Exploring How Technology Has Evolved Prosthetic Limbs Through James and Ashley Young’s Experiences
An interview focusing on James and Ashley Young’s opinions on prosthetic technology and other technological aspects (follow part 2 of the interview to hear more about their personal opinions and lives)
Would you like to briefly introduce yourselves? How did we link up to have this wonderful interview?
Tram Anh Nguyen: I'm Tram Anh Nguyen, the co-founder of CFTE and it’s a pleasure to be here. I got the opportunity to meet James at the Cogx festival in London and we connected: we spent ten minutes together which turned into an hour, and then had lunch together. Your story inspires me so much: you shared about your personal life, your professional life, your life as a couple, and for me, if there’s one message that really resonated with me, is that it’s about the humanity and the impact that technology has on people, so I just wanted to have the next generation, Quynh An and Dorian to spend some time with you and share about your stories.
Ashley: My name is Ashley Young. I’m from Orlando, Florida and moved here almost two years ago with James. I am a mum, a model and actor.
James: I’m James. I’ve lived here my whole life. A bit about me is that I studied biological science before I had an accident in 2012, so I worked a bit in the medical communication industry and unfortunately suffered the loss of limbs which completely changed the path of my life. It’s curious because I was talking to Tram Anh about how I almost wanted to study Cybernetics and the future of the human body way before I had my accident so it was a very strange occurrence to then be placed right in the centre of where humanity is going with this technology.
When do you think you wear your prosthetic arm the most often, considering you’ve said [the Konami arm] is more artistic than functional?
James: I use it usually for functional reasons these days. I had an artistic arm I got to design that was made in collaboration with Konami, the video game publisher, but as with many things that are made for tv shows, what happens to them is that they just die out because they’re prototypes and one-offs so that one wasn’t the most functional. It did have really interesting alternative functions like the Twitter screen, the drone on the side, charging for my phone, lights and stuff like that. However, the functionality broke down quite quickly, so the arm that I wear today put me on a path to understand what’s really going to be useful for me functionally, because it was quite a burden to create something that has so many features. It’s almost like you have to strip it down with the current level of technology to make something that’s really worth putting on-it has to have a really core reliable ability.
If this type of technology advances in the future and becomes more accessible worldwide, do you think our world will become more or less interactive?
James: It's a difficult concept because it’s probably multifaceted in terms that people like me exist with a limb loss, so I am trying to regain some functionality, and also protect what’s remaining of my body. That’s to do with how my injuries occurred, the height of my amputations and things like that, but it varies per person across the world. For example, for Ashley, she doesn’t really put the hand on as much as I would, because she has a below-the-elbow congenital amputation, so it was never amputated, she was just born with a different arm, so it’s a very different [situation] I think.
Ashley: Definitely, because I was born without my arm, so I grew up learning how to do everything without it. So for me, [wearing the arm] is quite cumbersome and it’s hard. It’s just easier to do things without having the arm on for some things. There are definitely a couple of things that are easier when wearing the arm, like blow-drying my hair, really random at-home tasks, carrying things and pushing the pram with it while looking at directions on my phone or booking reservations. It’s really helpful in those situations. For me, a lot of those times, with the weather as well, especially in England, I feel like it’s quite hard to wear, because it rains, and [the prosthetic arm] can’t get wet. Also, with mine, because my little arm is so tiny, it just almost sweats right off, when it’s really hot. So it’s interesting, it’s a very small window of time in the year, where we can actually wear it outside so a lot of the time, it’s most functional helping us inside doing those tasks, or just to put in my backpack and take it to set with me and wear it on set.
James: So really when you think of a world becoming more or less connected, for you, would you say that you feel less connected to the world, because you have a physical obstacle that doesn’t have a sensation of touch, it doesn’t have skin, so it’s a bit different, whereas for me, I have a sensation of touch up there, but it’s so non-functional that I gain an interactivity with the world by wearing this whole thing, because it’s another new point of action and interaction.
James: I think that as the technology becomes cheaper and more readily available, it will have those two facets to it. Some people will potentially feel less connected, some people will feel more connected, and as the technology gets cheaper and more accessible, more futures will be able to be included as technology advances, like sensation of touch and sensation of feedback and maybe, directly connected to the nerves and everything like that, so it could get much more interactive than the current level.
James, you are interested in space, what does this stem from?
James: For sure, I don’t know what that stems from. [...] Even recently, ESA, the European Space Agency launched a para-astronaut program to get someone with a limb difference into space, as an astronaut, which is just incredible. I think that will be really valuable as well in itself.
[...] There’s radiation exposure and reproduction issues that we face as a species if we are planning to go multi-planetary, and, it feels almost weird that I have solved some radiation exposure issues [because of my prosthetic arm and leg], except that it does kill my friendships as well, but that’s another talking point.
Would you rather have been fitted with a prosthetic arm that does all these incredible and different functions or a prosthetic arm that replicates a human arm's functions exactly?
Ashley: That’s an interesting one. I feel like one that replicates a human arm would be really cool. I don’t know what it’s like to have another hand, so I think that it would be a completely new and interesting situation for me. Obviously, I know what this one feels like, but to have that on the other side would be really [interesting]. I think I would rather have that. I don’t know because I kind of like the way that I am as a person with a limb difference so I like the bionic look; I like things that look like they're different and I think it's great to talk about and it just looks cool in general. If it had all the functionalities of a human hand but looked like this, I think it would be my ideal arm.
James: I think what you have said brings to mind that adversity and challenge for humanity is actually a really useful prompt to improve things, and works with anybody’s psychologically. When you have a challenge, it’s almost interesting to overcome it, and in terms of developing things like technologies, disabilities give you a perspective that is almost, sometimes outside the realm of human thought for a person, because they cannot even see [how] to approach it in that way, and that’s not even philosophical, that's evidenced in things that come out of a disability need. Like, text messaging was invented for a guy to communicate with his wife, because she couldn’t use phone calls and that’s just changed the face of almost how we communicate with one another, just a simple text message and that would really push forward the internet as a concept as well, so it’s wild and exciting to think that through these adverse experiences we have the potential to change human civilization. That's kind of where it goes when you think of replacing body parts, what body consists of. It's a fundamental core idea really, especially when so much of our lives become more digital, in the coming decades.
If both of you had one thing that you wanted the world to know about you right now, what would it be?
James: About me? I don’t know. As a general message, just be nice to those around you. [Maybe, I’d say] I’ve been thrust into this world, when I designed this arm with the video game company and the Alternative Limb Project, and I honestly thought it would just be for me and then it was, ‘oh, of course, this is a promotional thing for a game, literally worldwide in the press,’ and that changed my life. ‘I didn’t ask for this’, is my thought.
Ashley: I would say I’m pretty much an open book, but I think if someone needed to know something specifically about me, it would be that I am genuinely happy most of the time, and I just have a hard time feeling anything but happy emotions. This is actually a hard [question]. Something that the world should know about me is that I am working on paving the way for the next generation of limb-different kids and trying to turn no’s into yes’s and that’s kind of my vibe on what I would like to do.
This interview was conducted in collaboration with Tram Anh Nguyen, the co-founder of CFTE, after she met James at the Cogx festival (https://cogx.live/) in London. CFTE is the centre for finance, technology and entrepreneurship, which delivers courses and programs from leaders and companies of different sectors in the aim of empowering professionals and students and equipping them with all the necessary skills in a rapidly evolving technological world. It has formed an online campus of its learners and alumni and has collaborated with many universities and governments across the world to make sure no one falls behind.
A message from interviewer Quynh An and Dorian: Thank you so much James and Ashley, it has been an honour to meet and interview you, we’ve learnt so much and it was an incredible experience. We hope to see you and your daughter again soon! Also, thank you so much to Tram Anh, without whom this interview would never have taken place.