Prosthetics are special devices that serve as a replacement for a missing part of the body like arms and legs.
In the medical field, they seem like a recent invention, but archaeological evidence suggests a timeline around 800 BC!
Of course, back then they probably came in handy for all those wars started over ridiculous pub bets, or perhaps a mathematical disagreement (*cough* complex numbers *cough*).
Anyway, we are way past those days. Prosthetics mainly support those who lose limbs during accidents or……. war-related injuries. No, we are way ahead of those times. What I’m trying to say is, that prosthetics have seen a massive development.
That sounds dream-like or comics-y stuff but it is indeed very real. Although still mostly in the beginning, we have seen promising leads from various studies. Most of these studies were surveys that proved the need for reducing phantom pain and better sensibility.
1. Sensory Feedback
The ‘sensory feedback’ part is key here. With conventional prosthetics, you could only get the physical replacement of the missing part. Not trying to look down on it but it lacked the feeling of feeling, in the simplest words.
The five senses are what makes us alive, and sensory feedback is just that. It is the information our brain receives through our body’s touch, temperature, and proprioception.
This feedback is what helps us sense and decide how to interact with our surroundings. You can probably recall from your science textbooks the old example of touching a hot stove, and how our brain receives the signal and accordingly instructs us to withdraw the hand.
Prosthetics with sensory feedback would ultimately be the closest we ever get to somehow ‘attaching’ a real limb. But remember, this very topic that we’re discussing was a miraculous phenomenon 50 or so years ago so I’m not just trashing that idea!
It is incredibly hard to feed the sensory data into the brain though. Like we have the technological aspect of a prosthetic covered but human biology, specifically brain neurology, is just not so easily programmable.
2. History and development
Minus the sensory feedback and transparent silicone-covered prosthetics, the use of basic wooden and metallic limbs goes way back to ancient civilizations.
Users heavily relied on trial and error- yes a single prosthetic is likely to have been passed on to others. Let’s just leave the lack of hygiene to our imaginations.
During the 19th century though, we saw significant development in making prosthetics more mobile and tailor-made. Of course, sensory feedback was a long way to go, but for the timeline, it was quite a giant leap.
Then in the mid-20th century, the heavy steel prosthetics were replaced by aluminum and plastics. We also saw the development of myoelectric prosthetics that allowed the controlling of prosthetics with the electrical signals that our muscle contractions generate.
This very well may have been the first step toward fully sensory prosthetics. It wouldn’t be at least 40 more years until sensory feedback started gaining attention in modern research.
The 21st century has undoubtedly seen the most rapid development in prosthetics with sensory feedback (or just technology in general). Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) allow users to control their limbs using their thoughts.
A BCI is quite literally what it is named; an interface between our brain and a computer. Of course, this particular piece of technology is also still in progress, we can almost guarantee its success rate.
Psyonic deserves special mention because it actively works on making low-cost bionic arms. Emphasis on the ‘low-cost’ part because let us not forget how this high-fi technology is extremely heavy on our wallets. Worst of all, the other medical procedures required during the incident of losing a limb make it even worse and unaffordable.
Psyonic is the first company to start making bionic hands in the US. Their latest and flagship product, ‘The Ability Hand’ is reportedly a whopping 150% faster than any other bionic arm on the market.
The way they’re able to make it a low-cost project is because of their crowdfunding campaign “#RedefineHuman”. This makes it easy for essentially any person from around the world to contribute! The investing page is live as of today and motivates you to do so.
3. Ethics and Morality of Prosthetics With Sensory Feedback
There are two sides to every coin. It would be wrong to just paint a positive picture when there are many areas where this technology could go wrong.
- First and foremost, there is the issue of privacy. Think about it, an external app has access to our sensory information! This would be the ultimate dystopia George Orwell could never even dream of. Like information about how you’re feeling and what actions you’ve performed is just one data breach away from being released into the world.
2. Next we have the question of identity and dependence on technology. Buckle up, this might get philosophical!
It is a valid question though, an external machine controlling your actions. It is still your brain that’s deciding but that information is being sent to a machine. I suppose we could limit some functions to reduce dependency but then again what is the point of such high-tech stuff?
3. You may not want to hear this next word but here it is: Stigmatization. Sure all this technology sounds cool but what if someone cannot access them? There are also issues such as the finances. Another word we dread hearing, but is unfortunately ever-present.
4. Concluding Prosthetics With Sensory Feedback
We saw how prosthetics with sensory feedback are one small realm in the technology space. Of course, we have a long way to go with the issues of accessibility, cost, stigmatization, and all that. I am optimistic about the future, we have come so far and we can only go further.
Technology has never been more present and all the good things accomplished with it are overwhelming! Unfortunately, people can know or recall what it is like to be human, and I think that is beautiful.
5. Cost and Accessibility
Unsurprisingly, prosthetics with sensory feedback are greatly being researched and expensively so. One good thing about these companies is that they host crowdfunding campaigns to reduce the selling price for the customers.
Atom Limbs is currently working on its first product which is estimated to be priced around 20000 USD (around 16,62,100 INR). This price is still relatively low considering the fascinating technology behind it that we have been discussing so far.
This has been possible due to multiple rounds of fundraising on WeFunder. A whopping $7 million have been raised since their foundation in 2019.
A body-controlled prosthetic arm, on the other hand (*sigh*), may cost around 5500 USD (around 45,708 INR). The additional myoelectric is what adds around an extra 50,000 USD! (around 41,48,500 INR).
The controlled simulation module, the sensory feedback part, costs much less than the prosthetic itself.
When it comes to accessibility, despite the surge in research, almost none of the proposed solutions from the past 40 years were put to medicinal use in healthcare. Practically, advanced prosthetics have always stayed on paper and never really put out in the open!
This does sound tragic but we have to understand why people were skeptical of such advanced physics in real life. Sure, there were technological limitations, but it was also possibly difficult to convince the public to trust masked nerds with their Dr. Octopus-level intentions.
Seriously, Doc Ock is the perfect example of advanced prosthetics but with ultra-sensory feedback! I doubt something like a prosthetic gaining intelligence is way far ahead but you can never be sure. Imagine your prosthetic telling you how to do your job!
Coming back, things are looking good now though! The crowdfunding scheme we discussed before proves that people trust the technology. It is also a wholesome display of humanity as people using prosthetics have likely spent a ton on other treatments as well.
Read on to learn more about Psyonic, another prosthetic company with the latest developments in the advanced prosthetics department.
6. Future of Prosthetics with Sensory Feedback
The future, as always, is extremely promising with Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCIs) rapidly developing. If we overcome the complex ethical issues we might just achieve peace. Ah, the massive ‘if’. If only there was less corruption if only people were more receptive to technology.
Anyway I digress, researchers are currently working on advanced sensors and artificial skin. This is of course a long way to go but goes well with providing a fully humane feeling for users of prosthetics.
King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) recently published on electronic skin (e-skin) sensors. The e-skins consist of a layer of active nanomaterial surface attached to the prosthetic arm or leg.
This e-skin is also extremely thin and durable to resemble human skin as much as possible. KAUST claims that their prototype e-skin can sense objects 20 cm away and even sense handwriting written on it when used as a pressure sensor.
Cornell University researched stretchable skin that detects pressure, bending, and strain. This skin was a result of heavy experimentation on fiber optic sensors with low-cost LEDs and dyes.
The Cornell model was more mathematical oriented and hence allowed it to distinguish various deformations and locate exactly their location and magnitude. The researchers also claimed that it could easily be incorporated into Augmented Reality (AR) simulations.
This is a massive leap into involving AI in prosthetics. This is also what researchers from UC Berkeley have been doing lately.
A wearable biosensor with AI installed in it is being pursued by researchers. The AI software recognizes hand gestures based on the electrical signals formed on the forearm.
Yes, these look exactly how you’re imagining it at this moment; visible electric nodes with circles on the end! The algorithm can reportedly identify 21 gestures as of now.
Anyways these are just some of the recent developments in advanced prosthetics. Who knows which university is secretly researching prosthetics that give you superpowers and are just waiting for the right time to bring them to the world?
The point is, the future can branch out in infinitely different directions and each one is just as exciting as the other.