Thirty-five years ago this week, the world was introduced to RoboCop. Set in Detroit in a dystopian future, the film follows official Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), who, after a fatal injury, turns into a cyborg with a series of futuristic bionics.
Fortunately, so far we have been able to prevent the worst parts of RoboCopThe dystopian world, but that doesn’t stop us from trying to figure out the best parts. For decades, scientists around the world have been trying to make better bionics, not to create a more mechanical police force but to improve or restore functionality to the millions of people around the world who have experienced traumatic injury.
Prosthetic devices have long been part of the human story. Some 3,000 years ago, people made tools to replace lost body parts. The oldest known prosthetic is the Cairo Toe, a beautifully carved prosthetic wood found attached to the skull of an Egyptian woman. In addition to providing an aesthetic replacement for the missing figure, scientists believe it may also help restore the wearer’s balance.
Since then, the science of prosthetics has advanced tremendously, resulting in complex devices available to patients today. Many modern prostheses are capable of complex actions, mimicking at least some level of function in missing hands. Typically, the wearer signals the arm to perform a particular movement by moving the muscles in the remaining parts of the body. It’s not like learning to use your hand again and like learning to use your hand differently.
It’s undeniable that prostheses are unique inventions that restore function and mobility to millions of people, but they don’t achieve our science fiction dreams. Making a convincing facsimile of a limb is only the first piece of the puzzle. Building a limb fulfills the hardware requirements of our imagined synthetic bodies, but in order to truly break down in the future, we will also need a software component. That’s where brain-computer interfaces come in.
While an artificial limb restores the aesthetics and mechanics of a body part, we are currently struggling to restore the electrical connection between the body and brain that our nervous systems have so elegantly achieved. -ot. Slowly but surely, science eliminates the problem.
In 2008, researchers created a simple robotic arm equipped with a soft pincer -like hand and tasked macaque monkeys to use the arm to retrieve food fragments offered by scientists in laboratory. Only one got it, they had to move the arm with their minds. A series of electrodes inserted into the motor cortex of the monkeys ’brains allowed them to move the branch with their minds. Remarkably, they did the job with up to 78% accuracy.
In recent years, technology has only evolved and only recently a similar setup was tested on a human patient. A study published in the journal Boundaries of Neurorobotics documented a paralyzed man controlling two robotic arms using his mind. In one hand he held a fork, in the other he held a knife, and he used them both simultaneously to feed himself a cake. While these types of interfaces are not yet ready for widespread use, it appears that after decades of research, brain -controlled prostheses are poised to hit the world stage.
Computer-brain interfaces provide another piece of the bionic puzzle by allowing users to control their synthetic limbs using their minds, but they don’t offer the kind of tactile feedback we’re used to from biological devices. system.
If you move your hand to pick up something, there are many processes at work. Signals from your brain travel along your nerve to your hand to move and manipulate your arm, wrist, and fingers. Once you hold on to something, the signals are sent back from your arm to the brain. It is this constant repetitive communication that allows us to easily interact with our surroundings.
Today, despite remarkable advances in computer-brain interfaces, that communication is largely a way, but scientists are trying to shut down information. Research has shown that combining sensory feedback can improve an individual’s ability to recognize their phantom limb and their prosthetic, increasing accuracy of use.
A study published in the journal Robotics in Science found that a patient using an artificial hand showed more precise gripping strength when given sensory feedback, allowing them to more accurately handle even weak objects.
To provide sensory stimuli, the researchers placed two 100-electrode arrays into the nerves of the remaining limb. They use electrodes to stimulate nerves and mimic the body’s natural sensory language to mimic the feeling of touching an object. This technology uses the same philosophy as the aforementioned brain-computer interface, only it sends information in the opposite direction.
In addition to improved function, the study participant also observed an improvement in emotional well -being as a result of sensory feedback. Not only did the pain in the phantom limb decrease and the embodiment of the artificial arm increased, but he also noticed the unique experience of touching his wife with his prosthetic hand and he felt it for the first time.
Better communication between our technology and our biology means that our typical robotic future police force can remain human even though they are mostly machines. In the meantime, we have the opportunity to improve the quality of life for millions of people and that, at the end of the day, is the point.