels freakishly natural to pick things up, manipulate them and pass them from hand, er, gripper to gripper.

The official task for the demo was to put little miniature rubber bands over blobby silicone protrusions, presumably simulating laparoscopic suturing of something icky inside the human body, but (quelle suprise), I got kind of carried away and started stretching one of the bands, trying to see if I could get it to “twang”. Then realized I could hook it around the end of one duckbill, pull back and… I thought it sailed pretty far, and it did, relatively speaking. But given the scale of the operating table, the whole trajectory was about a foot.

Great fun. And convinced me that I should never, ever, ever consider being a doctor.

I’d mentioned the bionic woman. Yeah. Sarah was paralysed from the waist down in a car accident. The folks at Ekso have been working on exoskeletal walking assistance devices, and she was – well, not strolling – but having very little difficulty walking around and demonstrating the system to bystanders. There’s no neural control/feedback in the system – not yet, alas – but the design is fiendishly clever. Think of it as a Segway for your feet: when you lean forward, it steps your feet forward to keep them under you. Tilt to drive. Except that Sarah can once again look people in the eye, rather than up from a chair.

What else was there? Oh, tons. But you get the idea. It was a reminder that the future is here. Just like it’s always been.

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