A soft bionic hand from Softhand Pro. Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia

Replace Your Used Body Parts With a Bionic Upgrade

A soft robotics researcher says bionic limbs that imitate living tissues could be viable within a decade.

How close are we to upending the perishability of our own flesh? Are we nearing a time when we will be able to replace our faulty or aged limbs with newer, much more functional models and go on about our lives as usual? Can you picture your favorite prima ballerina replenishing her mangled coups de pied with a whole new pliable pair of insteps to twirl around in middle age and beyond? In essence, how far away are we from ousting the damaged, injured, sick, or malfunctioning components of our body to make way for their augmented cybernetic replacements?  

According to Manuel Giuseppe Catalano, a researcher of soft robotics for human cooperation and rehabilitation at the Italian Institute of Technology in Genova, Italy, we are certainly headed in that direction. In less than a decade, Catalano says, we could have bionic limbs widely available, making the human body a never-ending work of restoration for those able to access the technology, courtesy of soft robotics.

Soft robotics is the subset of robotics that focuses on technologies that mirror the physical characteristics of living organisms. It is a form of biomimicry, the science of engineering nature-inspired invention to solve human problems, in which the rigid, “lifeless” aspects of robotics are substituted for models that imitate living tissue.

“Traditionally, robotics [were] made for industrial applications,” says Catalano. “These industrial applications were made to be very precise and repetitive, but in the last 30 years, there is this new paradigm where you want the robot to interact with a world that is not structured, and for this you need to have a robot with elastic body parts,” he says. 

Take the human hand, for example. It’s an incredibly complex and versatile part of the body, containing 27 bones, innumerable muscles, and a mind-numbing quantity of ligaments and tendons. The tiniest grab of an object is the sublime end product of the synergistic work of all these hand components.

“Our brain can individually control each finger, but while growing up, people construct a sum pattern through which all the fingers, joints, and the rest [of the] parts of the human hand act in a coordinated way. This simplifies the movement of the hand,” Catalano says. That synergy (from the Greek συν, meaning “with,” and έργον, meaning “work;” a combined work), underlies the complex coordination of the human hand and is somewhat built into our brain, continues Catalano. You don’t really think how to place each finger individually when you stroke your cat.

A bionic hand, on the other hand, works by detecting signals coming from a user’s muscles. When the user flexes the muscles in their residual limb just below their elbow, special sensors placed on their skin pick up small electric signals, which are converted into intentional bionic hand movement. Catalano, who has already amassed a great deal of experience from his involvement in SoftHand Pro, a novel robot hand prosthesis that adopts the principles of soft robotics to master the mechanics of human synergies, is now looking “beyond the hand.” Together with scientists from the Imperial College London, the University Medical School of Vienna, Austria, and his colleagues at the Italian Institute of Technology, Catalano is working on a project called Natural BionicS, an ambitious, European Union-funded project aiming to connect bionic artificial limbs with the spinal cord for the first time.

“We collect the data of the input not from the residual limb (as is the case with conventional artificial limbs) but from the spinal cord directly,” says Catalano. The spinal cord is a long, tube-like bundle of nerves and cells, which carries the nerve signals (that make you feel sensations or move your body) between the brain and your lower back and vice versa. “This means that we will be able to also reconstruct the sense of touch in the body of the user,” says Catalano.

A diabetic leg is amputated every 30 seconds across the world.

“A real soft bionic hand with embodied intelligence has to be able to feel the objects it touches so that a closed loop control can be implemented,” says Benedikt Kreis, a robotics researcher at the University of Bonn, Germany, who is not involved in the project. Both the SoftHand Pro and Natural BionicS projects show promise in this respect as they enable those who don the artificial limbs to gain an intuitive way of perceiving the environment and operating within it. That said, it might take some time before we see a prima ballerina sinuously waving a bionic arm in Swan Lake. At the moment, Kreis says, “These systems move slower than human limbs and their movements often appear clumsy.” 

Among the many researchers across the world who are working on bionic limbs is Waleed Meleis. An associate dean for graduate education at Northeastern University in Boston, who founded and advises Enabling Engineering, a student group that designs and builds devices to empower individuals with physical and cognitive disabilities, he says he is impressed by the prospect of connecting artificial limb technology to the spinal cord. “I saw some Natural BionicS videos, and the individuals are performing very natural motions, picking things up, moving their hands around, moving individual fingers… the motions are very delicate,” Meleis says. The arms, for example, intriguingly combine the elegant line of a 1920s mid-forearm length glove and the somewhat aggressive sheen of a futuristic, human-machine progeny, while the joints of the hands exhibit an impressive movement articulation. It all seems very lifelike and natural, Meleis says. 

Current bionic prosthetic research mostly focuses on improving the lives of people who are missing limbs due to trauma, disease, or congenital defect. There’s a (silent) epidemic of amputations, especially for people with diabetes—a diabetic leg is amputated every 30 seconds across the world. Natural BionicS researchers believe their new-gen prosthetic limbs will be particularly helpful for people with joint problems like osteoarthritis or bad arthritis in their hands. “I have been working in this field for more than 10 years, and a lot of unfathomable changes have taken place,” says Catalano. “I can imagine that in a decade from now we will be able to restore functionalities of the human body through bionic parts; it is not science fiction,” the robotics researcher says. 

Perhaps this is the bigger picture: To make the objective of restoring the body’s functionalities mainstream among the able-bodied. Catalano sees it as an eventuality. The findings of projects like his may well spill over to the world of the able-bodied as the global craving for longevity, novelty, and a good quality of life increases, and he gives it a decade (give or take) before we start replacing our faulty or aged parts with new and elastic ones.

“I believe that one day we will be able to replace faulty or aged human limbs, even if there is still a long way to go,” says Kreis, the robotics researcher from Bonn. No, you are not unhinged if you are thinking that the era of the biological cyborg is inching up on us. 

The thing is, we are all some sort of cyborg right now and we don’t even know it. We rely on “external brains” like cell phones and computers to communicate and remember, and we have created digital versions of ourselves, the significance of which could rival the importance of real life. Besides, science fiction freaks that dare to let their imaginations go bananas often go down in history as the great prophets of their time; Meleis, from Northeastern, couldn’t agree more.

“Last year’s science fiction is this year’s non-fiction,” Meleis says nonchalantly. “Science fiction is just the stuff we can’t do yet.”

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