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If I’m being totally honest, I first got into prosthetics because I wanted to give people robotic tails. I mean, we even still have the remnants of the bone structure for tails, how hard could it be? As it turns out, hugely complicated and prohibitively expensive for just about anyone, no matter how badly you want to swing from the trees like a monkey. My dreams of tails will have to wait.
Building prosthetic limbs has come a long way since the days of Ahab and the wooden leg. Today, institutes like the Center for Sensorimotor and Neural Engineering (CSNE) in Seattle are working on prosthetics that talk directly to the brain, much like a real arm or leg would do. This is made possible through the study of brain-machine interfaces (BMIs)—devices and methods that allow communication between the nerves in our body and the electronics we attach to. These BMIs can be simple electrodes on the surface of the skin, or complex surgically attached devices that fuse directly to nerve endings. This means we can build robotic, electronic limbs and actually feel them like we would a real limb, or potentially even better. That’s right folks, we’re talking upgrades.
Building these kinds of complex prosthetics requires many different fields—medicine, biological science, mechanical engineering, robotics, and computer science. More recently a key element of modern prosthetics has brought in industrial designers. With the advent of 3D printing there has been a rush to build more personalised prosthetics, working into the design elements of the person who wears the prostheses. These devices are going to very literally be part of you, so why not customise them and make them your own? For example, industrial designer Scott Summit (who gave a wonderful TED talk entitled “Beautiful Artificial Limbs” in 2011) uses 3D scanning and printing to create prosthetic legs that are shaped based on a patients’ remaining leg. Summit’s 3D-printed legs are dishwasher-safe, curbside-recyclable and customised. He’s made see-through lace legs, nickel legs, tattooed leather legs and legs that look like part of the owner’s motorcycle.
As amazing as these devices are, possibly the greater challenge in the field of prosthetics at the moment is to make prosthetics affordable and durable. In countries such as Cambodia, Afghanistan, and Iran, landmines cause an estimated 26,000 amputations every year. The people suffering from these amputations can rarely afford even a basic prosthetic, let alone any of the complex versions we see in many first world countries. Making high-tech affordable and durable enough to survive in these countries is a huge challenge, but one of the most important in the field. Unfortunately, my robotic tails will have to wait.