The history of prosthetics goes as far back as ancient Greece, where missing limbs were replaced with rudimentary wooden pegs and other similar materials. While for centuries amputees suffered a dramatic decrease in their quality of life, the 21st century brought engineering and medicine on common grounds to help.

Towards a bionic future

An array of options has been developed in the past 10 years, bringing patients closer to living a nearly normal life. In 2015, at the cutting edge of technology lay the robotic limbs, which patients could control with their own minds. They involved sensor technology to detect movement in surrounding muscles and connect it to the movements of the prosthesis.

However, these limbs often take time and sustained effort from both the patient and the developers to personalise and adjust to individual needs. To ease the process and provide more accuracy, biomedical researchers started experimenting with allowing the ‘machine’ to adjust on its own.

The self-learning breakthrough

The next logical step is now brought to trials: researchers at the University of North Carolina recently optimised a prototype robotic knee with the help of an AI system, which uses a trial-and-error algorithm. It is designed to recognise and learn the patient’s movement patterns, by ‘cooperating’ with the human body through a tuning system. Its biggest achievement is allowing the patient to easily walk on a flat surface after just 10 minutes of putting it on, and it is no small feat. However, one issue is the safety limitations, as often the algorithm’s ‘error’ could involve an immediate hazard to the wearer.

Another innovation comes from researchers at Imperial College London, who created and attached a ‘human-machine’ interface to a bionic hand. This comes in the form of a miniature computer with a machine learning algorithm, which rapidly picks up electrical signals and provides instructions for the prosthesis. It allows the amputee to have speed and accuracy of movement which resembles those of their real hand.

Although both are still in the trial phase, thanks to Artificial Intelligence and Robotics, amputees are now closer than ever to living a normal life.

Photo: Cosmesis by Nadya Peek licensed under Creative Commons 4.0