We've known for a few years now that DARPA-funded prosthetics research is yielding some pretty incredible technology. We're not talking incredible in the robotic cheetah sense. We're talking incredible in The Incredibles sense of the term. Specifically, DARPA is literally building superheroic technology that enables amputees to control prosthetic limbs with their minds, and it's getting pretty darn good.
In science fiction terminology, you might say DARPA is building cyborgs, bionic men and women who for one unfortunate reason or another have lost a part of their body. Thanks to science — and a research project that's years in the making — they can now have it back and will soon be able to live completely normal lives.
This initiative has been around around for a while, but this just-released video of a man using a technique called Targeted Muscle Re-innveration (TMR) for Advanced Prosthetic Control shows how tantalisingly close we've come to prosthetic perfection:
Notice how he handles that cup of coffee with relative ease? There's no Wi-Fi connection making that happen, just his brain and muscles.
The brilliant devices comes out of DARPA’s Reliable Neural-Interface Technology (RE-NET) program. “Although the current generation of brain, or cortical, interfaces have been used to control many degrees of freedom in an advanced prosthesis," explains Jack Judy, DARPA program manager, "researchers are still working on improving their long-term viability and performance."
Judy explains that the new prosthetic technology doesn't plug directly into the brain as some mind-controlled limbs do. Instead, it reads the brain signals that are already pulsing through local nerves and muscles. Indeed, these signals are the some of the same interrupted signals that cause the phantom limb effect. Reconnecting those nerves to a robotic wires seems like a great way forward, and in fact, the military is already moving in that direction. "RE-NET program advances are already being made available to injured warfighters in clinical settings," said Judy.
DARPA's not the only one working on this kind of technology. Robotics departments across the country are scrambling to become the first to make the perfect Luke Skywalker cyborg hand or the best robo-arm. Amputee Zac Vawter managed to climb the 103-floors of the Sears Tower last year using a mind-controlled leg:
From here on out, we start to approach Star Trek-scale technology. One step up in sophistication from limbs that connect to nerves and muscles are devices that plug directly into the ol' grey matter creating what's called a brain-to-computer interface. A team of researchers built a bulky but functional setup that enabled a paraplegic woman to give herself a drink of water for the first time in nearly a decade. Can you even imagine? Probably not, but you can watch one more time! Watch 'til the end for the full mind-blowing effect:
This is only the beginning. We've seen bionic eyes help blind people see again. We've seen scientists 3D-print livers, blood vessels, jaw bones and stem cells — to name only a few ways we're printing human parts. There's even a crazy neuroscientist, Miguel Nicolelis, who's building an exoskeleton that will enable a paralysed person walk just like a normal person. He plans to unveil it at the next World Cup in Brazil, where he wants the device to help a patient walk out onto the field in front of billions of people. It's an amazingly brazen idea. But all of these projects are also just plain amazing. [DARPA]