We all grew up with movies that featured cyborgs or androids and our imagination has always explored the possibility of machines that can act human and also feel. While the idea of robotic feelings is still awkward as it qualifies as “man playing God”, science is taking a big leap in giving back to men lost senses. We are in front of a huge break through as the first bionic arm that can interpret tactile information and transfer it to the human user is at our grasp.
Since unfortunate accidents have incapacitated men (forever) we have been trying to make-up for missing body parts in order to feel a little bit normal again or just help in everyday activity. Prostheses have evolved from wooden legs to hook hands and to last-generation feet that can allow you to run in the Olympics in speed races. But now we are in front of the first prosthesis that not only replaces the functionality of a lost limb, but it also reproduces the tactile feel.
The first use of the bionic hand is set to be transplanted to a young amputee that lives in Roma, Italy and has lost his hand in an accident. Dr. Silvestro Micera from the EPFL (Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne) in Switzerland will be conducting the whole process and explains on how the bionic hand will be connected directly to the patient’s nervous system through the median and ulnar nerves.
A prototype of the bionic hand had already been applied to a patient in 2009 that managed to use the robotic palm to grasp and make a fist and also vaguely feel mechanical stimulants applied onto the sensory areas, but Dr. Micera’s team managed to come a long way in just several years and develop a far more advanced tactile experience.
There are still a lot of issues to be taken care of like the fact that the artificial arm will not be able to be removed and patients might not tolerate having it connected permanently. There are also esthetical issues like concealing the connections of the clipped electrodes to the nerves that have to be somehow hidden under the skin for safety and aspect reasons.
If everything goes as planned and the patient feels comfortable with the bionic arm than the first batch will be available for sale and transplant in about a couple of years. We will also soon expect the bionic leg with tactile sense and why not the bionic nose, eyes and ears. RoboCop is stepping into the reality realm.