... Now a team of European scientists led by Paolo Dario, a professor of biomedical robotics at the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna in Pisa, Italy, has unveiled the first brain-controlled prosthetic hand. The metal-clad prototype, dubbed the Cyberhand, combines unprecedented mechanical dexterity with a sophisticated computer system designed to harness brain signals from the wearer, allowing him to move and feel the hand as though it were his own.
Dario and his team expect to begin testing the Cyberhand on patients this year, during which time they aim to perfect its sensory interface. Consisting of a microprocessor, electrodes and a telemetry system implanted in the wearer’s lower arm, the interface will act as a sort of man-machine interpreter, translating and ferrying electrical signals back and forth between the hand and the patient’s central nervous system. To do this, the team has invented electrodes that record electrical data from nerve cells and stimulate the cells to provide the wearer with sensory feedback. Current systems do just half the job, recording electrical signals without sending any data back to the brain.
In addition to its ability to communicate with the body, the Cyberhand features a number of mechanical advances, including five independently moving fingers. A DC motor in each digit gives the robotic hand 16 degrees of freedom, so it can move in a variety of subtle directions (the human hand has 22 degrees of freedom). Each motor pulls a Teflon-sheathed cable that mimics actual tendons and muscle in the fingers, enabling them to curl around a coffee mug, for instance. With pressure sensors embedded along the surface of the fingers, the hand can pick up even delicate objects without crushing them.
I wonder for how long advanced prosthetics like these will be useful, as stem cell therapy tantalizingly promises us to regrow our organs and limbs.
However, if these robotic appendages were to eventually become better than our own biological limbs, things could get very interesting...