It surprises me when I think about all the injuries that leave a body part perfectly usable, but unreachable. An arm would still work if the brain could contact it, but something prevents that contact. In some cases, the loss of contact is permanent and is reestablished though physical and occupational therapy. However, in other cases, the loss of contact is permanent and another solution for creating that contact must be found. Both scenarios have seen technical improvements as of late.
As an example of the first, where contact is temporarily lost, students have been experimenting with techniques for taking control of someone else’s limbs. When I first read this article I thought about the scary implications that loss of control can present. However, what if the person doesn’t actually have control? A therapist could take control of the limb in order to help a patient regain control or to make it easier to exercise the limb in a natural way so there is less loss of muscle mass. Both uses are important. Using a person’s own muscles to help them move around and become reacquainted with their body after a severe accident makes sense especially when you see some of the convoluted measures that therapists must use now to work with a patient from the outside.
As an example of the second, where contact is permanently lost (or the limb is actually missing), science is starting to figure out how to create new connections. For example, it’s now possible to connect a robotic leg that a patient controls using the same brain waves that a leg would naturally use. The technology is currently in its infancy, but progress is being made. In another five or six years, it might be possible to see people who have permanent loss of contact with a limb or the need to use artificial limbs walking around without any problem at all.
It’s exciting to think of the possibilities. Both technologies will make it a lot easier to help someone with special needs regain full mobility. Ultimately, the incapacitation or loss of a limb will become less life changing. Yes, there will be some amount of time spent in rehabilitation, but the change won’t be permanent. Of course, it’s going to be a long time before even these technologies will help someone do anything too dramatic—basic walking and possibly light jogging will have to be enough. Would you allow someone take control of your limbs in order to help you regain your full capacity? Let me know at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.
One of the main themes in my writing has been helping people with special needs in every way that I can. I encourage developers to add as many accessibility features as possible into applications. In fact, I wrote Accessibility for Everybody with that specific goal in mind. It shouldn’t surprise you that I keep track of developments in robotics that could potentially help those with special needs. My last post on the topic, The Bionic Person, One Step Closer, discussed the use of new technology to give sight to those without it. I recently read an article on an entirely different plane of the topic, those who can’t move their own bodies much, if at all, quadriplegics.
The article, “Paralyzed Mom Controls Robotic Arm Using Her Thoughts,” tells of a mother who would just love to be able to feed herself a bar of chocolate. A new robotic setup can read the required movements directly from her brain and direct a robotic arm to perform them. I find this amazing! Imagine not being able to do anything for yourself one day and then being able to perform little tasks that we all take for granted the next. Can you imagine what this woman goes through every time her nose itches? The thought has entered my mind more than once.
This technology has been in the works for quite some time. However, engineers are steadily getting closer to making the technology more natural to work with. Before now, people who could master the techniques and had the money could use voice controlled robotic arms. However, these devices are incredibly clumsy and difficult to work with. You can even try one out yourself for the low cost of $55.00 (check out “How to make a voice-controlled robot arm for $55“). This particular device is limited when compared to robotic arms used by those with special needs, but it would be enough to give you the idea.
The most important part of this new technology is that it keeps the user involved. Even when robotic arms of the past achieved their goals, they often left the user feeling out of control or possibly out of the picture entirely. The article, “Quadriplegics Prefer Robot Arms on Manual, not Automatic” explains the issue. These older technologies are advanced enough to get a glass of water, feed the user, and even scratch that itchy nose, but the user needs to be involved. Mind controlled robots can keep the user involved in his/her own life.
We’re living in an incredibly exciting time. It’s a time when it’s becoming possible for everyone to participate in life more fully. People who would have lived diminished lives in the past are now starting to become engaged to activities that everyone else performs. The playing field of life is becoming more level, which helps humanity as a whole. Let me know your thoughts on robotic technologies at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.