Robotics & Mechanical Limbs

The BrainGate implantable microelectrode array

As people continue to struggle with problems involving organ donation, a few robotic engineers continue to push the boundaries between humanity and machinery. A recent report in Nature (cited below) showed that two patients were able to overcome some aspects of their paralysis by way of an implant. Reaching and grabbing motions were possible by way of a carefully designed robotic arm. One individual involved in the study was able to enjoy a drink by herself. She didn’t seem to require assistance outside of the prosthetic limb.

The Associated PressWall Street Journal, NPR (audio interview below) and other blogs/media outlets reported on this last week but I wanted to mull over the implications of this before posting about this on here. Here are my initial thoughts.

NPR Interview: Reporting in Nature, researchers write that two individuals, both paralyzed by stroke, made reach-and-grasp movements using a thought-controlled robotic arm. One participant was even able to a sip a drink by herself. Neuroengineer Dr. Leigh Hochberg discusses the paper and the ongoing trial.

The Potential Upside:

This provides real hope for stroke victims who suffer from the loss of a limb. Everyone wants to be independent. This is simply a fact of life. For better or worse, there are a number of serious ethical and philosophical questions that come with robotic implants and organ donation. However, one might suggest that programs such as these are far less concerning.

They don’t interfere with any concepts of life. While futurists might like to make suggestions about the path of humanity after total industrialization, it isn’t too hard to assume that this is only a positive aspect. Most people probably wouldn’t put too much thought into the implications of robotic limbs that are used only for medical purposes.

However, patients are surely glad to be able to receive this feeling of independence once again. While one might be able to receive an organic heart or legs, it wouldn’t be easy to simply graft a foreign limb onto a different body. In fact, that might come with far more complicated ethical questions than a mechanical one ever would.

The Potential Downside:

I’m hesitant to even mention these but there were a few things that came to mind once I got over the initial “cool” factor.

How might the military use this technology in the future? What is the potential that this might be hacked in the future to control humans (that’s what led to Tuesday’s post). These are the two immediate issues that concern me.

Then of course there is the problem scientists have with understanding how the brain actually works. It still surprises them on a regular basis and we have a long, long way to go in this regard. The other issue of course is overcoming the human body’s reaction to invasive brain implants. As with this advancement avoe, the researchers are trying to mitigate negative reactions via the use of bio-friendly materials (as opposed to gold/silicon). Much research is being done in both invasive and non-invasive interfaces but the results still leave much to be desired. The problem isn’t necessarily with the research being done but rather the fragmentation that is occurring within the scientific community on this. There is more than one way to “skin a cat” when it comes to replacement limbs and brain interfaces. For example work is being done to determine how to make replacement limbs work via neural stimuli while similar work is being done using robotics as we’ve seen above.


This is a step in the right direction. The start of any ground-breaking science is going to be rough-going early on but progress is almost always a good thing. I have high hopes for this and believe we’re moving in the right direction. I don’t want to take away from this important research at all. As I’ve written on here frequently, I believe this is just another step towards the next phase of human evolution. As always, feel free to share your thoughts below.


Hochberg, L., Bacher, D., Jarosiewicz, B., Masse, N., Simeral, J., Vogel, J., Haddadin, S., Liu, J., Cash, S., van der Smagt, P., & Donoghue, J. (2012). Reach and grasp by people with tetraplegia using a neurally controlled robotic arm Nature, 485 (7398), 372-375 DOI: 10.1038/nature11076

  • Jason Carr

    Invasive surgery is scary and exciting at the same time. I can’t wait to see what the next decade brings in terms of advancements in the human/machine interface arena.

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