A thought for engineers

Posted on April 16, 2014

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A TED talk about bionic limbs has been making waves through the internet. If you haven’t seen it, it’s a testament to the work being done for amputees. Where at the end of the talk a victim from the Boston marathon, who had her lower leg amputated, comes on stage and dances.

Amazing stuff. Well, most of it.

Something I’ve noticed in the research world is how often researchers attempt to generalize their work. Where they’ve done some great stuff, often in a specific niche, but then think it will be great for everyone. Like where you do some great work with amputees, and then think it will work great with non-amputees. (I wrote about a mathematician doing this here.)

I think the health arena is unique in this regard. You don’t see doctors trying to be computer programmers, but for some reason you see too many engineers, lawyers, physicists, [insert practically any profession or type of person], who think they can play doctor. Or dietitian, or personal trainer, or therapist.

I think to some extent, we’re all guilty of this. Plenty of surgeons act like surgery can solve any health issue. And lord knows there are nutritionists who think every ailment can be solved by either the elimination or addition of one ingredient.

I believe it was Daniel Kahnemann who said, “I’ve never met a great researcher who didn’t have an overinflated sense of the importance of their work.” The idea is, if you’re really good at the research you do, or whatever job you have, you probably feel it’s very important. It’s quite likely you think it’s more important than it actually is. But, your work wouldn’t be as good if you didn’t feel that way. Your delusion feeds your inspiration.

Tech companies are easy examples of this. Is anyone else tired of companies like Facebook or Snapchat claiming they’re “changing the world?” Or celebrities, who, for some ungodly reason, think because they are good at pretending to be other people they must know a lot about foreign policy?

In certain arenas, this doesn’t matter. Snapchat’s narcissism is harmless. Other times, this propensity to generalize is counterproductive.

Roughly half way through that TED talk, Hugh Herr starts talking about exoskeletons.

“We’re also building exoskeletons. This exoskeleton becomes stiff and soft in just the right areas of the running cycle. To protect the biological joints from harm and high impacts, and degradation. In the future we’ll all be wearing exoskeletons in such common activities such as running.

A bit later on he cuts to a video of a regular person wearing such a device while walking:

“This gentleman does not have any leg condition, any disability. He has normal physiology. So these exoskeletons are applying muscle like torques and powers, so that his own muscles need not apply those torques and powers.

This is the first exoskeleton in history that actually augments human walking. It significantly reduces metabolic costs. It’s so profound in its augmentation that when a normal, healthy person wears the device for 40 minutes and then takes it off, their own biological legs feel ridiculously heavy and awkward.

We’re beginning the age in which machines attached to our bodies will make us stronger and faster and more efficient.”

With a little thought about the current health of everyday people, it should be clear this is a poor idea. Exercise (movement) is the healthiest thing we’ve discovered. It does more for human health than any other thing we know of. If it were a pill, we’d all be on it multiple times per day. Anyone who works with everyday people spends an inordinate amount of time trying to get their clients and patients to move more. Many times we don’t care if it’s just walking. This is why we’re fighting for implementation of things like standing desks; to take the stairs instead of the elevator. Anything to get people up and moving more.

At the same time, there are people trying to make it so when you do stand up, when you do walk, your body doesn’t have to do anything even then! Not only do many already sit on their ass 60 hours a week, but let’s make  it so when we miraculously do get someone to start walking, they can have a robot walk their legs for them. I mean, we know you should burn some calories, but let’s make it so walking burns even less calories.

You know how people make fun of those Segway scooters? How it’s ridiculous to use that thing rather than just walk. That’s all this exoskeleton is. A fancier Segway. Again, for amputees, perhaps firefighters and such, this is amazing stuff. For everyday people? No.

Dear Engineers,

Stop trying to make us so comfortable.

The absolute last thing the developed world needs is to move less. To have robots move our bodies around for us. To make movement less metabolically costly. For people attempting to lose weight, they are trying to make their day more metabolically costly. In fact, people who are less efficient when they move have an advantage in modern society. It takes them more calories to do the same task, making it harder for them to store those calories as fat. These are the people many envy. They can eat more without storing it. In other words, it pays to be less efficient. Humans and society are efficient enough.

Life has already been so refined we’ve hit the point where we are literally killing ourselves with so much comfort. We sit so much, we move so little, we eat so thoughtlessly, practically everything is easier than it was just 10 years ago…including getting metabolic syndrome. Stop helping us. I, and many others, are trying to make people less comfortable. To make the everyday person work more. You’re not only solving problems we don’t have, you’re exacerbating the ones we do have.

There is a cool branch of research suggesting muscle is an organWhere muscle can secrete various things, often to our benefit. Supplying a possible explanation for why physical activity is so healthy. You know what needs to happen in order for this to occur? The muscle needs to contract. The more often it contracts, the more of it that contracts, the more intense it contracts, all the better.

The future of engineering needs to revolve around making us contract our muscles more than it does making us contract them less. Where it’s harder to get to and use the elevator, where parking lots are put further away from the store, where we can’t do our jobs sitting for 10 hours, where the airport moving walkways go the opposite direction, where you perform squats to get on the subway:

Inherent in the word work is doing something hard. When it comes to your health, doing something hard is often beneficial. One of the reasons people’s legs feel so heavy after taking that exoskeleton off is the brain isn’t doing as much. It doesn’t have to fire the same signals to move the body with that thing on. It doesn’t have to work as much. You take the exoskeleton off and suddenly the brain has to contribute more. Just like lifting weights. This thing is taking away our best defense at cognitive diseasesDiseases where we want the person’s brain to work more.

There was reference to deloading the body, “to protect the biological joints from harm and high impacts, and degradation.” We can’t ignore the fact the body needs to be loaded. It can degrade without enough load as well. You know, like that osteoporosis thing.

So, as an engineer, the next time you’re building something, it’s worth stopping and considering, “Is this going to make people move more, or move less?” When it comes to the less side of things, you’ve already won. You’ve impressed us to no end. I can make money, get food, do my banking, have 30 different conversations without opening my mouth, watch a TV show, watch a movie, have someone read a book to me, see what 1000 of my “friends” are up to, know what’s happening in every country, and do all this in my bed while only moving my thumbs. For heaven’s sake I can now unlock my iPhone with my FINGERPRINT. Screw having to move my thumbs and type my passcode in.

Look, we love your fancy engineering. It’s fascinating and mind blowing. But there are trade offs. The advent of the personal computer has truly been revolutionary. Not only through ushering in the digital age, but also in helping to skyrocket the rates of obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and more.  Before you build that “next great thing,” remember, everything’s already amazing, and nobody’s happy.

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