Last fall at the TEDMED meeting in San Diego I watched a man walk who was paralyzed from the waist down. Injured a year earlier, Paul Thacker hadn't been able to stand since breaking his back in a snowmobile accident. Yet here he was walking, thanks to an early-stage exoskeleton device attached to his legs.
This wasn't exactly on the level of "exos" we've seen in sci-fi films like Avatar and Aliens, which enable people to run faster, carry heavier loads, and smash things better. But Thacker's device, called eLEGS -- manufactured by Ekso Bionics in Berkeley, California -- is one harbinger of what's coming in the next decade or two to treat the injured and the ill with radical new technologies.
Other portents include first-generation machines and treatments that range from deep brain implants that can stop epileptic seizures to stem cells that scientists are using experimentally to repair damaged retinas.
No one would deny that these technologies, should they fulfill their promise, are anything but miraculous for Paul Thacker and others who need them. Yet none of this technology is going to remain exclusively in the realm of pure therapeutics. Even now some are breaking through the barrier between remedies for the sick and enhancements for the healthy.
Take the drug Adderall. A highly addictive pharmaceutical prescribed for patients with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), the drug works as a stimulant in people without ADHD -- and is now used by at least one out of five college students to bump up their energy and attention when they want to perform well on tests or pull all-nighters.
Saying that college students are popping pills is like Claude Rains in Casablanca saying to Humphrey Bogart: "I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here." Yet the widespread use -- and acceptance -- of Adderall and other stimulants by students to enhance their academic performance is bumping up against something new. It's pushing us into a realm where taking powerful pharmaceuticals that boost, say, attention or memory is becoming acceptable beyond pure recreation.
Can we be too far from a greater acceptance of surgically implanted devices that increase our ability to hear or see? Or new legs that allow us to run like cheetahs and scramble up walls like geckos?
Or that allow us to run in the Olympics like Oscar Pistorius, the South African sprinter who may qualify for the games in London this year despite missing his lower legs? He runs using two sleek, metallic "legs" that combine with his natural speed and skill to do far more than overcome a disability.