GFR has done a lot of reporting on the breakneck pace of the prosthetics development, including mind-controlled prosthetics and exoskeletons. It’s mind-blowing to think that someone without a limb can simply think/desire to move a bionic replacement and it will do just that, including allowing a paraplegic teen to kick a soccer ball. Now, in yet another first in the field, a double-amputee has become the first person in the world to control two prosthetic limbs at once.
40 years ago, Les Baugh lost both of his arms in an accident. He recently received two of Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory’s Modular Prosthetic Limbs, which look and feel like regular human arms; possess similar strength and flexibility; have over 100 sensors that aid in touch, pressure, and positioning; and connect to a wearer via a neural interface. In order to be fitted with the prosthetics, Baugh had to have target muscle reinnervation surgery—a recent surgical breakthrough that readies the nerves for connection to the arm by “reassigning” them.
Baugh then underwent training, specifically in terms of pattern recognition algorithms that identify and isolate specific muscles and facilitate their intercommunication. This eventually leads to the mind giving a set of directions that the limbs can receive and respond to. Baugh used a virtual reality version of the prosthetics to practice, and to help the medical team design a custom socket for their connection.
Finally, Baugh underwent surgery to attach the limbs. Soon thereafter, he was able to perform some basic but important functions, such as moving a cup from one shelf to another, which seems simple but actually required him to perform and coordinate eight different movements. Amazingly, it took only 10 days of training for him to be able to accomplish this, which indicates how well designed and intuitive the limbs and the interface are, especially given how long ago Baugh lost his arms. And, of course, he’ll only get more adept at controlling his limbs as he practices.
This is the first time a patient has been able to simultaneously control two separate prosthetic devices using a neural interface. It’s the start of the next face of mind-controlled devices, and raises the possibility that perhaps people can someday control even more. People often say they could use a third arm to help with the dishes or the cooking or other random tasks. Instead of that being a joke, this now seems like a distinct possibility. Of course, it might look a little strange, but I’m pretty sure we’re headed well down that path anyway.