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Robo-legs: new prosthetic limbs are providing increased mobility for many amputees--and blurring the line between humans and machines.

With his blond hair, buff torso, and megawatt smile, Cameron Clapp Cameron Clapp is an American disabled athlete and actor.

On September 15, 2001, at the age of 15, Cameron passed out drunk on a train track on his way home from a party and was hit by a freight train travelling at high speed, causing the amputation of both legs above the
 is in many ways the quintessential California teenager. There are, however, a few things that set him apart: For starters, this former skater boy is now making his way through life on a pair of shiny, state-of-the-art robotic legs.

"I make it look easy," he says.

Clapp, 19, lost both his legs above the knee and his right arm just short of his shoulder after getting hit by a train almost five years ago near his home in Grover Beach, Calif. Following years of rehabilitation and a series of prosthetics pros·thet·ics
The branch of medicine or surgery that deals with the production and application of artificial body parts.

, each more technologically advanced than the last, he has become part of a new generation of people who are embracing breakthrough technologies as a means of overcoming their own bodies' limitations.

"I do have a lot of motivation and self-esteem," Clapp says, "but I might look at myself differently if technology was not on my side."

The technology he's referring to is the C-Leg. Introduced by Otto Bock Otto Bock is a German prosthetics company situated in Duderstadt. It was founded in 1919 by its namesake prosthetist, Otto Bock. It was created in response to the large number of injured veterans from World War I.  HealthCare, a German company that makes advanced prosthetics, the C-Leg combines computer technology with hydraulics. Sensors monitor how the leg is being placed on terrain and microprocessors guide the limb's hydraulic system Noun 1. hydraulic system - a mechanism operated by the resistance offered or the pressure transmitted when a liquid is forced through a small opening or tube , enabling it to simulate a natural step. It literally does the walking for the walker. The technology, however, is not cheap; a single C-Leg can cost more than $40,000.

The C-Leg is one of the examples of how blazing advancements, including tiny programmable microprocessors, lightweight composite materials, and keener sensors, are restoring remarkable degrees of mobility to amputees, says William Hanson, president of Liberating Technologies Inc., a Massachusetts company that specializes in developing and distributing advanced prosthetic pros·thet·ic
1. Serving as or relating to a prosthesis.

2. Of or relating to prosthetics.


serving as a substitute; pertaining to prostheses or to prosthetics.
 arms and hands.


For example, Clapp, who remains very involved in athletics despite his condition, has three different sets of specialized prosthetic legs: one for walking, one for running, and one for swimming. In June, he put all of them to use at the Endeavor Games in Edmond, Okla.--an annual sporting event for athletes with disabilities--where he competed in events like the 200-meter dash and the 50-yard freestyle swim.


But increased mobility is only part of the story. Something more subtle, and possibly far-reaching, is also occurring: The line that has long separated human beings from the machines that assist them is blurring, as complex technologies become a visible part of the people who depend upon them.

Increasingly, amputees, especially young men like Clapp, and soldiers who have lost limbs in Afghanistan and Iraq, are choosing not to hide their prosthetics under clothing as previous generations did. Instead, some of the estimated 1.2 million amputees in the United States--more than two thirds of whom are men--proudly polish and decorate their electronic limbs for all to see.

Long an eerie theme in popular science fiction, the integration of humans with machines has often been presented as a harbinger of a soulless soul·less  
Lacking sensitivity or the capacity for deep feeling.

soulless·ly adv.
 future, populated with flesh-and-metal cyborgs like RoboCops and Terminators. But now major universities like Carnegie Mellon and the University of California at Berkeley (body, education) University of California at Berkeley - (UCB)

See also Berzerkley, BSD.

Note to British and Commonwealth readers: that's /berk'lee/, not /bark'lee/ as in British Received Pronunciation.
, as well as private companies and the U.S. military, are all exploring ways in which people can be enhanced by strapping themselves into wearable robotics.

"There is a kind of cyborg consciousness, a fluidity at the boundaries of what is flesh and what is machine, that has happened behind our backs," says Sherry Turkle Sherry Turkle is Abby Rockefeller Mauze Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a clinical psychologist. Born in New York City, she has focused her research on psychoanalysis and culture and on the psychology of , director of the Initiative on Technology and Self at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Massachusetts Institute of Technology, at Cambridge; coeducational; chartered 1861, opened 1865 in Boston, moved 1916. It has long been recognized as an outstanding technological institute and its Sloan School of Management has notable programs in business, , which studies technology's impact on humanity. "The notion that your leg is a machine part and it is exposed, that it is an enhancement, is becoming comfortable in the sense that it can be made a part of you."

While some users are eager to display their prosthetic marvels, others like them to appear more human. Besides selling prosthetics, Liberating Technologies, for one, offers 19 kinds of silicone sleeves for artificial limbs to make them seem more natural.

"There are two things that are important; one is functionality and the other is cosmetic," says Hanson, the company's president. "Various people weigh those differences differently. There are trade-offs."

But many young people, especially those who have been using personal electronics since childhood, are comfortable recharging their limbs' batteries in public and plugging their prosthetics into their computers to adjust the software, Hanson says.

Nick Springer, 20, a student at Eckerd College Eckerd College is a private 4-year coeducational liberal arts college at the southernmost tip of St. Petersburg, Florida, in the Tampa Bay metropolitan area. The college is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.  in St. Petersburg, Fla., who lost his arms and legs to meningitis when he was 14, recalls doing just that at a party when the lithium-ion batteries for his legs went dead.

"I usually get 30 hours out of them before I have to charge them again," he says. "But I didn't charge them up the day before."


When his legs ran out of power, he spent most of his time sitting on a couch talking to Noun 1. talking to - a lengthy rebuke; "a good lecture was my father's idea of discipline"; "the teacher gave him a talking to"
lecture, speech

rebuke, reprehension, reprimand, reproof, reproval - an act or expression of criticism and censure; "he had to
 people while his legs were plugged into an electrical outlet nearby. According to according to
1. As stated or indicated by; on the authority of: according to historians.

2. In keeping with: according to instructions.

 Springer, no one at the party seemed to care, and his faith in his high-tech appendages appears unfazed un·fazed  
Not fazed or disturbed.
. "I love my Terminator legs," he says.

Springer also remembers going to see Star Wars: Episode III--Revenge of the Sith with his father. While he liked the movie, he found the final scenes--in which Anakin Skywalker
For this fictional character's widely known appearance in the Star Wars original trilogy, see the article on Darth Vader.

Anakin Skywalker is the central character in the Star Wars franchise.
 loses his arms and legs in a light-saber battle and is rebuilt with fully functional prosthetics to become the infamous Darth Vader--a little far-fetched.

"We have a long way to go before we get anything like that," he says. "But look how far humanity has come in the past decade. Who knows? The hardest part is getting the ball rolling. We pretty much got it rolling."

Michel Marriott is a business reporter for The New York New York, state, United States
New York, Middle Atlantic state of the United States. It is bordered by Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and the Atlantic Ocean (E), New Jersey and Pennsylvania (S), Lakes Erie and Ontario and the Canadian province of
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Title Annotation:NATIONAL
Author:Marriott, Michael
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 10, 2005
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