The future of artificial limbs
The past decade has seen huge leaps in prosthetics. How far will the technology take us?
By The Week Staff | March 22, 2014
Prosthetics now allow people to run, jump, and yes, even dance. (AP Photo/TED 2014 Conference, James Duncan Davidson)
What's driven the advances?
A combination of modern technology and the horrors of war. Since ancient times, combat injuries have forced doctors and inventors to create replacements for missing body parts, ranging from metal hooks to wooden legs. During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, improvements in body armor, triage, and surgical techniques meant that wounded soldiers were three times more likely to survive than casualties in Vietnam. As a result, about 1,800 vets came home with one or more missing limbs, prompting the government to begin investing heavily in improving those soldiers' lives. The U.S. Defense Department's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has spent $144 million since 2006 on prosthetics research and development, a project labeled "the Manhattan Project of prosthetics." "Our goal has not been just get out of bed and walk," said Paul Pasquina, chief of orthopedics at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, "but to get out of bed and thrive."
What can the new prosthetics do?
They are getting closer and closer to approximating the function of human limbs. "Myoelectric" hands have movable fingers that grip and gesture naturally, and move in two dozen ways in response to tiny muscular movements in the residual limb. Prosthetic legs — once clumsy, heavy, and wooden — are now light and agile and come with gyroscopic knees that flex and extend, allowing users to climb stairs and ride a bike. These state-of-the-art legs take in data on how the wearers walk and build algorithms to anticipate their intentions, so as to move more smoothly. Advances in materials have made limbs lighter and easier to use, and they can be...