Wearable Robots Can Help People Walk Again

Test piloting the suit

Ekso Bionics publicity still

I wrote recently that backward-looking accounts of the modest gains from information technology give misleading ideas about the future because of the back half of the chessboard phenomenon. The growth in computing power from 2003 to 2012, in other words, was much larger than what we saw from 1993-2002. Consequently, improved Information and Communications Technology (ICT) suddenly starts popping up in unexpected places. For example, we’re now working on “wearable robots” that help people recover from crippling injury:

Mr. Abicca, a 17-year-old from San Diego, is essentially wearing a robot. His bionic suit consists of a pair of mechanical braces wrapped around his legs and electric muscles that do much of the work of walking. It is controlled by a computer on his back and a pair of crutches held in his arms that look like futuristic ski poles.

Since an accident involving earth-moving equipment three years ago that damaged his spinal cord, Mr. Abicca has been unable to walk on his own. The suit, made by a company called Ekso Bionics, is an effort to change that.

If you read the story you’ll see that the functionality is, at this point, a bit crude. But everyone knows the computer hardware underlying the suit will get faster, better, and cheaper in the years to come. Once you’re on the treadmill where ICT is getting some traction in helping you solve the problem, you’re in a golden spot since more and better ICT will ride to the rescue in the years to come. This is particularly important to recall in the health care sector, where a lot of the social and political conversation is excessively focused on the ambiguous question of “cost” and insufficiently focused on the presence or absence of useful treatments. The underlying issue is health, and when we make progress toward the goal of improved health—an effective treatment to restore mobility to people with spinal injuries, for example—that’s change I can believe in.