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.
Delgado contacted 3DUniverse.org’s Jeremy Simon to see about getting a custom-printed Cyborg Beast hand, which is part of the Robohand project that strives to make quality, individualized prosthetics at low cost—about $50—and is available for download via Open Source. In the video below, you’ll see Delgado discuss the advantages of the Beast, saying that it grips better than his previous, pricey device, especially in terms of the mobility of all five of his fingers. His job involves a lot of lifting, so he really puts his prosthetics to the test. The longer, straighter, and more mobile fingers of the Beast gave him better maneuverability and grip while at work. He also notes that it’s easier to drive with the Beast.
The Beast is made from ABS plastic, which isn’t the strongest material, but if and when a piece breaks, it’s easy to replace with another printed piece. Simon is working on printing Delgado a new and even better Beast out of Bridge nylon, which is stronger than plastic but still lightweight. Simon also plans to experiment with a different thumb mount that provides other grip options.
Looks like a prosthetic doesn’t have to be pricey to be effective, and with organizations such as Robohand, people who previously didn’t have access to these devices can now get their hands on them (sorry) without breaking the bank.