Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Mama said they were magic shoes. They could take me anywhere.

Forrest Gump might not be quite the right image to toss out here, but the promise of Forrest’s Mama seems to be getting closer to reality. I’ve often said that technology will someday reduce the need to modify homes by helping people extend their abilities. Currently, for example, there are power chairs that stand and go upstairs. However they are cumbersome and according to one user I’ve met can be a bit frightening. The engineers at Honda keeps pushing this sort of technology forward and recently announced their prototype of robot legs. The legs are designed to be a “power assist” for people who are losing leg strength. For those of us old enough to remember, remember manual steering in a car? Think of this as power steering for your feet. It doesn’t change what we do, it just makes doing it easier and safer.

At first I wondered how you sit down, then I realized that you ARE sitting down. Technology like this might cause us to rethink a lot of things. While the prototype probably has a ways to go before it becomes practical for people who are infirm (how do you take the legs on and off?) this sort of technology has the promise of keeping people active and fitter longer. We tend to think of assistive devices as things for people who are already disabled. But as we boomers age, a large market will emerge in helping people prolong relatively normal activity. I met a man using a Segway for this purpose. Games to improve cognitive function are another example of this application of technology. Could robot arms to reach those things on the top shelf be next?

As Forrest said, “From that day on, if I was ever going somewhere, I was running!”