The bionic man was science fiction; the bionic hand is not

Many people associate bionics with a 1970s sci-fi television series The Six Million Dollar Man. serves as an intelligence agent ”). This is no longer science fiction:

According to the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Chicago, about 100,000 Americans – and 10 million people worldwide – are missing a hand.

The award-winning Ability hand shown in the video, produced by Psyonic, a startup based in Champaign, Ill., Is a helpful illustration of how far prosthetics have come with electronic and internet technology.

Representative of a new generation of prostheses, it is both electronic and compatible with the Internet: it charges in about an hour and the charge lasts all day. It is Bluetooth compatible in order to download new software to refine the grip and the functionality of the fingers. It can even charge a cell phone.

Adel Akhtar

The face behind Psyonic Ability’s hand is American neuroscientist and computer engineer Adeel Akhtar, whose motivation is, in part, personal:

The idea for PSYONIC began at the age of seven. It was during this time that I was visiting Pakistan, where my parents are from, and this is the first time I meet someone or the difference in members. She was my age, she was missing her right leg and used a tree branch as a crutch. This is what made me want to get into this field.

Then we realized that we had similar problems back home in the United States. When I was a student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I met a retired U.S. Army sergeant from the area who lost his hand in Iraq in 2005 due to a roadside bomb, Sergeant Garrett Anderson. He uses a hook daily so we wanted to upgrade him to the 21st century. Since then, we have been building the competence hand. We tested it in Ecuador, we have a patient there with whom we are working. It has been quite a journey.

Fourth Revolution Prize, “Psyonic wins accolades as its bionic hand prepares for national launch” at MHUB Chicago (December 2, 2020)

Elsewhere, Akhtar shared, regarding the girl in Pakistan,

At the time, he wondered how they could share the same ethnic heritage but have such different qualities of life. As he grew older, he realized that this was due to a lack of resources. For this reason, he founded and is the CEO of PSYONIC, a company whose mission is to develop advanced prosthetics that are affordable for all.

His ability hand can move all five fingers quickly and provides sensory feedback (a sense of touch), which is a significant advance in terms of utility. But, for high-tech prosthetics to truly improve the lives of most amputees, affordability is key:

In order to reduce costs but improve durability, Psyonic chose to 3D print the molds but use low cost rubbers and silicones to create the fingers and joints.

The result was a resilient hand at a price low enough that Medicare had it covered, which was a priority. By getting the Ability Hand covered by Medicare, Psyonic has expanded access to 75% of people with upper limb differences in the United States, Akhtar said.

Alexia Elejalde Ruiz, “Psyonic wins accolades as its bionic hand prepares for national launch” at Polsky Center (August 20, 2021)

It also requires a lot of commitment from the patient. Akhtar speaks of a patient, a former soldier in Ecuador who had lost his hand years earlier due to machine gun fire:

The team outfitted the man with a first iteration of his prosthesis, a clunky device three times the size of a human hand, and retrained his brain to perform basic tasks like pinching. The cheerful man “felt like he had come back,” Akhtar said.

“If we just stay in academia, it ends up in a journal,” Akhtar recalls. “We want everyone to feel what he did.”

Alexia Elejalde Ruiz, “Psyonic wins accolades as its bionic hand prepares for national launch” at Polsky Center (August 20, 2021)

But the costs must then fall further and subsidies will no doubt be necessary. As Elejalde-Ruiz notes in the Polsky Center article, “80% of limb amputations occur in developing countries, but only 3% of people have access to affordable prostheses.”

It’s not just the device itself; surgery is usually required to shape the stump and the user should work with a qualified prosthetist over the long term to ensure that the device performs well on a daily basis. These are challenges that Akhtar and others are eager to try to overcome.

To note: Here are some other bionic hands and how they work. The general information site warns, of course, that “bionic hands are impressive feats of engineering, but they are much simpler than natural hands. In some respect, it doesn’t really matter as they can still perform a wide variety of tasks as shown in this video. “However, don’t expect them to match natural hand dexterity. A better way to assess a bionic hand is its usefulness, which is primarily determined by its user control system.


You can also read:

Prosthetic hand controlled by thoughts alone? It’s here. Decades ago, no one could control a prosthesis just by thinking. There is plenty of room for the field to grow further. (2020)

The new mind-controlled robotic arm doesn’t need a brain implant. The thought-controlled device could help people with movement disorders control the devices without the costs and risks of surgery. (2019)

High technology can help blind people see and amputees feel. It is not a miracle; the human nervous system can function with electronic information. (2019)

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About Donald P. Hooten

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