“I was just in New York for my birthday last weekend, and it was the first time where I consistently wore my hand for like ten hours a day for five days straight,” said Vikram Pandit.
Vikram is an operations manager in his mid-20s, and he has a congenital amputation. He’s been wearing a prosthesis more or less since he was born. And Vikram’s not alone: Almost 2 million people are missing a limb in the United States, whether it’s from illness, trauma, or something they were born with. For many of these people, prosthetics can be game changing.
Humans have actually been using prosthetics for thousands of years.
The Roman general Marcus Sergius was said to have an iron hand as long ago as the Second Punic War in the 200s B.C. But for most of time, the prosthetics have been bulky, rough things.
There’s some amazing research coming down the line that could make future generations of prosthetics extra useful to amputees.
Basically, prosthetic limbs aren’t just hunks of metal and plastic anymore. By adding motors, batteries, and computer processors, these limbs are rocketing out of the past and into the future.
To get some perspective on how far humans have come in prosthetic technology, check out these big comparisons.
1. This crude thing is a 19th century prosthetic leg.
But this poem of plastic and grace is its 21st century cousin.
Whereas old prosthetics were often little more than metal or plastic extensions of a limb, researchers are now developing ones that can move on their own using motors and battery packs. At Vanderbilt University, researchers are even developing limbs programmed to match a person’s natural gait. They can recognize when a person wants to speed up, slow down, turn, or use the stairs.
2. This cold hunk of iron is a prosthetic arm from the 1600s.
But this 21st century experiment is in touch with its feelings.
By adding different kinds of sensors, engineers can build prosthetics that feel temperature, texture, vibration, and many other senses.
Some, like SynTouch’s BioTac (pictured above), can use this information to make prosthetics smarter. A touchy-feely prosthetic can intuitively tell when it’s picking up something, for example, which means it can handle fragile things — like eggs — much more naturally.
“With contact detection, you think of your hand less like a tool and more like a hand,” said Vikram. (Full disclosure: Vikram is an employee of SynTouch.) “You have achieved a perfect prosthesis if you can use it without needing to divert any attention to it, just like a normal hand.”
SynTouch says they’re using the lessons they’ve learned from the BioTac experiment to make better, present-day solutions.
3. This lifeless thing is an artificial arm from the 1930s.
But its future descendant may one day read our minds.
“There’s lots of people with upper limb paralysis in the U.S. and worldwide,” doctoral student Guy Hotson told Upworthy.
For those people, conventional prosthetics — which work by sensing muscle twitches or nerves in the skin — might not work. “It would be great to make something that can directly tap into their neural signals and help restore their autonomy,” he said.
Interestingly, Hotson was recently part of a proof-of-concept project that attempted just that. They hooked up a man with a robotic arm that could read his mind (it used a brain implant the man already had to treat epilepsy).
“After we’ve trained the computer, we hook it up, the neural signals stream in, and then the computer translates those neural signals into movements with the arm,” said Hotson. Within a few hours, the man was able to get the arm to mirror his movements. While the man wasn’t paralyzed himself (which is why you can see his own arm moving in the GIF), this suggests the technique could one day work in real cases.
More work needs to be done, of course, but the future of prosthetics is exciting and life-changing.
A lot of these innovations are more proof of concepts than commercially available devices, but they are showing us what could be possible in the coming years. Super-advanced aspirational, experimental stuff really does trickle down into real, life-changing devices sometimes. (See: wifi.)
And if in 100 years we can go from this…
…then the next 100 years is certainly going to be awesome.