The last decade has seen a technology revolution focused almost exclusively around the idea of touch. Touch screens have completely transformed the world at large, pushing tech companies to better consolidate their ambitions into 5 inches of gesture-based space. The results speak for themselves, as more people have access to smartphones than ever before.
Touching the Future
Some are now asking what the next step of touch technology could be. How can we utilize the improved touch sensor to perform bigger tasks? What if touch technology was reconfigured for more than just communication or passive entertainment? Scientists in Rome have reportedly done just that, unveiling the first bionic limb embedded with a sense of touch. The recipient is Almerina Mascarello, who lost her hand in an accident over twenty years ago, and has received what is being hailed as a breakthrough in prosthetics.
The hand is outfitted with sensors that can detect data regarding shape, weight and size. The information—for example, is the object in the owner’s hand hard or soft?—is then delivered to a computer that converts the data into a language the brain can understand, which in turn is relayed to the user’s brain via tiny electrodes implanted in the nerves of the upper arm.
The development team included engineers, neuroscientists, surgeons, electricians and robotics specialists hailing from Italy, Switzerland and Germany. The team had begun work on the project as far back as 2014, but the sensory detailing and corresponding computer equipment were too large to leave the lab. In the three years since, the technology has become small enough to fit into a backpack.
The success of the project represents a huge step forward in the advancements of neuroprosthetics, which focuses on the interface between the human body and machines. For many, this is a sign that neuroprosthetics could eventually even create body parts that resemble the body and improve on them: legs that move faster but require less energy; arms that are stronger while still maintaining their same shape and size.
Dennis Aabo Sorensen lost his hand in a 2004 firecracker accident. His bionic arm allowed him to distinguish the shapes and textures of multiple objects with 78% accuracy. In 88% of the cases, Sorensen was able to perfectly describe the size and shape of specific objects, from a glass to an orange to a baseball.
The work is not totally complete: Almerina was one of the brave amputees who agreed to serve as testers for the project, but she was only allowed to wear the arm for six months as it was still in its prototype stage. The team hopes to miniaturize the technology with enough efficiency that the bionic hand, and other projects like it, could potentially even be commercialized.
The arm is an unmitigated success, though still requires tests before it can be commercially and medically viable. But it represents the work of many top-tier scientists, thousands of hours, and the progress made possible by years spent improving touch technology. Many of the next generations’ medical advancements will be building off of steps taken in the new century.
Already we are seeing the immediacy of modern data inform the medical community, with digestible pills and voice-activated doctor consultations, but the bionic arm marks a new dawn in commercializing prosthetic work. Mascarello and her companions may not have had the chance to stick with their prosthetics for long—all of them gave the pieces back after tests were complete, though they all were reportedly wowed by the product. But even if the robotic prosthesis of an imagined future is still miles away, each iteration marks a significant step forward.