There is still altruism in the technology world

It is generally understood that technology is advancing at an increasing pace. Yet if that’s the case and technology’s purpose is to alleviate our problems, why aren’t the larger issues plaguing humanity also getting faster resolutions?

It’s a question that about 3,700 attendees at this week’s World Government Summit in Dubai will discuss and attempt to answer in a series of keynote addresses and breakout sessions.

Luminaries from the political, business and technology worlds, including the World Bank president Jim Yong-kim, the Oganisation for Economic Cooperation and Development secretary general Jose Angel Gurria and the MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte, will be introducing and tackling topics such as digital safety and the future of robotic work in an effort to steer attention towards solving some of the planet’s biggest problems.

One possible answer to this overarching question is that too many technologists and entrepreneurs have big profit as their main goal.

In a world where plucky 20-somethings can become billionaires seemingly overnight for inventing an app that adds filters to photos, it’s easy for the best minds to focus on self-serving targets rather than helping their fellow citizens.

Albert Manero, a 26-year-old doctorate student in mechanical engineering at the University of Central Florida, is not one of those individuals. He will be delivering a speech at the summit titled Disability is not an option, in which he will talk about the low-cost prosthetics that are becoming available for amputees around the world thanks to 3D printing.

Mr Manero’s non-profit organisation, Limbitless Solutions, made headlines last year with a video in which actor Robert Downey Jr presented a 3D-printed bionic arm to Alex, a seven-year-old born with a partially developed right arm. Mr Downey, playing up his Iron Man alter-ego from the Avengers movies, seemed more impressed with the arm than Alex. “I think yours might be better than mine,” he joked.

Limbitless, drawing on about 50 volunteers at UCF and a handful around the US, has created 15 bionic arms for children so far, with plans to increase that number to between 50 and 100 this year.

The organisation takes requests from parents, which are then reviewed for feasibility by a committee. Parents who get the go-ahead then send in measurements and photos to illustrate their child’s needs.

It takes a team of six or seven volunteers a few weeks to digitally design and fabricate a limb. The arms and hands bend, grip and articulate using electromyographic (ECM) sensors, which detect muscles’ electrical signals through attached electrodes.

While not advanced as some of the neurologically controlled prosthetics being developed by the US military, the ECM arms restore enough movement and capability to be life-changing. And, importantly, they are much, much cheaper than what is available commercially.

The Pentagon estimates its high-tech arms will cost about US$100,000, yet Limbitless’s option costs only about $350 to make. Most of the mechanical parts are readily and cheaply available from Amazon, while the custom bits, such as the sections that attach to the child, can be inexpensively created with a 3D printer.

The ECM arms are thus accessible options that can be easily upgraded and replaced until adulthood, at which point their owners can get more advanced solutions paid for by medical insurance – hopefully.

“We’ve found that children like peanut butter much more than caviar,” Mr Manero says. “Our goal is to be the starting point for these children.” Mr Manero owes his interest in the field to his own childhood experiences. He remembers growing up with a football coach who had a hook for a hand, and a friend who was missing some fingers. The difficulties they faced sparked his compassionate side.

Also, as an engineer who spends much of his time in labs with machines, Mr Manero was keen to work on something that had a direct, visible effect on people.

He’s not sure what he’s going to do once he completes his doctorate, but he’s certain that humanitarian technological efforts like his – spurred and encouraged with the help of government programmes – are the key to solving mankind’s biggest problems.

“All children are created equal and no family should have to pay for their child’s bionic arm. I’m not sure that is effective for for-profit companies,” he says. “Universities and non-profits are uniquely positioned to be able to handle that level of risk.”

Peter Nowak is a veteran technology writer and the author of Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of the Species.

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