Could prosthetic limbs of the future be mind-controlled? While sounding like a concept from a science fiction film, the technology is far closer than we may think.
India has a long history of the development of prosthetic limbs. Most famous, perhaps, is the development of the Jaipur foot, a prosthetic leg attachment developed for below-the-knee amputees. The Jaipur foot has been exported globally and is renowned as a cheap means of improving the quality of life of amputees, while still allowing for flexibility and a high degree of function at a low cost.
A team of researchers based in Washington DC have expanded on current prosthetic technologies, expanding the boundaries of the technology into science fiction territory. Their prosthetic arm uses a non-invasive brain-computer interface (BCI) to allow direct control over a prosthetic arm.
While the concept of a BCI is not a new development, the non-invasive nature of this new prosthetic is a step forward for the technology. Current incarnations of the BCI use an invasive implant into the brain. Such a device requires significant technical and surgical skill to implant, with the potential for major complications if installed incorrectly or improperly maintained.
“Noninvasive is the ultimate goal. Advances in neural decoding and the practical utility of noninvasive robotic arm control will have major implications on the eventual development of noninvasive neurorobotics,” said Bin He, one of the researchers involved in the prosthetic research.
The group maintain that they wish the technology to become both widespread and economical in order to bring about the maximum benefit to those who need it. They have likened the technology to potentially becoming much like smartphones in a sense that the mind-controlled technology would become a standard assistive product.
However, even once the technology becomes commercial, it is likely to be expensive in the foreseeable future. While this may be of benefit within some nations, many will be left behind unless a concerted effort is made to provide the technology at subsidised costs. As amputees fall to the side as a public health concern due to matters such as rising burdens of various infectious and noncommunicable diseases, it is unlikely that this will come to fruition.
The Jaipur foot, meanwhile, has been in production for upwards of fifty years, with 2,000 more units being sent to countries across Africa and Southeast Asia recently. While simple, it is a product that is easily made, and readily available. While the BCI prosthetics are a futuristic concept, to what extent they will be of actual benefit to the world’s amputees in the near future is up for debate.