There are millions of people in this world who walk with the help of crutches, use wheelchairs or may use artificial limbs in order to complete their livelihood. Many research organizations are in a rat race trying to figure out on how to make the life of these people less miserable and help them by providing a smart bionic limb. A smart bionic limb will give a actual sense of touch and feel.The traditional half-measures, the stand-ins for lost limbs and senses, are now being imbued with machine intelligence.
In fact, a robot, with sensors that detect its environment and gauge a person’s intentions, and processors that determine the angle of his carbon-fiber foot as it swings forward. The same approach is being applied to prosthetic arms, in which complex algorithms determine how hard to grasp a water bottle or when to absorb the impact of a fall. Vision- and hearing-based prostheses bypass faulty organs and receptors entirely, processing and translating raw sensor data into signals that the brain can interpret. All of these bionic systems actively adapt to their users, restoring the body by serving it.
Take, for example, one of the most common prosthesis failures. A mechanical knee typically goes rigid as the heel lands, supporting the user’s weight, then unlocks when pressure is applied to the toe. If that toe contact comes too early the leg collapses under its owner. The Symbionic Leg isn’t so easily fooled. Force sensors and accelerometers keep track of the leg’s position relative to the environment and the user. Onboard processors analyze this input at a rate of 1000 times per second, deciding how best to respond—when to release tension and when to maintain it.
Since the leg knows where it is throughout each stride, achieving a rudimentary form of preconception, it takes more than a stubbed toe to trigger a loose knee. If the prosthesis still somehow misreads the situation, the initial lurch of the user falling should activate its stumble-recovery mode. Like anti lock brakes for the leg, the actuators will slow to a halt, and magnetically controlled fluid in the knee will become more viscous, creating resistance, as the entire system strains to keep the person from crumpling or toppling.
The goal of current bionic research is to recover what was taken.Most prosthetic devices create their own health problems. Purely mechanical legs use a complex system of gears and analog triggers to allow people to walk, but users must hike up one hip with each step to keep the artificial toe from scraping the ground. Powered prosthetic arms tend to be locked in place during walking—and that dead weight throws off the user’s balance and posture. Roughly 70 percent of amputees develop back and joint problems, and experts suggest that such “co-morbidities” force those who might be obese or in chronic pain to become even less mobile and less healthy, ultimately shortening their lives.
The answer, for now, is in the algorithms. The Symbionic Leg eliminates hip hiking through a simple robotic twitch: The toe actuates upward during each step, performing what’s called dorsiflexion. Other algorithms are more sophisticated, interpreting a torrent of sensor data as specific types of terrain. If the foot lands at a higher elevation, with the knee bent, the leg assumes the presence of stairs and adjusts accordingly. If the toe tips up on contact and the heel dips down, the artificial intelligence (AI) suspects a slope and shifts the angle and resistance to assist in climbing.
In the long term, experts agree that while implanted interfaces could change the lives of millions of patients with amputations, spinal cord injuries, or neurological disorders, bionics that require major surgery will always be expensive, niche devices. For the millions suffering from debilitating strokes, or people with no serious disability but the money to pay for a wearable bionic system, a noninvasive BCI would change everything.
In other words, it’s how we could reach tht persistent fantasy of the able-bodied—true bionic augmentation. Even the most evasive experts agreed that, while visions of superhuman amputees may be ridiculous, a combination of noninvasive BCIs and exoskeletons could turn decades of bionic research into a mainstream tool. California-based Ekso Bionics released the first commercially available exoskeleton in February; it’s designed for patients with neurological or spinal cord damage. Billed as a “wearable robot,” the system walks under its own power, currently via a remote control. An advanced version translates shifts in balance and feedback from canes into a natural stride. “That’s the right use of the technology now, as a medical device,” Ekso spokeswoman Beverly Millson says. “But it’s really a technology platform. It’s the beginning of wearing your devices, for whatever purpose you might have.”
Eventually, prosthetics research will disappear, replaced by advanced reconstructive technology. By 2050, he ballparks, limbs will be re-created—printed, grown, who knows?—and all of the arcane, bio mechanical secrets collected by companies like Össur will be harnessed to finally restore flesh and bone. It’s a strange best-case scenario: that an industry will innovate itself out of existence, its research seeding other scientific fields while all of that sophisticated technology migrates toward devices that change the way millions of us, abled or disabled, live and work.