The science of bionic prosthetics is a little more accessible than you may have thought. In reality, the idea that our brains can speak to artificial limbs, and those limbs can respond by mimicking what the human body would do is no longer a science-fiction fantasy – and you might even be able to understand how this process works. The world of bionics is here, and it's absolutely amazing.
The business of creating stand-ins for missing body parts isn't a new one. Humans have long been losing parts and attempting to replace them with man-made materials – think glass eyes, dentures, and even toupees. It really isn't a giant leap, almost three thousand years later, to attempt to connect those prostheses to the brain. Put simply, "[bionics] is a term which refers to the flow of concepts from biology to engineering and vice versa." For the scientists among you, this connection may seem rather intuitive, but, for the rest of the population, making sense of the human brain talking to a piece of engineering can be hard to wrap your head around. Erik Sofge of Popular Science explains bionic prostheses best, expounding "[when] the electrical impulse from [the] brain reaches the base of [the] leg, a pair of sensors embedded in [the] muscle tissue connect the neural dots, and wirelessly transmit that signal to the [bionic foot]."
Got it? No? Keep reading for a more detailed explanation.
The disgraced Oscar Pistorius comes to mind whenever the topic of athletes and prostheses is mentioned. The elite sprinter – with his "Flex-Foot Cheetah" prosthetics – has competed in the Olympics among the fastest men in the world. However, what it means for an athlete with prosthetics to compete against those without them has become the topic of heated debate within the world of athletics. Why? Because scientists really can't decide whether or not bionic prosthetics give an athlete an advantage. In Pistorius's case, some argue that the lightness of his limbs "make him 15 to 20 percent or more, faster," among providing him with other advantages. At issue here, in essence, is whether or not bionic limbs are superior to organic ones, and athletics is the current testing ground.
Thus far in their short history, bionic prosthetics haven't exactly been synonymous with cost effectiveness. In reality, they're often exorbitantly expensive, with some costing more than $100,000. However, thanks to initiatives like the Open Hand Project, 3D-printing technologies are being harnessed to provide bionic prosthetics to more of those in need. With stick-on electrodes and open-source code, the "Dextrus hand" created by the Open Hand Project comes in at "a fraction of the cost" of traditional bionic prosthetics.
It's not just adults that benefit from the brilliant minds that spend their days working hard to help people feel whole again. There are a number of companies, like Össur, that are working on limbs for children. Anyone can be born missing a limb or lose one due to accident or illness; age really isn't a factor in that. So advances in prosthetic science can benefit anyone.
However, because children are continuously growing, fitting them requires a little more work, and they need their limbs updated much more often than adults. Regardless, creating space-age limbs to ensure children's safety and mobility is a strong priority for many companies in the field.
Nowadays, many makers of bionic prosthetics aren't trying to replicate the aesthetic of a human hand in their designs; they are in no way attempting to make prostheses look as life-like as possible. Rather, they're paying attention to a different aesthetic, and the robotic look seems to be on trend in the prostheses community as of late. According to Tokyo-based prosthetics designer Genta Kondo:
"People who’ve lost a hand or an arm generally want to hide it, that’s why most prosthetics are made to look like skin. Our designs are different because we want people to show their disability in as positive a light as possible. Our designer wanted to integrate the warm feeling of a natural hand with a robotic look. If he had designed something completely robot-inspired, it would be too sci-fi for most people. He really took time to come up with smooth lines and curves that maintain a human aesthetic, without looking like Frankenstein.”