Each year, I teach a research seminar on artificial intelligence and other futuristic technologies, and each year, my students become obsessed with something a little bit different. The Ray Kurzweil/Singularity year was a while back, as were drones and 3-D printing. This year’s hot research topics are the pursuit of immortality and prosthetics. The latter has particularly captured students’ attention both because of the incredible strides in the field and because we’re in Boston, where fairly recently a bunch of residents of our fair city found themselves in need of prosthetics. One of the aspects we talk about frequently is the affordability and accessibility of prosthetics and bionic limbs, which my students fear will further cleave the rich and the poor. Thus, a recent comparison of a $42,000 prosthetic hand to a $50 3D-printed one caught my eye.
53-year-old Jose Delgado, Jr. was born without a left hand and over the years has tried countless prosthetics. The cream of the crop was a $42K myoelectric device that operates via muscle signals in his arm. He could open and close his hand, and differentiate between, say, holding a baseball and holding an egg. Even though his insurance covered half of the cost of the device, Delgado still had a hefty sum to pay, which supports the notion that these technologies aren’t affordable for everyone. While the device is impressive, Delgado wondered if it was indeed the best option out there, especially when considering the cost.