Rise of The ‘Bionic’ Teens

If there is one person who epitomises our future dreams for human-robot augmentation it is Iron Man.  The Marvel Comics hero made his first appearance in Tales Of Suspense #39 in 1963 and resonated so much that by May 1968 he got his own comic: Iron Man #1.  The Iron Man film franchise further cemented our excitement about human-robot augmentation whilst grossing a worldwide box office of approximately $583m.

That Iron Man-style human-robot bionics are slowly becoming a reality has not gone unnoticed by Hollywood.  In 2019 film director James Cameron worked in collaboration with the production team of Alita: Battle Angel and UK-based robotics manufacturer Open Bionics to create a fully functional bespoke set of bionic arms, just like those in the movie, for British teenager Tilly Lockey.

Tilly had contracted meningococcal septicaemia in 2007 at the age of just 15 months. Despite her parents being told that she was likely to die, Tilly survived after her arms and toes were amputated.  For year she tried using traditional prosthetics, which are about enabling users to ‘blend in’ by virtue of a passive prosthetic which looks approximately like a human arm.  But Tilly (along with approximately 50% of traditional prosthetics users) abandoned them.

Thanks to Iron Man we associate human-robotic bionics with ‘super-human’ strengths.  But the reality is that these types of bionics are as more about empowering confidence and inner strength.  Since receiving her ‘bionic’ arms from James Cameron, Tilly has become an international poster girl for young people who have limb difference. Her stated objective is to make bionic arms fashionable, and she wants to see them appear in the top catwalk shows worldwide.  Last year Tilly also won a job as a television presenter in her native Great Britain.

Tilly is just one of a fast-rising cohort of ‘bionic teenagers’ who are making their presence known on the international stage.  In 2019 technologist and investor Tej Kohli started funding bionic limbs for a small group of limb-different children and teenagers in Britain.  Amongst them is Gracie McGonigal from London, a hugely talented and uber-positive singer and performer who recently graduated from The BRIT School, which counts Adele, Leona Lewis and Jessie J amongst its extensive and long list of very famous alumni. 

Gracie McGonigal was born with a congenital limb deficiency, which means that her left arm stops just below the elbow.  Now aged 18, Gracie is using her status as a ‘bionic actress’ to help her to stand out from the competition and is on track to fulfil her dreams of an international career as a musical theatre actress performing in the West End and Broadway.

If the field of sports is 12-year-old Jacob Pickering from Great Britain.  Jacob became bionic when he received his new bionic arm in December 2019.  Jacob was born without his left lower arm due to amniotic band syndrome, a rare condition that can damages a foetus’s limbs in the womb.  A keen rugby player for his local community team, Jacob has attended the Manchester City Youth Academy to scout his potential as a professional Rugby player.  

In March 2020 Jacob became a mascot for the England national rugby team during a Six Nations rugby match where he also met UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and walked onto the pitch to sing the national anthem watched by millions of Rugby fans all over the world, setting an inspirational example to other limb different children and teenagers.

These inspirational young people are amongst a rapidly growing global network of limb different teens who are showing that when it comes to human-robotic bionics, the greatest power is not from the augmented abilities, but from the inner strength and confidence that is derived from them.

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