We are Closer than Ever to Bionic Arms

By Samuel Phineas Upham

Bionic arms have been a thing of science fiction since television and comic books were invented. We’ve long played with the idea of connecting a mechanical limb to someone who lost a hand or a leg, even creating a show based around the idea in the 1970s. Today, science has brought us closer than ever to realizing that reality. These bionic limbs can’t reliably transmit tangible sensations, but they can move independently and help the owner accomplish everyday tasks the way they used to.

The California Institute of Technology is pioneering a new advance that will make it possible for the brain to communicate with a machine. The machine reads impulses sent from the posterior parietal cortex, and processes that data into movement or motion.

Wires are attached to the patient’s head, near the ear. The person considers doing the task, the robotic arm looks at the nuances of that data and processes accordingly. A disabled man in a wheelchair can comfortably sip a drink through a straw, through a robotic arm that smoothly guides the straw to his lips. That’s just one of many potential use cases being experimented with currently.

In reality, the computer is calculating a trajectory of movement with an advanced system in place to smooth the movement out. The data being read would normally create a jerky motion.

The true advance will come when scientists are able to recreate precise movement with feeling and sensation. As of now, it’s impossible to close fingers or delicately caress something without a great deal of effort. Once we can process data at that level, pressure sensitivity and a true sense of motion will be possible.


Samuel Phineas Upham is an investor from NYC and SF. You may contact Phin on his Samual Phineas Upham website or Twitter page.

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