Much has been made of the advancements made in mind-controlled prosthetics lately. For many, the advancements made in this field have led to comparisons with the prosthetic hand that Luke Skywalker received at the end of the Empire Strikes Back. Remember that, how he got a robotic hand that not only looked real but also allowed him to feel pain? Well as it stands, we may be closer to that than previously thought.
Witness the new era of robo-prosthetic devices, ones that will not only restore motion to a amputees and people born without limbs, but also sensory perception! Developed by Silvestro Micera of the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland, it’s the first prosthetic that will provide real-time sensory feedback to its owners. Later this year, a man by the name of Pierpaolo Petruzziello, who lost half his arm in a car accident, will receive the first of its kind, once all the tests are concluded.
Much like the mind-controlled prosthetics that have been making the rounds in recent years, this new device is wired directly to the user’s nervous system with electrodes, allowing them to control its movement. However, in this updated model, the process works both ways. Once the hand’s electrodes are clipped onto two of the arm’s main nerves, the median and the ulnar nerves, it will form a cybernetic connection allowing for the fast and bidirectional flow of information between the patient’s nervous system and the artificial hand.
In this respect, the arm works much as a real one does, using electrical stimuli to both send commands and receive sensory information. Announcing the development of the hand at the recently concluded AAAS conference in Boston, Micera was sure to highlight this aspect of the prosthetic, claiming that increased sensory feelings will improve acceptance of artificial limbs among patients.
Interestingly enough, this model is an updated version of one Micera and his team produced back in 2009, again for use by Petruzziello. He was able to move the bionic hand’s fingers, clench them into a fist and hold objects, and also reported feeling the sensation of needles pricked into the hand’s palm. However, this earlier version of the hand had only two sensory zones whereas the latest prototype will send sensory signals back from all the fingertips, as well as the palm and the wrists to give a near life-like feeling in the limb.
Once the hand and patient are united, he will wear it for a month in order to get a proper feel for the prosthetic and test out its many functions. Based on that test-drive, Micera hopes to develop a fully-functional and commercially viable model within the next two years.
Just think of it: prosthetics for amputees that will not only allow them to interact with their world again, but will provide them with the sensory information they need to actually feel like a part of it. One step closer to truly providing accident victims and people born without limbs a new and fully-functional lease on life. And perhaps to posthumanism as well!