Friday, November 2, 2012

Mind Control: The Future of Prosthetics

I got my information from an article I read in a special issue of Discovery Magazine.  Click the link below to read the original article.

Imagine prosthetic limbs that can be controlled by the mind. Hugh Herr, sometimes referred to as a real-life bionic man, is busy creating exactly that.

In January, 1982, Herr and a friend went hiking on Mount Washington in New Hampshire. As they neared the summit, the weather turned foul, and with dangerous gusts and limited visibility, the two got lost. They were nearly dead when they were found three days later. Both had severe frostbite and would need amputations. Herr had both of his legs removed just below the knees, which was devastating for the 17-year-old who was a gifted rock climber. But rather than succumb to depression, Herr decided that he would make the best of his situation. Beginning by taking his bulky, plaster prosthetics and messing around with their design so that he could feel as natural walking as he did climbing, Herr found passion in creating better prosthetic technology.

Herr started by gluing climbing rubber to the bottoms of his new legs rather than wearing climbing shoes. Then he reshaped the feet themselves, reducing their size to give him an advantage when standing on small footholds and rocks. He made limbs that were height adjustable, which made it easier to reach handholds on rock faces, and he made his legs extremely lightweight. But that was just the beginning. Today he runs around Walden Pond on motorized bionic limbs of his own design that adjust 500 times per second.

Hugh Herr, Bionic Man -- PART 1 from THE NEXT LIST on Vimeo.

His invention, the PowerFoot BiOM, is the world's first robotic ankle-foot prosthesis, and in 2011, it was released to the public. It is a considerable improvement over previous prosthetic limbs, allowing users to push off the ground with seven times the power of other prosthetic models while using less energy, and it has the ability to react to changes in pace and terrain. Herr's creation has had an incredible impact, but he is not willing to stop there. His goal is to link bionic limbs directly to the human nervous system, allowing users to control their artificial limbs through thought.

Unlike other scientists and engineers who are working on similar projects to connect man with machine, Herr and two others, Todd Kuiken and Richard Weir, are experimenting with nerve and muscle impulses rather than going directly into the brain with mini electrodes. That is, nerves that once sent signals to the feet are still there, they just don't have a place to send those signals. Herr hopes that his prosthetics will change that. He also hopes that as technology changes, so will attitudes. In the same way that people who wear glasses are no longer considered handicapped, so it will be for people with prosthetic limbs. “As the human machine interaction becomes more sophisticated,” Herr says, “we will see fewer and fewer disabilities. One day I will truly no longer be disabled and may be augmented in some ways.”

What do you think? Can Herr's mind-powered limbs become reality? If so, do you think they can be produced so that the general public can afford them? What do you think about improving attitudes by improving technology? Share your thoughts! This is exciting stuff!

Click to read the original article from Discovery Magazine.

1 comment:

  1. This is very very interesting! It's a culmination of a lot of what I read about emerging prosthetic technology as well as muscle recognition and neural recognition technology. Very exciting to see how this can be put to use in disability services. Singularity Hub has other stories that are similar ideas: