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9/11 and the Rise of Robots

A technology spurred by tragedy takes hold

3 min read

September 11 had quite a different meaning for me before it became 9/11. It's my birthday. And early on that cool blue morning I took my daily run from our Chelsea apartment down the West Side Highway past the World Trade Center to South Ferry and back. I never thought much about the Twin Towers then, except sometimes to remember the convoluted history of how they got built in the first place, or to feel their overwhelming presence in what was then a low-rise part of Manhattan as I breezed past, with no sense of how gigantic their absence might become.

At work later that morning, when the news came in, we first thought "accident." After all, in 1945 a B-25 bomber had crashed into the 79th floor of New York City's Empire State Building. But how could this be on such an acutely clear day? Now, 10 years later, when almost any disaster is tinged with the possibility of terrorism, it's hard to remember a time when these thoughts were not second nature.

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
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A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof
DarkGray

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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