A “mind-blowing” bionic arm powered by artificial intelligence

Video explanation,

BBC's Paul Carter tries out Atom Limbs prosthetic technology

I was born without arms or legs, so I've been using prosthetics of all shapes and sizes for a long time.

I've strictly avoided ones designed for my upper arm for most of my life, so I've never used a bionic hand before.

But when I visited a company in California seeking to take the technology to the next level, I was intrigued enough to try one — and the results were, frankly, mind-boggling.

Prosthetics have come a long way from the early days when they were made of wood, tin, and leather.

Modern-day replacement arms and legs are made of silicone and carbon fibre, and are increasingly becoming bionic, meaning they contain various moving parts that are electronically controlled to make them more useful to the user.

What the company I visited, Atom Limbs, is doing is combining a range of cutting-edge innovations, including artificial intelligence, into a next-generation bionic arm.

Human movement

Atom Limbs uses advanced sensors and machine learning — where computers train themselves to become more accurate — to interpret electrical signals from a person's brain and use them to move and manipulate the prosthetic limb.

The arm has the full range of motion of a human at the elbow, wrist and individual fingers – and provides haptic feedback to the wearer about the strength of their grip.

The arm is attached via a reinforced vest similar to sportswear that distributes the weight of the arm evenly. Although it still has some weight, it is much lighter than other bionic arms I've seen.

It is non-surgical, meaning it does not require any surgery or implants to work. It connects to the wearer's residual limb first via clusters of sensors that measure electrical signals, then via a cup fitted at the top, with the arm connected via an interface.

Despite having avoided upper-arm prosthetics before, when Atom Limbs said I could try operating a digital version of the arm on a computer screen, via their control software, I was interested enough to say yes.

I have remaining muscles in my arms that I was able to “tailor” to corresponding hand, wrist and elbow movements, which proved to be a unique and mind-blowing experience.

The idea of ​​learning how to control a part of the body that I don't have is almost impossible to describe.

However, as exciting as this technology is, cost is one issue that people with disabilities always worry about when new products come out.

The field of assistive devices is full of products that, while impressive, can cost several times the average annual salary. This puts most devices out of reach of many people with disabilities who statistics indicate are likely to be among the poorest in society.

Video explanation,

Jason shows the BBC how the Atom Limbs prosthetic arm works

Atom Limbs says it hopes its arm will be positioned at a price tag of $20,000 (£15,000), which – although still a huge sum – is significantly lower than many other electronic products on the market.

Ian Adam, lecturer in prosthetics and orthotics at the University of Derby, says that although this may seem like a lot, it is a good price in the industry – although it will not be available to everyone.

“It's on the cheaper end of the market, but let's say you're in an accident and you get compensation, well, that amount should last for the rest of your life,” he said.

“So I think a lot of patients are careful about what they spend their money on… Sometimes people are quite willing to not use them at all – with upper limb prosthetics it can just be an extra thing that not everyone will decide they need to have.”

Then there are the ethical and practical issues related to these products.

Social media star Tilly Lockie, who has been using bionic arms since she was nine, is excited about its future potential – but told the BBC whether the device made a difference would remain to be tested.

“I've seen them change a lot firsthand, but I've also seen them through the development stages,” she said.

“There are a lot of ambitious projects, but I think the way they get there is continuous development from the users who wear them every day.”

Ultimately, Atom Limbs is still in an early stage of development.

The company is collecting the data ahead of regulatory filings in the US, which means it will be some time before we see it used in everyday life.

Additional reporting by Tom Gerken.

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