Skip to main content
Move the World.

We’ve covered some really cool bionic technology as part of our Superhuman series, but one thing we haven’t talked about is how much this technology costs. You can’t order Johnny’s arm online (or anywhere else at the moment), but if you could, the cost would be right around what you’d pay for a 2016 Ferrari California T. The ReWalk exoskeleton, which you can buy, would cost roughly as much as a 2016 Audi A6 TDI.

While there are other exoskeletons on the market, none of them costs less than a motorized wheelchair, and no bionic arm currently available costs less than a basic upper extremity prosthetic. This has disability advocates rightfully wondering how disabled people can possibly afford the technology that promises to improve their lives.

There are reasons to be hopeful that assistive technology prices will come down.

For one thing, that’s what happens with all technology. Everybody knows that cell phones in the 1980s were four-figure luxury purchases, while today, it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t have a smartphone. Computer memory provides an even more striking example. In 2003, a one gigabyte USB flash drive cost just over $8,000. Today, you can buy one for just under $3. Never mind that no one buys data storage in such small quantities anymore, just think about that price change! It’s incredible.

Prices decline as manufacturers recoup their research and development costs and refine and scale up their production processes. Those things can’t happen without consumer demand.

Right now, it’s hard to imagine assistive technology prices declining as rapidly as those for flash drives, because the exoskeleton market is smaller than the data storage market and there’s no reason to expect a dramatic increase in the number of people who need new arms or mechanically assisted legs.

And that brings us to the first reason I think assistive tech prices will eventually come down:

Bionic technology is going to expand beyond the disability market

Have you seen the pictures Hyundai released of their new exoskeleton prototype?

That guy doesn’t have a spinal cord injury. Here he is standing on his own just fine. What he’s demonstrating is that the same tech that can help a paraplegic person stand and walk can help an uninjured person lift things they shouldn’t be able to lift. And that means we’re probably going to see supraphysiological applications of bionic technology in the near future. Hugh Herr, co-director of the Center for Extreme Bionics at MIT, believes using bionics--especially when we don’t “need” them--will become a common practice. I’m inclined to agree. That’s what the biohacking movement is about. Heck, it’s why people take vitamins. Everybody wants to be better. The only thing stopping us is social buy-in (will people laugh at me if I show up to the company softball game in a mech suit?) and the price point (will my spouse leave me if I take out a second mortgage to buy a mech suit for the company softball game?). But if there ends up being a consumer market for mech suits, it won’t be weird to wear them and it won’t cost a fortune to buy them.

But let’s say we’re getting ahead ofourselves with the idea that one daysoon, everyone will own aperformance-enhancing bionic apparatus.We’re still likely to see them used inindustries like construction, mining,and product assembly.

But let’s say we’re getting ahead of ourselves with the idea that one day soon, everyone will own a performance-enhancing bionic apparatus (which they’ll park next to their Tesla outside their lunar condo). We’re still likely to see them used in industries like construction, mining, and product assembly, which will not only drive the price down, but incentivize still more research and development.

And we haven’t even gotten to the baby boomers. There are a lot of them and they’re going to live forever. It’s hard to imagine America’s wealthiest generation saying no to technology that keeps them mobile and independent.

Open source platforms mean more cooks in more kitchens

Another reason to be hopeful is that the open-source philosophy is alive and well in the assisted tech community. OpenBCI, the company that makes 3D-printed headsets for tracking and utilizing brain activity, is open-source and so is the Applied Physics Lab at Johns Hopkins University, which developed Johnny’s arm. That means more cooks in more kitchens coming up with crazy new ways to use bionic technology that very few people had access to just a decade ago. It also means R&D costs are more dispersed than if these were closed platforms.

3D-printing can lower the cost of production

Ryan Hines can’t afford the most advanced robotic technology currently available for people with his congenital disability, so he made his own. And the reason he was able to do that is because the cost of 3D printing has gone way, way down.

Prior to 2007, no company had been able develop a 3D printer they could profitably sell for less than $10,000. Today, you can buy a starter 3D printer for as little as $180, and a really good one for $3,500.

Prices have dropped low enough that someone like Ryan--who designed his own assistive self-feeding technology using a CAD program--doesn’t have to buy a 3D printer. He can just send the design to someone else, and have it printed for a fraction of a fraction of what companies paid 20 years ago to have prototypes made.

We can’t know when the price point will come down

But we know that it will, because that’s what has always happened. TVs get cheaper, phones get cheaper, storage gets cheaper, everything gets cheaper. Even things that seem like they don’t cost less--like cars--now come standard with what was once considered luxury technology. Power steering! Air conditioning! Cruise control! These things cost a fortune to develop. Who honestly sees them as luxuries today?

The prices won’t fall as fast as wewant--or as fast as many people needthem to--but they will fall.

The prices won’t fall as fast as we want--or as fast as many people need them to--but they will fall. And one day, someone will remind us that bionic arms and exoskeletons used to cost a fortune, and we just won’t believe it.

I can’t wait.

Up Next

Medical Innovation
Cancer Immunotherapy “Baits” the Immune System Into Attacking Hidden Lung Tumors
cancer immunotherapy
Medical Innovation
Cancer Immunotherapy “Baits” the Immune System Into Attacking Hidden Lung Tumors
When cancer spreads, it often ends up in the lungs. ImmunoBait can ride a red blood cell in mice to deliver cancer immunotherapy where they live.

When cancer spreads, it often ends up in the lungs. ImmunoBait can ride a red blood cell in mice to deliver cancer immunotherapy where they live.

Biology
A Microevolution Is Happening in Humans Right Now
microevolution
Biology
A Microevolution Is Happening in Humans Right Now
More humans are being born with a third arm artery, an example of microevolution happening right before our eyes.

More humans are being born with a third arm artery, an example of microevolution happening right before our eyes.

Engineering
Super Bright X-Ray Lets Doctors See the Atoms Inside Viruses
x-ray synchrotron
Engineering
Super Bright X-Ray Lets Doctors See the Atoms Inside Viruses
The x-ray beams produced by the Extremely Brilliant Source, a new synchrotron, are so bright, they can be used to create images with atomic-level detail.

The x-ray beams produced by the Extremely Brilliant Source, a new synchrotron, are so bright, they can be used to create images with atomic-level detail.

Hacking
Ethical Hacking Challenge: Can You Take Over a Military Satellite?
Ethical Hacking
Hacking
Ethical Hacking Challenge: Can You Take Over a Military Satellite?
The U.S. Air Force is hosting Hack-A-Sat, an ethical hacking competition challenging participants to find security vulnerabilities in satellite systems.

The U.S. Air Force is hosting Hack-A-Sat, an ethical hacking competition challenging participants to find security vulnerabilities in satellite systems.

Future of Medicine
THC Could Help Women With Endometriosis
thc for endometriosis
Future of Medicine
THC Could Help Women With Endometriosis
Hundreds of thousands of women suffer with endometriosis, a disorder that causes painful tissue growth outside of the uterus. Pending clinical trials around THC may finally spell relief.
By Sarah Wells

Hundreds of thousands of women suffer with endometriosis, a disorder that causes painful tissue growth outside of the uterus. Pending clinical trials around THC may finally spell relief.

Superhuman
The Exoskeleton Marathon Racer
The Exoskeleton Marathon Racer
Watch Now
Superhuman
The Exoskeleton Marathon Racer
How do you bounce back from a life-changing car accident? Adam Gorlitsky decided he would break a world record.
Watch Now

How do you bounce back from a life-changing car accident? Adam Gorlitsky decided he would break a world record. In a weird way, it’s a good time to be paralyzed Adam Gorlitsky Adam was paralyzed from the waist down in a terrible wreck and thought his track and field days were over. But once approved for an experimental exoskeleton, he...

Dispatches
We're Mapping 100 Trillion Human Cells (and All of Their Genes)
We're Mapping 100 Trillion Human Cells (and All of Their Genes)
Dispatches
We're Mapping 100 Trillion Human Cells (and All of Their Genes)
The "Human BioMolecular Atlas" will map the active genes in over 200 types of cells and 80 different organ systems.
By Mark Atkinson

The "Human BioMolecular Atlas" will map the active genes in over 200 types of cells and 80 different organ systems.

Superhuman
Open Sourcing the Brain
Open Sourcing the Brain
Watch Now
Superhuman
Open Sourcing the Brain
Open BCI has developed a 3D-printed headset that allows your brain to interact with computers in amazing ways.
Watch Now

OpenBCI has developed a 3D-printed headset that allows our brains to interact with software. Want to measure the effect of meditation on your brain? It's possible. Want to control a prosthetic limb with your mind? It's possible. Right now, the only thing OpenBCI's tech can't do are the things we haven't thought of.